LOME, 19 Feb 2005 (IRIN) - Faure Gnassingbe, who seized power in Togo following the death of his father, has caved in to international demands for quick presidential elections but has said he will not quit until they are held.
“I have decided in the superior interest of the nation, to follow the transition process in accordance with the constitution... and to organise a presidential election within the constitutional timeframe of 60 days,” Gnassingbe said late Friday in a long-awaited television broadcast to the nation.
“I will assure the continuity of the country while we wait for a new president to be elected,” said Gnassingbe, dressed in a dark suit, his eyes flitting off-camera.
Riots have erupted on the streets of the capital, Lome, since the army installed the burly 39-year-old as successor to his father, Gnassingbe Eyadema, who ruled this small West African country with a rod of iron for 38 years until his death on 5 February.
The government has admitted that at least four protesters were shot dead by security forces during clashes over the last week.
Another opposition rally to protest at the father-to-son-transmission of power took place in Lome on Saturday, but passed off without any trouble.
Thousands of young people marched through the streets of the suburb of Be, an opposition stronghold, blowing whistles, banging plastic drums and waving red, yellow and green Togolese flags above their heads. Many of them carried crudely written placards saying “Togo is not a monarchy.”
With the government having lifted its ban on public demonstrations on Friday, the security forces maintained a low-key presence and did not intervene.
Meanwhile, thousands of Gnassingbe supporters gathered peacefully across town outside Lome 2, the presidential residence, for a counter rally.
Following Eyadema's death, the army suspended the constitution before installing his son in power. It then recalled parliament to tweak the constitution and the electoral code to legitimise Gnassingbe's accession and postpone presidential elections until 2008.
However, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union, former colonial ruler France and the United Nations all demanded a return to the old constitution, which foresaw power passing to the head of the national assembly, Fambare Ouattara Natchaba, and elections in early April.
Togo's alliance of six opposition parties immediately slammed Gnassingbe's decision to remain in power and forged ahead with a fresh protest demonstration.
“With this declaration, he is continuing the coup d'etat. He will bear the responsibility for the destruction of Togo,” Leopold Gnininvi, head of the Democratic Convention of the African People (CDPA) opposition party, told IRIN on Friday night, minutes after Gnassingbe had stated his intention to remain in power.
“I beg the international community to come to our aid quickly to stop the danger while there's still time,” the one-time professor added. “We risk having the same situation here as in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire.”
The government shrugged off accusations that Gnassingbe's decision to cling to power meant there had not been a complete return to the constitutional order.
It pointed out that parliament had hastily sacked Natchaba as head of the National Assembly and had appointed Gnassingbe to replace him, giving the president's son the legal obligation to take over from his father.
“The revision of the constitution is completely independent from the procedure which made Faure Gnassingbe the head of the national assembly,” Communications Minister Pitang Tchalla told state television immediately after the presidential declaration.
He said parliament was entitled to change the electoral code whenever it saw fit, and it had done so to allow ministers to be members of parliament, and thus potential assembly leaders, at the same time.
Gnassingbe was Minister for Public Works, Mines, Posts and Telecommunications when his father died and thus ineligible to head the national assembly.
Tchalla said with Natchaba out of the country, the army had rapidly appointed Gnassingbe because it feared a power vacuum.
He failed to mention that the military had closed Togo's air space to prevent the plane carrying Natchaba home from Europe from landing in Lome.
The former head of the National Assembly was forced to land at Cotonou in neighbouring Benin and has since remained there.
On Friday, a group of around 50 lawyers decked out in their black robes gathered on the steps of the capital's law courts to protest the way in which Gnassingbe had ridden roughshod over the country's laws. Meanwhile, university professors took their strike against the transition of power into a second day.