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Thu May 26 18:33:47 SAST 2016

Togo opposition gears up for fresh fight against 50-year regime

AFP | 14 October, 2014 08:22
Togo's President Faure Gnassingbe.
Image by: JACQUESCOLLET / AFP

The opposition in Togo has so far had no success in breaking the ruling family's five-decade grip on power.

But with elections set for next year, those working to unseat President Faure Gnassingbe have vowed a renewed push, warning that without major reforms, the polls in the small West African nation will turn out to be another sham.

Gnassingbe, installed by the military in 2005 after the death of his autocrat father Gnassingbe Eyadema who had ruled for 38 years, has given no indication that he intends to stand down before next year's polls.

Experts agreed that the divided opposition has little leverage over the entrenched regime and must unite to have any hope of challenging Gnassingbe.

Let's Save Togo and Arc-de-ciel, the two main opposition groups, have not ruled out fielding a single candidate next year and with the date of the election not yet set, they still have several months to organise a unified campaign.

For now, both camps have rallied behind the need for political reform, highlighted by a constitutional amendment imposing a two-term limit that could in theory bar Gnassingbe from running again.

"These reforms are absolutely indispensible to ensure peace and transparency in the next election," said Eric Dupuy of Let's Save Togo, the larger of the two opposition coalitions.

The national assembly, where the president's loyalists have a majority, rejected the reform bill on June 30.

But the opposition insists it will keep fighting to get the bill passed, describing it as the last best hope to safeguard a semblance of democracy in Togo.

To some observers, Togo's opposition leaders have at times sounded like a broken record, voicing the same grievances but also displaying clear weakness compared to the regime.

Waves of protests in the capital Lome, many of which were dispersed by police spraying teargas, have had little impact.

The opposition was however given a boost earlier this month by a declaration from a key Christian body in favour of political reform before the next election.

A coalition of Presbyterian and Methodist clergy made an "urgent appeal" for lawmakers to revisit the rejected reform bill, saying Togo needed to make "democratic gains that allow for a presidential election... in a framework that is calm, peaceful, just and fair".

Violence following the 2005 polls killed up to 500 people, according to the United Nations, and most are anxious to avoid a return of unrest.

While the rare political move by senior clergy may give added momentum to the opposition cause, analysts voiced doubt about its potential impact.

"It is like getting treated by a doctor after you die... It came too late," said Fulbert Attisso, publisher of the independent daily newspaper The Cause of the Nation.

Attisso argued that the statement from religious leaders lacked force in part because they failed to specify exactly what reforms they supported.

Opposition stalwart Jean-Pierre Fabre was on Saturday nominated by his Alliance for National Change (ANC) party to run next year.

The 62-year-old was the runner-up in the 2010 vote that was widely criticised by the regime's opponents.

But a new face on the political scene - who is also the heir to an important political legacy - has generated some buzz in opposition circles.

Alberto Olympio, a Harvard Business School graduate, has announced plans to challenge Gnassingbe on behalf of his newly launched Party of the Togolese.

His uncle, Gilchrist Olympio, had for years been among the most prominent and forceful opponents of the current president's father, whose iron-fisted regime was criticised by rights groups.

Gilchrist Olympio signed a power-sharing agreement with Faure Gnassingbe in 2010 in a move that surprised and angered some in the opposition for signalling the tacit surrender of one of Togo's key political families.

Gilchrist's father, Sylvanus Olympio, was Togo's first president but was assassinated in a 1963 coup.

The 48-year-old Alberto, who spent years working for Microsoft, said his goal was to "completely change the system that has been in place for more than 50 years".

The current president has "never won an election" but merely imposed his will "by force", he claimed.

Given his family's credentials, Olympio's entry into Togolese politics could help the opposition but for analysts, competition between Fabre and Olympio will only serve to empower the regime.

"The only chance for the opposition to prove it can win in 2015 is to have a unity candidate," said Attisso.

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