Thousands of demonstrators stormed the streets of Lomé, the capital of Togo, Friday to protest the potential reelection of President Faure Gnassingbé, whose family has been in power since 1967. The march descended into violence outside the country's parliament buildings when police used tear gas to disperse the crowd. Two protesters were reportedly seriously injured in the clashes, including one whose ear was reportedly torn off.
Gnassingbé supporters later staged their own counter-protest in support of the president, who has already served two consecutive five-year terms as head of the West African country.
The anti-Gnassingbé march was organized by CAP 2015, a coalition of parties headed by opposition leader Jean-Pierre Fabre. CAP 2015 has called for constitutional reforms ahead of the next presidential elections, which are slated for March 2015. The reforms would limit presidents to two terms in office.
"Each time the people asks the régime to implement reform, the régime brings out the army, the police and the gendarmerie to quash the opposition," Eric Dupuy, press secretary for the National Alliance for Change opposition party, said in an interview with RFI. "What happened in Burkina Faso has caused the regime to panic, [and the régime] will do anything to stay in power."
Police fleeing crowds in Lomé on Friday. Video via Togovision
Dupuy referred to last month's civilian uprising in neighboring Burkina Faso, where protesters took to the streets to denounce a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed former President Blaise Compaoré to stand for reelection after 27 years in power. Compaoré was forced to step down and flee the country, and, following a brief military takeover, the transition was put in civilian hands on November 17.
On Thursday, news outlet Togosite reported that the government had sent armored vehicles out into the streets of Lomé ahead of the protests. These reports have not been verified by other media, but tweets published Friday corroborate the presence of armored personnel carriers.
Speaking to RFI, Pierre Lamadokou, the presidential party spokesperson, claimed that his party was "in favor of term limits," but only after the forthcoming elections. The president's backers fear that any constitutional amendment passed before the elections will be retroactive and stand in the way of Gnassingbé's announced candidacy. On Friday, the president's UNIR party asked supporters to take to the streets under the rallying slogan "Hands Off My Constitution."
Togo, a former German protectorate whose rule transferred to France following World War I, gained independence in 1960. Gnassingbé's father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, led a 1963 coup in which Togo's first president, Sylvanus Olympio, was assassinated. The elder Gnassingbé officially became president of Togo in 1967, and ruled for 38 years until his death 2005.
Togo's current constitution was adopted in 1992, and amended in 2002 to remove the term limit and drop the age of candidacy from 45 to 35. This amendment allowed Gnassingbé to succeed his father in 2005, at age 39.
According to RFI, Gnassingbé and Fabre, the leader of the ANC opposition party, met Saturday morning, but failed to reach a consensus. "I don't want to back down," said Fabre, "and neither does he."
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Image via flickr.