Togo holds parliamentary elections on Sunday that, if free and fair, could convince international donors that the small West African state has fully embraced democratic rule.
The European Union, once Togo’s biggest donor, froze most aid to the former French colony in 1993, citing the poor democratic record of then president Gnassingbe Eyadema, an archetypal African “Big Man” who ruled for four decades.
The country’s political credentials took a further tumble in February 2005, when Eyadema suddenly died.
The army named his son, Faure Gnassingbe, as president, violating the Constitution and provoking violent protests in which hundreds of opposition supporters were killed by the security forces. Tens of thousands more fled the country.
International leaders eventually persuaded Gnassingbe to hold elections, which he won.
Togolese hope Sunday’s long-awaited parliamentary vote, in which more than 2 000 candidates from 31 parties are standing, will be a marked contrast to those presidential polls, held in a climate of fear in the wake of the security crackdown.
“Our determination comes from the change we want at the head of this country. Forty years of dictatorship is too much,” Sister Happy, a fervent opposition supporter, shouted from the back of a motorcycle during a campaign rally.
The oceanside capital Lomé, buzzing with moped taxis and fronted by palm-fringed beaches, has been overrun by campaign caravans and meetings over the past two weeks, attended by mostly young supporters swathed in bright party colours.
Among those running for 81 seats in Parliament are candidates from Eyadema’s former ruling Rally of the Togolese People (RPT), from the Union of Forces for Change (UFC) of opposition veteran Gilchrist Olympio, and from the Action Committee for Renewal (CAR) of Prime Minister Yawovi Agboyibo.
“The successful holding of these elections is a decisive step on the path to a just and lasting settlement of this crisis which is sapping our country, and to its return to normal relations with all its development partners,” Olympio said.
Gnassingbe appointed Agboyibo as head of a new unity government just more than a year ago, seen as an important step towards reconciliation and a return to democracy.
“The Togolese people no longer want to see their houses destroyed. They no longer want to have to flee after these elections,” CAR vice-president Dodji Apevon told supporters.
Security will be tight on voting day, with a specially mustered 3 500-strong election police force deployed around the country as well as 100 military observers from the Economic Community of West African States. More than 3 000 international civilian election observers are also expected.
Almost a decade-and-a-half without full-scale aid has taken a heavy toll on Togo, many of whose 6,4-million people rely on subsistence agriculture to survive.
“It was the undemocratic nature of Togo’s politics that led to the cessation of relations with the donor community in 1993, but now … a real opportunity to put Togo back on the right footing on the international stage has been created,” said Kissy Agyeman, Africa analyst at research group Global Insight.