Togo: Clashes Break Out As People Complain of Being Denied Voters' Cards for Presidential Poll
April 1, 2005
Scattered incidents of pre-election violence broke out across Togo on Friday as many ordinary citizens complained of being denied voters' cards to cast their ballot in a landmark presidential election due in three weeks time.
Opposition and human rights leaders voiced concern that the poll might be rigged.
The Togolese League of Human Rights and members of the public who telephoned local radio stations reported several clashes between police and protesters who claimed that they had been denied voters' cards at registration centres where the electoral roll is being updated.
"Tension is mounting across the country and we are concerned," Sylvestre Zoumou, deputy head of the Togolese League of Human Rights, told IRIN. "The conditions for a free and fair election have not yet been met, many voters are not being given their cards."
"We are set on a course of conflict," he warned.
The April 24 presidential election is expected to be a straight fight between Faure Gnassingbe, the son of former president Gnassingbe Eyadema, who ruled the country with an iron hand for 38 years until his death on 5 February, and Emmanuel Bob-Akitani, who represents a coalition of six opposition parties.
Two other minor candidates are only likely to garner a handful of votes.
Togo's Interior Minister Akila-Esso Boko played down the seriousness of Friday's incidents which took place in several locations in the interior.
He told IRIN they were caused by troublemakers who could not be issued with voters' cards as they were unable to provide the necessary identity papers to register on the electoral roll.
Incidents were reported in Baguida near the capital, and at Kolo Kope and Dotekope near Anie, 150 km to the north, as officials worked to complete a 10-day update of the electoral register by April 5.
"Some youngsters don't have the required ID papers to be issued with cards but won't accept the rules," the interior minister said.
There had been no casualties in the scuffles, he added.
Many people in this West African country of five million people have protested at the authorities' refusal to let them vote since the registration process began on Tuesday.
However, until now they had remained peaceful.
A crowd of around 100 youngsters staged a sit-down demonstration outside the offices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Lome on Thursday to protest that they had been refused voters' cards.
ECOWAS played a key role in persuading Gnassingbe to step down as head of state after he seized power with the support of the army following his father's death. The 15-nation body is now helping to organise the poll, which Gnassingbe hopes will return him to power.
Boko shrugged aside opposition complaints about a scarcity of voters' cards and allegations that some cards were being handed out directly to the Eyadema family's ruling party, the Rally of the Togolese People (RPT).
He said that a total 125,000 new cards had been handed out in Lome and the surrounding district and that up to 350,000 had been distributed countrywide. He expected a total 500,000 new cards to be issued, which would bring the number of voters registered on the electoral roll to 2.8 million.
Bob-Akitani, the main opposition candidate, met on Thursday met with the head of the ECOWAS election team, Boukar Mai Manga, to complain about alleged fraud in the updating of the electoral roll and issuing of voters' cards.
The opposition has complained that its representatives have been denied access to some of the 5,350 makeshift bureaux where the electoral roll is being updated and voters' cards are being handed out.
Mai Manga of ECOWAS told IRIN by telephone that the "preparation of the election is difficult because there is little time and Togo is a complex case."
The decision to hold the presidential election was taken on 3 March, leaving the authorities only six weeks to organise the ballot.
Diplomats said that was not very long to organise a demonstrably free and fair election in a country which has been repeatedly criticised for electoral fraud and human rights violations.
The European Union has declined to send observers to monitor the poll and the United States is still mulling whether or not to do so.
The opposition had been seeking a postponement of the vote to allow more time to organise a genuinely transparent election, but it agreed this week to stick to the 24 April polling date, which has been endorsed by ECOWAS.