President pledges quick parliamentary polls, but is the country ready?

After being voted into office five months ago amid street violence and claims of electoral fraud, Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbe has pledged to hold transparent parliamentary polls as soon as possible.

But even the government admits it will be difficult to first overcome the trauma lingering after last April’s disputed poll, which sent 40,000 people fleeing across the border, few of whom have returned home.

“We have the firm intention of organising legislative elections as soon as possible, but in conditions acceptable to all political actors,” Gnassingbe said this week in a radio interview in New York, where he had been attending his first UN General Assembly as head of state.

In the Togolese capital, Lome, observers along with opposition and government figures agreed that holding a democratic election in the very near future might be easier said than done.

Gnassingbe, a 39-year-old US-educated businessman, took over the presidency from his own father, who died in February after 38 years in the job, making him Africa’s longest-serving ruler at the time. The opposition denounced the hastily organised election as rigged.

Asked when a parliamentary poll could take place, Communications Minister Kokou Tozoun told IRIN: "First we need the synergy.”

“We don’t want to see a re-run of the past, we don't want any more violence,” he said. “The poll will have to be held after a national dialogue, but very very soon you will be hearing about it.”

The new authorities have promised to work towards reconciliation, and one government official told IRIN that an amnesty was being mulled for those allegedly responsible for violence that occurred after opposition protests against the April 24 election.

Some observers are sceptical about what can be done to heal resentments still festering after the presidential polls.

“Who will go out and vote after what we lived through unless the dispute over the election is settled?” said Francis Pedro Amouzou, president of the privately-run media watchdog, Togolese Media Observatory (OTM), and editor of the independent weekly, Crocodile.

“People need guarantees,” he said. “The authorities don’t really want dialogue, they’re pretending.”

Small steps?

However, the European Union, which wields a huge financial stick in the form of aid packages, sees small steps in the right direction.

One such move was the installation on Thursday of a new and more open Broadcasting and Communication Authority (HAAC) in line with one of the 22 promises made by Togo to the EU in 2004.

The EU cut off aid to Togo more than a decade ago due to “democratic deficiencies” and has offered to resume funding on condition the country respect these 22 commitments to democracy and civil liberties.

Last month, the EU representative in Togo, Gilles Desesquelles, said the 25-nation bloc was ready to finance work to set up a new electoral register ahead of legislative elections.

“There has been important progress made,” he said, cautioning that much still needed to be done.

One step will be the publication, due this month, of an investigation into the post-election clashes. The government-appointed commission was set up in May to probe the violence in which diplomats said more than 100 people died.

The results of a separate UN human rights inquiry are still to be released.

Meanwhile around 25,000 refugees from Togo remain in neighbouring Benin, while 15,000 are still sheltering in Ghana, Kokou Tcharie, the Togolese government's point man for repatriation, told IRIN this week.

Around 1,000 people had returned spontaneously over the last five months, he said.

“The country is calm now, I believe most of these people will come home over the next year, especially if there is help, or a pardon,” Tcharie said.

In a sign of growing openness, two former members of the Rally of the Togolese People (RPT) who had been sharply critical of the ruling party, last week declared the creation of a new party, the National Democratic Alliance (ADP).

“It’s an alliance between north and south opposed to playing up ethnic differences, which aims to change this country’s methods of government,’ said one of the founders, former prime minister Agbeyome Kodjo, who had fled into exile after criticising Eyadema’s northern-based RPT.

Claude Ameganvi who leads the opposition Workers Party, hailed the creation of the centrist group as a step forward for the country.

“We may get revelations on the RPT system now,” he said. “This will weaken them.”