Tuesday, June 03, 2003

Togo went to the polls on Sunday to vote on whether to extend the 36-year rule of Gen. Gnassingbé Éyadéma, Africa's longest serving leader. Éyadema's victory seemed pre-ordained with the exclusion of main opposition leader Gilchrist Olympio, whose father was the first president of the country and was allegedly assassinated either directly by Éyadema or on his orders. Yet, Olympio’s Union of the Forces for Change (UFC) party still decided to run a candidate, Emmanuel Bob Akitani, against Africa’s longest serving leader.

According to the opposition newspaper Le Togolais, Akitani and the UFC have claimed victory, despite the 35% that the official partial results have credited him with (against 59% for Éyadema). The UFC alleges massive fraud and vote rigging on the part of the regime. This after Éyadema forced through constitutional changes abolishing the two-term presidential limit. A strong man rigging the constitution and stuffing the ballot boxes, the opposition claiming fraud, sadly this is not unusual in Africa.

What intrigues me, however, is the apparent strategy being followed by the UFC. It is using the non-state media to create the impression in people’s minds that it actually won the election (which may well indeed be true). For example, a CTR press release (the CTR is an umbrella opposition group) thanked the Togolese people for “having fired the despot Étienne Gnassingbé Éyadema” while guarding against “any unseemly triumphalism” and encouraging “all Togolese democrats to put aside their personal quarrels to support, without second thoughts, Emmanuel Bob Akitani, the democratically elected president of all the Togolese.” They added that this was done “despite maneuvers, crimes and frauds of an unlimited nature.” Akitani himself launched “a solemn appeal to the Togolese people, united against one man, to defend our victory.”

This seems in many ways similar to the strategy used by Marc Ravolomanana in Madagascar in 2002. Much like Akitani, Ravolomanana was up against a veteran military leader: Didier Ratsiraka who’d been in power since 1975. Madagascar’s capital was a bastion of opposition support, much like Togo’s Lomé. Ratsiraka, like Éyadema, had become a pariah of the international community. In Madagascar, the opposition used its support in the capital (of which Ravolomanana was mayor) to take control of government buildings and set up a de facto alternate government, to protest the official ruling that it did not receive the majority of the presidential vote. Eventually, it expanded its influence and become the de facto government in much of the country. Once Ratsiraka’s forces collapsed, that status was officialized when the Ravolomanana government was recognized by the international community. It will be interesting to see if Togo’s opposition opts for a similar strategy.

There are a few important differences. Éyadema has tried to counter his pariah status by acting as a mediator in many West African crises. This has bought him some goodwill among neighboring leaders. Furthermore, Éyadema has used that instability in other West African countries as an example as to why he should remain in power: he represents stability and the opposition represents chaos… a classic dictator’s ploy.

Éyadema has also proven even more ruthless than Ratsiraka over the years in cracking down on opposition. Already, two leaders of the UFC have been arrested by the police. Some 70% of the Togolese army come from the same region as Éyadema and the military’s loyalty is not thought to be suspect. And the millionaire Ravolomanana was the charismatic natural leader of the Malagasy opposition. Akitani is the second choice of his own party and it remains to be seen if he’ll be taken seriously as his own man or as be perceived a puppet of Olympio. But if Togolese are as sick of Éyadema’s oppression, mismanagement and corruption as many believe, then it may not matter.

No matter what happens, interesting days are sure to follow in one of West Africa’s smallest countries.


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