Killings, kidnappings and rape continue a month after disputed poll, refugees say

A month to the day after Togo’s disputed presidential election, murder, rape and kidnappings by the security forces are continuing to drive people across the borders in search of shelter, refugees and human rights leaders said on Tuesday.

“There have been several hundred victims,” Sidiki Kaba, the president of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) said in an interview on Radio France Internationale. “A man-hunt is on that takes place at nights.”

Refugees began streaming out of the country of five million people after the 24 April presidential election sealed a father-son transition.

The opposition protested that the vote had been massively rigged even before the government declared the winner of the election to be Faure Gnassingbe, a son of Gnassingbe Eyadema, Togo's ruler for the past 38 years.

Violence erupted as opposition supporters took to the streets to protest as soon as the result was announced.

According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, around 1,500 refugees have poured across Togo's border into neighbouring Ghana and Benin over the past three days to escape the government's continuing crackdown on suspected opposition supporters.

By Monday night there were 33,385 refugees seeking shelter in these two countries, up from 31,964 last Friday, UNHCR said in a statement on Tuesday.

On Monday alone, 162 refugees from Togo’s political violence registered with the UN agency in Cotonou, the capital of Benin, Rafick Saidi, the local UNHCR representative, told IRIN.

“They’ve come from all over Togo,” he said. “Most of the recently arrived refugees are youngsters who came to the capital hoping to find work or something to do because they’ve been forced to stop their studies.”

“They say they’ve come to Benin because of kidnappings and persecution which are still continuing in the country,” Saidi added.

FIDH concerned about "serious and systematic" rights violations

In an appeal to the United Nations on Monday, the FIDH denounced a “serious and systematic” abuse of human rights in Togo, and urged the United Nations and the African Union to order an international inquiry into the alleged violations.

After days of pitched street battles between opposition supporters and security forces in late April, calm has returned to the capital Lome. But opposition leaders and rights groups say the government has continued to ruthlessly stifle its opponents.

One 20-year with ruffled hair and faded jeans wandering the streets of Cotonou told IRIN that his father had fled to Ghana late April when the army put down opposition protests in the southern town of Aklakou.

“Now it’s our turn,” said Agboti Yao. “Instead of arresting our parents they come and kidnap us in class. Soldiers took away my classmate last Thursday and we’ve had no news since. I got scared and ran away too a couple of days later.

“Our sin is to be the sons of opposition activists,” he said.

One of his friends, Coffi Agbonou, said that in his hometown of Aneho, near the Benin border, the security forces “go from house to house at night, beating and murdering people with machetes. One of my cousins died from his wounds.”

In a rare admission, a tearful stunned-looking woman aged around 30 with a small baby in her arms said sexual abuse too was rife. She came from a town in central Togo, 180 km north of the capital.

“I’m from Atakpame,” said Mawule Adjevi. “I arrived in Cotonou last Monday and am living with a compatriot who is married here. I was submitted to all sorts of atrocities and was humiliated as a woman.”

Togolese refugees at Come camp, Benin

The UNHCR has opened two camps for the refugees in southern Benin, at Come and Lokossa, and has appealed for US $4.97 million to help the exiles. But many of the refugees are living with friends or family in Cotonou or elsewhere.

Kaba, the Senegalese president of the FIDH, said his Paris-based group was continuing to receive reports of summary executions and kidnappings perpetrated by members of the armed forces and the paramilitary gendarmerie, with the help of militiamen close to the ruling Rally for the Togolese People (RPT).

“We want an international inquiry,” he said. “The situation is extremely serious.”

Angry young activists want arms

Teacher Jean Kuassi, who is 38, told IRIN in Benin that he abandoned his primary school class and fled to Cotonou “because I stopped them kidnapping one of my students whose father is in the opposition and organised his flight to safety.

“To protect myself I also had to take the road to exile,” he said.

Joseph Kossi, a Lome university student aged 20, criticised the international community, particularly the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for rubber stamping the 24 April election as sufficiently fair and recognising the new president.

Armed warfare against Gnassingbe and the RPT was the only solution now, he said.

“We’ve had enough, we’ve suffered too much,” he told IRIN. “We want the opposition to give us arms, like the armed rebellion led by (rebel New Forces leader) Guillaume Soro in Cote d’Ivoire.”

“The opposition needs a new strategy. We can’t keep on battling people who are armed with our bare hands.”

The FIDH, a confederation of 141 human rights groups, said in its statement: “These human rights violations, which the FIDH qualifies as being ‘serious and systematic’ threaten the peace and security of the sub-region."

Reacting to the plea for an international inquiry, Gnassingbe’s administration said on the government website [] that the claims of rights abuse were “pure invention and manipulation aimed at mobilising the world community against the new authorities in office in Lome.”

The Togolese League of Human Rights - an FIDH affiliate which has been linked to the opposition - said last week that some 790 people had been killed in the country’s election violence.

Another report by the Togolese Movement for the Defence of Liberties and of Human Rights (MTDLDH), which is closely aligned to the government, said there had been only 58 deaths.

Talks on forming a government of national unity between Gnassingbe and Togo's main opposition parties ended without agreement last week despite efforts to broker an end to the violence by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and other West African heads of state.

Obasanjo, the chairman of the African Union, urged both sides to honour a pledge they gave to him 24 hours after the disputed presidential election, to form a power-sharing government no matter who won.

But the opposition leaders, who met Gnassingbe in the Nigerian capital Abuja last Thursday, refused to even recognise his victory at the ballot box.

“The African leaders want us to quickly do a deal with Gnassingbe, without considering the merit of our complaints that his so-called election was a fraud,” one opposition supporter told IRIN after the Abuja talks. “That is unacceptable to us.”