In-depth: Togo elections
LOME, 5 May 2003 (IRIN) - Locked in a room at the University of Lome and whispering so that curious ears do not overhear their conversation, two economists and a law professor described Togo as a decaying country where the state has failed the people for too long.
President Gnassingbe Eyadema has ruled this small West African country of five million people with rod or iron since coming to power in a 36 years ago. He is now the longest-serving African leader - beating Gabon's President Omar Bongo by 10 months.
"He is a weight on the country and he rules it as if it were a clan," the law professor said with a sigh.
Gilchrist Olympio, Togo's main opposition leader, has been barred from standing against Eyadema in presidential elections on 1 June and few expect that any of the remaining six opposition candidates will shift him from power.
But Togo's mainly agricultural economy is stagnating, the country has been starved of European Union (EU) aid because of its poor human rights record and the pressure for change is building up.
Many in Lome draw a comparison with Cote d'Ivoire, whose failure to manage political change following the death of President Felix Houphouet Boigny after 33 years in power, resulted in a civil war that has split the country in half.
Diplomats and opposition politicians question how long the army and Togo's restless unemployed youth will allow Eyadema to stay in power if he rigs the election in his favour.
"Togo's greatest ill is the current regime and a change in Togolese society starts with a change in regime," said Jean-Pierre Fabre, secretary general of Olympio's Union of Forces for Change (UFC).
"I fear that this time if there are problems again things could blow up," he added. "By allowing frustrations to build up you make situations explode. Togolese are no different from Ivorians. If you push them to the brink, they will react," Fabre noted that Togo's youth feel particularly disenfranchised and impatient.
Although Eyadema has brought stability to this former French colony and has always enjoyed strong political support from Paris, he has presided over a long period of economic stagnation - particularly since the EU cut off aid to his government in 1993.
"The Togolese are thirsty for change," said a philosophy professor at one Lome college. "What can he do in another five years that he was not able to do in 36?" he added. "It is not now that he will begin to change things."
One senior economist who works for an international organisation in Togo, said the country was now at a crossroads. It could either reform and progress, like neighbouring Benin, or slide into chaos, like Haiti.
At first glance, Lome looks no different from the capital of other West African nation. School-age girls and boys sell mangoes, bananas, newspapers and bottled water on the streets. Amongst adults there is the usual clash between those wearing colourful flowing African robes and those in more sobre European attire. Senior government officials and foreign diplomats whizz past in expensive cars. Its port is even enjoying a new burst of activity handling goods from Niger and Burkina Faso that went mainly through Abidjan until civil war broke out in Cote d'Ivoire last year.
But behind this bustling facade lies a deep economic malaise. Critics of Eyadema point to the degradation of schools and hospitals and the pay arrears owed to many civil servants. For those who cannot get a government job, there are few other opportunities for employment.
One economist at Lome University told IRIN that in an average family of 10, at least six people work in the informal sector of the economy. In practice that means selling food, cigarettes, paper tissues and other cheap consumer items on the roadside.
Togo was originally colonized by Germany, but was handed over to French rule after World War One. It achieved independence in 1960 and Eyadema set up a one-party state soon after seizing power as an army colonel seven years later. He made a reluctant conversion to multi-party democracy in the early 1990s. Opposition leaders were allowed to challenge him for the presidency for the first time in 1993 and again in 1998.
However, few are confident that this third ballot will be free and fair.
Eyadema, 67, changed the constitution in December 2002 so that he could stand for another five-year term. And at the last minute Olympio was banned from standing against him on the grounds of administrative irregularities in his nomination papers.
The six other opposition candidates who were allowed to go forward have meanwhile been given a hard time. Several had their party political broadcasts censored by the government and some of their rallies have been disrupted by pro-Eyadema activists.
The opposition has also expressed misgivings about the new voters' roll. It contains over three million names - a million more than at the last presidential election five years ago.There are doubts as to how many of these correspond to real people.
The civic rights group CONEL has reported many cases of names being ommited and or appearing twice on the same list. It has also complained that many people in pro-opposition areas have not been issued with voter cards.
