Togo controversially swears in president

Togo’s Constitutional Court swore in 39-year-old Faure Gnassingbe as this tiny West African nation’s new president on Monday, despite volleys of international condemnation after the military installed him as his late father’s successor.

The six-member court conducted the ceremony at the presidential palace, where Gnassingbe raised his right hand to swear the oath.

Gnassingbe comes to power in a tiny, impoverished country with little experience of rule of law. His father, Gnassingbe Eyadema, had held on to power longer than any other modern African leader through force, patronage and the loyalty of his Kabye ethnic group and his Togo People’s Rally party.

The international community condemned Gnassingbe’s succession as irregular at best—and a military coup at worst.

There was opposition in this country long accustomed to dictatorship and repression, though no immediate sign instability or violence could ensue. But France, Togo’s colonial ruler along with Britain until 1960, put its troops in the region on alert to protect its 2 500 citizens in the West African nation of 5,5-million.

Togo’s borders have been sealed since Eyadema’s death.

“Before God and the people of Togo, I swear to defend the sovereignty of the country and fulfil loyally the functions of state in the interest of the people of Togo, and to defend and respect the Constitution provided by the people of Togo,” Gnassingbe said.

He added that he will “devote all my force to the development of the well-being of all Togolese and respect for human liberties in the national interest, so help me God”.

Hundreds of students who attempted to march to the city centre to disrupt the ceremony were blocked by security forces.

The military installed Gnassingbe on Saturday, hours after Eyadema’s death.

In an extraordinary session on Sunday, the 81-member National Assembly approved Gnassingbe as speaker by a vote of 67 to 14, then voted to change the Constitution to allow him to fulfil his father’s term, which expires in 2008.

On Sunday, Gnassingbe—who until Eyadema’s death was minister of communications and an MP—told the National Assembly that “Togo is engaged without reserve in the democratic process, which I will pursue to its logical conclusion”.

His father, Eyadema, had claimed sole control in 1967 after taking a leading role in what was sub-Saharan Africa’s first post-colonial military coup four years earlier.
He had refused to allow multiparty elections until 1993. The votes held that year, in 1999 and in 2003 were all marred by fraud and violence—and won by Eyadema.

The European Union cut aid to Eyadema’s government in 1993 after allegations that security forces had fired upon democracy activists. The United States has pronounced Togo’s transition to democracy “stalled”.

Western diplomats in Lome boycotted Monday’s brief, 15-minute swearing-in, although diplomats from Libya, Egypt, Congo and Gabon and MPs were present.

After the ceremony, Gnassingbe took a group picture with members of the Constitutional Court and shook hands with members of the diplomatic corps who showed up, thanking each of them.

Mohamed Ibn Chambas, executive secretary of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), said in Lome on Monday it is “encouraging” that the Parliament has taken steps to address the constitutional questions surrounding Gnassingbe’s succession.

Chambas’s comments could pave the way for badly needed regional support. Though Togo’s borders remain sealed, the airport in Lome opened briefly to allow Chambas in. Chambas said Ecowas heads of state will hold an emergency meeting soon, adding that “the next three days will be critical to the fate of Togo”. He gave no details.

The African Union has condemned the army’s appointment of Gnassingbe, calling it a military coup.

French President Jacques Chirac spoke on Sunday to African leaders and “made it known that the time of military coups d’état is finished in Africa,” said his Minister of Defence, Michele Alliot-Marie.

The European Union’s head office kept quiet on Monday on whether the 25-nation bloc will recognise Gnassingbe as head of state.

EU spokesperson Krisztina Nagy told reporters the EU is urging political leaders in Togo “to remain calm” and to hold talks with opposition groups. She refused to say whether the EU will recognise the new president.

The army move and the Parliament’s endorsement reflect the determination of the Kabye minority, which dominates the army, to hold on to power along with ruling-party members who have benefited from decades of Eyadema’s patronage.

Had the army not stepped in, the interim presidency legally would have gone to Fanbare Ouattara Natchaba, the Speaker of Parliament, who was in Europe when Eyadema died. He is currently in neighbouring Benin.—Sapa-AP

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