NIAMEY, 10 Feb 2005 (IRIN) - West African leaders have branded the father-to-son transition of power in Togo as a military coup and have demanded that the old constitution be restored so that presidential elections can be held in two months.
Meeting in Niger on Wednesday, nine presidents of the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), condemned the military-backed seizure of power by Faure Gnassingbe following the death in office of his father, Gnassingbe Eyadema.
"The heads of state strongly condemn the military intervention which led to Faure Gnassingbe being installed as the successor to the deceased president," ECOWAS said in a statement following five hours of talks in the Niger capital, Niamey.
"They agree that this constitutes a coup d'etat and they condemn the subsequent manipulation of the constitution by parliament," it added.
A high-powered ECOWAS delegation, including the presidents of Ghana, Mali, Niger and Nigeria, is set to visit Lome on Friday to demand that Togo returns to the constitution, as it was before it was hastily rewritten at Gnassingbe's bidding on Sunday, or face the consequences.
"The delegation is fervently urged to express to the Togolese authorities, the necessity to return to the status quo ante," the ECOWAS statement said. "In case of refusal... sanctions would be rigorously applied."
Following the sudden death of Eyadema on Saturday after 38 years in power, the Togolese armed forces installed his 39-year-old son, Faure Gnassingbe, as president of the small West African nation.
In doing so, they violated the constitution. This stipulated that power should pass to Fambare Ouattara Natchaba, the head of Togo's national assembly, who would be charged with organising presidential elections within 60 days.
Following a chorus of international condemnation, Togo's parliament, which is dominated by Eyadema's Rally of the Togolese People (RPT) party, was hastily convened on Sunday to retroactively legitimise Gnassingbe's seizure of power.
Natchaba was voted out as head of the national assembly and was replaced by Gnassingbe. In addition, parliament amended the constitution to allow Gnassingbe to rule for the next three years by serving out the remainder of his father's term.
But these moves failed to impress other African leaders, who are bent on putting a stop to coups on the continent.
"We think that what has happened in Togo is a big setback for democracy in Africa," said Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade, whose country has enjoyed uninterrupted civilian rule since independence in 1960.
"The authorities in Lome have nothing to gain from continuing along this path," he told reporters after the ECOWAS summit in Niamey. "It will not be accepted by ECOWAS, by the African Union or by the international community," he said. "I am asking them to come to their senses."
The Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, which groups among others France and its former colonies in Africa, on Wednesday suspended Togo's membership after Gnassingbe's seizure of power.
The African Union has threatened sanctions and European Union officials have hinted that negotiations on a resumption of EU aid to Togo, following a break of 12 years, would be put on ice.
Gnassingbe, who was Minister of Public Works, Mines and Telecommunications until his dramatic elevation at the weekend, promised fresh elections and a dialogue with the opposition in his first broadcast to the nation on Wednesday.
But the new leader did not commit himself to a date for elections. Neither did he say whether the promised elections would provide an opportunity for Togo's five million people to choose a new president as well as a new parliament.
Eyadema, who ruled Togo with an iron fist for almost four decades, had already pledged to hold a legislative poll in 2005 as part of his attempts to improve relations with the EU.
The European Commission suspended aid to Togo in 1993 over concerns about its democratic credentials, good governance and human rights record, but diplomats have said that until Eyadema's death, the country was one good legislative election away from aid being resumed.
The Togolese authorities offered no immediate reaction to Wednesday's stinging rebuke from ECOWAS, but opposition parties expressed their satisfaction.
"We, like ECOWAS, are demanding a return to the constitution," Martin Aduayom, head of the Democratic Convention for African People (CDPA), told IRIN on Thursday. "We are talking about a military coup d'etat, that has been cosmetically disguised by a constitutional modification."
He said the opposition was planning a peaceful march through Lome on Saturday to protest against the Gnassingbe's military-backed takeover, in a spite of a two-month ban on public demonstrations that the new government imposed earlier this week.
Meanwhile, Togo's independent media have come under pressure to avoid criticism of Gnassingbe's assumption of power.
The army, whose senior ranks are dominated by members of Gnassingbe's Kabiye ethnic group from northern Togo, issued a statement on Thursday warning journalists about their coverage.
"The media are playing a dangerous game which could have unpredictable consequences. We have all the necessary means to put an end to that," it warned.
On Wednesday, the authorities silenced FM broadcasts by Radio France Internationale in Lome and warned three local radio stations to stop broadcasting phone-in programmes which had been used by members of the public to criticise the new regime.