The holding of presidential elections in Togo appeared to be in doubt on Friday following a surprise call by the interior minister for the controversial poll to be suspended to prevent the country from sliding into bloody conflict.
Interior Minister Francois Esso Boko told a late night press conference on Thursday that Togo was heading for a “suicidal electoral process” given the high levels of violence which have marked the campaign so far.
Esso Boko, who is in charge of internal security, told journalists and diplomats from France, Germany and the European Union that the election, scheduled to take place on Sunday, should be suspended.
He said an opposition leader should be appointed prime minister of a transitional government which should rule this small West African country for one to two years while a new constitution was drawn up.
“It is essential that the President of the Republic takes into account the very real risks which are visible on the horizon by ending this suicidal electoral process,” Boko said.
“We have reliable information that there is a very real risk of a slide into bloodshed as a result of this poll, whose outcome is uncertain,” he added.
Information Minister Pitang Tchalla later issued a statement on behalf of Interim President Abass Bonfoh confirming that despite Esso Boko's statement, the presidential election would go ahead on Sunday as scheduled.
"The forces of order and security have taken the necessary measures for the presidential election to take place in calm and serenity. Public order will be maintained," Tchalla said.
The Interior Minister, who was responsible for preparing the ground for the elections, told the BBC he had decided to demand publicly that the poll be suspended after sharing his fears with other members of the government and with opposition and religious leaders.
The election was due to pit Faure Gnassingbe, the son of Togo’s late president Gnassingbe Eyadema, against Emmanuel Bob-Akitani,who is standing for an alliance of six opposition parties.
Following 38 years of strong-arm rule by Eyadema, the opposition alliance is determined to prevent his family from perpetuating its grip on power.
The interior minister told the BBC there was a grave danger of the military staging a coup to install Gnassingbe as head of state if the election went against him.
At the same time, he warned, the opposition would try to seize power by force by mobilising its supporters in the street if Bob-Akitani was not declared the winner.
Exiled opposition leader Gilchrist Olympio told the BBC from Accra in neighbouring Ghana that opposition leaders, who have been calling for several weeks for Sunday’s poll to be postponed, were consulting among themselves about how to react to Esso Boko's statement.
“We are talking among ourselves, but we know the government has been under tremendous pressure from both inside and outside,” Olympio said.
He warned that young opposition supporters were impatient for change and were frustrated by what they saw as government attempts to rig the poll in favour of Gnassingbe, who briefly took power with the backing of the army after his father died on 5 February.
“All the conditions are there for there to be a very serious clash inside the country,” Olympio said.
Olympio was personally barred from contesting the presidential election because he has lived for several years in exile in France. Bob-Akitani, the deputy leader of his Union of Forces for Change (UFC) party, was standing as a surrogate candidate on his behalf.
Asked whether the latent conflict in Togo could develop into a civil war, Olympio said: “Yes, there is a strong possibility.”
Olympio, the son of Togo’s first president, Sylvanus Olympio, said he had received unconfirmed reports suggesting that a majority of the 10,000 members of the police and army, who cast their ballots early on Thursday, had voted for Bob-Akitani.
This may have rattled the interior minister, he added.
The commanders of the security forces are predominantly from the Eyadema family’s Kabiye ethnic group from northern Togo. It had been widely assumed until now that the police and army supported the present government, which served under Eyadema, and that they favoured the succession of Gnassingbe.
Bonfoh later told Radio France Internationale that he had been surprised by Esso Boko's call for the election to be suspended and he would replace him as interior minister.
"I was surprised because he did not consult me," the interim head of state said. "In order that I may continue, I must reshuffle my government. The interior minister will be replaced."