Youths provide only visible spark of popular revolt

Many of the 800,000 people living in the seaside Togolese capital may be unhappy about how power has passed from father to son rather than via the ballot box, but popular revolt is confined to groups of unemployed youths in one corner of the city.

Even as the bodies of some of those youths that have died in clashes with security forces were laid to rest on Thursday, there was little sign that others have been deterred from keeping up the pressure on army-installed president Faure Gnassingbe to stand down and hold elections.

"We will stay in the streets until the regime goes," 27-year-old Sylvain told IRIN in the opposition stronghold of Be, a suburb whose sandy back streets are dotted with black scorch marks where flaming barricades blazed earlier in the week.

"What our mothers and fathers have suffered and what we are suffering now, the violence and the poverty, it has to stop. The next generation has to be able to live without fear."

Sylvain was out on the streets on Saturday and Monday, setting tyres and logs alight to form barricades and keep out the army and riot police.

He says he started out each day unarmed, but when the security forces launched teargas grenades, he and his friends gathered up stones and chunks of paving slabs to hurl back in self-defence. Other youths have been spotted roaming the sprawling suburb with slingshots and machetes.

They all deplore the uneven nature of their fight against the police and army. All the weapons are on one side, they say. Some think the time has come to level the playing field, get arms and up the ante.

"There are people demanding arms so they can stage a proper revolt," said 38-year-old Gbessiho, who was born the year Faure’s father Gnassingbe Eyadema, came to power.

Eyadema died suddenly in office on 5 February, and the army rode roughshod over the constitution, making his son the successor instead of the head of the national assembly. The country’s laws were later tweaked to legitimise the move and do away with the need to hold elections within 60 days of Eyadema’s death.

Give us bullets and guns

Demonstrator Gbessiho is a stocky father of four. He trained as a plumber but has been unable to find work for the last five years. He depends on his wife, who sells odds and ends in the market, to provide for the family. On a good day she scrapes together 700 CFA francs (US $1.50).

"When I heard Eyadema had died, I hoped that finally things would change and the page would be turned. But now we’ve just got his son," Gbessiho told IRIN. "Realistically, if there was a demonstration tomorrow and someone came to give us arms, we would take them to defend ourselves."

Faure Gnassingbe being sworn in to the horror of Togo's opposition and the international community

The main opposition parties, whose attempt to stage a peaceful rally on Saturday was shut down by security forces, say the thirst for arms is extremely worrying.

"Yesterday a young guy came to see me. I’d never seen him before and he said ‘Hey listen I’ve got an AK 47 and so have my friends, all we need is ammunition’," recounts Jean-Pierre Fabre, the head of the main opposition party, the Union of Forces for Change (UFC).

"So I told him that was not how we did things. He left but I have no idea what was on his mind," Fabre added.

Across town, the head of the Togolese Human Rights League, Adote Akwei, tells a similar tale.

"Those that are going out onto the streets are mainly under 30. They're tired and fed up and ready to arm themselves in order to defend themselves," Akwei told IRIN

"We’re all about non-violent methods but these kids have been coming to us and saying ‘Listen your tactics aren’t working’."

Back in Be, one strapping 24-year-old, who declined to give his name, bore testimony to this frustration with people power and negotiations.

"The presidency knows that the opposition can do nothing except enter into dialogue and they are trying to take advantage of that situation," he said.

Since Monday, when one protester was shot dead by soldiers, a tense calm has reigned in the neighbourhood, where palm trees and low-rise concrete blocks with corrugated roofs line the dusty streets.

The barricades have been dismantled now but they have left behind sooty black stains on the road. Charred wood and remnants of burnt tyres still litter the streets - a reminder of the anger boiling beneath the surface.

Public dissent not infectious

While the youths’ violent clashes with riot police and soldiers have made international headlines, they have not proved to be the touch paper for mass demonstrations in Lome.

Youths have built flaming barricades to protect themselves from heavy hand of security forces

"The hotspots in Lome are localised in certain areas. In the rest of the town, we have a situation that one might qualify as ‘normal’," one senior UN official told IRIN.

In Be, the visible face of the resistance is young and male, although some women in the neighbourhood say they are working behind the scenes. They lay on food and drink to sustain the male-dominated protests and bring fresh supplies of rocks for their men to throw at police when needed.

Diplomats agree that popular revolt seems to be paralysed after 38 years of Eyadema’s iron rule.

"So far, the Be spark does not seem to be enough for a fire," was how one western diplomat put it.

More moderate protests have met with little enthusiasm outside the opposition stronghold. A series of calls for a stay-at-home general strike have barely slowed business in the main areas of the city.

Opposition leaders are hoping a peaceful rally planned for Saturday will attract a crowd of more than 50,000 and be allowed to proceed by the security forces. But many observers doubt it will reach that critical mass.

Some Togolese plead poverty, saying they can’t afford to upset those who dole out the jobs, whether the government in the public sector, or private businessmen affiliated with the ruling Rally of the Togolese People (RPT) party.

Others say it is a fear born of decades of repression.

After all in January 1993, security forces opened fire on anti-Eyadema protesters, killing 20 people even while representatives from the French and German governments were in town.

And following presidential elections in 1998, Amnesty International alleged that hundreds of political opponents had been murdered and a rights group in neighbouring Benin said corpses had been found on the beaches of Benin, washed down the coastline.

"I think perhaps it’s a lack of courage on the part of the majority after what they’ve lived through," one Togolese humanitarian worker explained. "They’re letting the youth express the feelings that they do not dare to voice."