Opposition leaders believe that Eyadema rigged the 1998 ballot in order to secure victory over Olympio, who on that occasion was allowed to stand against him. Official results showed that Eyadema won with 52 percent of the vote, while Olympio took second place with 34 percent.
Some opposition politicians have hinted that if Eyadema rigs the poll this time, the army should intervene.
Maurice Dahuku Pere, an opposition presidential candidate who quit Eyadema's RPT last year after failing an attempt to push through internal reforms, has openly called on the military establishment to defend "the people's vote." And an underground opposition group called New Popular Dynamic issued a statement earlier this month urging the army "not to miss this historic rendez vous."
Most of the army's senior officers are, like Eyadema, from the north of Togo. But diplomatic sources said the president can no longer take their loyalty for granted. He has survived several assassination attempts and military rebellions in the past and has chosen to make few public appearances during this year's election campaign
Eyadema's campaign posters urge people to vote for him so that Togo will remain "the Switzerland of Africa," a reference to nearly four decades of political stability under his rule.
"Vote Eyadema, for he has brought peace and stability to this nation" , Fambare Natchaba, a member of the RPT's politburo and the head of Togo's parliament, told a campaign rally in the capital. "We don't want to become like Cote d'Ivoire, Liberia, Central African Republic or the Democratic Republic of Congo."
But govermnment critics say this is precisely the trap which Togo may fall into unless Eyadema agrees to step down gracefully instead of waiting to be overthrown.
They point out that Cote d'Ivoire was also held up as a beacon of stability in West Africa during the 33-year rule of President Felix Houphouet Boigny. They also stress that unlike Eyadema, the Ivorian leader brought his people economic prosperity. Even so, Cote d'Ivoire still fell apart after the man who had held it together since independence disappeared from the scene, leaving no obvious successor.
In Togo the only opposition leader of any stature is Olympio, the son of the country's first president, Syvlanus Olympio, who was assassinated in 1963. Diplomats say that although he has lived in exile in Ghana and France for the past 10 years, he commands widespread support in the south of the country.
Although Olympio, 67, has been barred from the election, Emmanuel Bob-Akitani, the number two figure in his UFC party is standing as a proxy candidate for him and may still pull in a sizeable vote.
On May 26 Leopold Gnininvi, one of the five other opposition candidates, dropped out of the race and threw his support behind Bob-Akitani, saying he had emerged as the most popular challenger to Eyadema and the opposition should unite behind him.
Eyadema's supporters have tried to discredit the other presidential candidates by accusing them of being self-seeking former collaborators with his regime, whose protests have a hollow ring. "During the day they say they are opponents, but at night they come to Lome Two (the presidential palace) to get money," one senior RPT official told IRIN.
However, there is a consensus among all opposition parties in this narrow strip of land wedged between Benin and Ghana, that Eyadema personally is the greatest obstacle to the changes that are needed to guarantee Togo's future.
"The Togolese are chained to a 40-year dictatorial regime which thrives on fear and poverty," said Cornelius Aidam, spokesman of the Pan-African Patriotic Convergence (CPP) party. Its presidential candidate is Edem Kodjo, a former finance minister under Eyadema, who went on to become Secretary General of the Organisation of African Unity.
Gnininvi, an expert in solar energy, said that under the present regime Togo was actually going backwards. "They say the country has been stable, but they don't understand that stability means stagnation and stagnation means regression," he told IRIN.
The economy relies mainly on subsistence farming, fishing and exports of phosphates and cotton. According to the United Nations 2002 Development Report , Togo has a gross domestic product of US $1,442 per capita.
Crucially the country has been starved of foreign aid since 1993 when the EU, which had been its largest donor, turned off the tap. Brussels suspended aid because of concerns about lack of democracy, poor standards of governance and lack of respect for human rights. Critics now speak of an "asphyxiated economy" dominated by an overweight but under-funded public sector.
"What do you want me to tell you about the Togolese economy? The Togolese live in a state of constant debt," the philosophy professor told IRIN
So what is the way out? "If all fails, God will send a miracle from above," the philosophy professor commented.