Togo bucks trend of political reform in W. Africa

Leader of opposition Jean-Pierre Fabre addresses supporters during an anti-government protest led by a coalition of opposition parties in Lome on September 7, 2017. Huge crowds turned out in Togo's capital for the second day running to demand political reform in the largest opposition protests against President Faure Gnassingbe's regime. (AFP)
Updated 14 September 2017
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Togo bucks trend of political reform in W. Africa

LAGOS: His family has ruled Togo for more than 50 years but President Faure Gnassingbe has in the last week faced unprecedented public pressure to step down.
He and his country stand alone in West Africa in resisting calls for constitutional reform, even as Parliament begins to look again at the issue.
“Togo is the only ECOWAS country never to have seen any real democratic change,” said political analyst Gilles Yabi, referring to the West African regional bloc.
“The current regime is carrying on the one before it, which was one of the most brutal Africa had ever known,” he told AFP.
“Beyond (constitutional) reform, the Togolese people want real change.”
Faure Gnassingbe took over as Togo’s president in 2005 after the death of his father, Gnassingbe Eyadema, who ruled the French-speaking nation for 38 years with army support.
Bloody riots followed elections that year, which the opposition disputed. Faure was re-elected in 2010 and 2015.
With The Gambia, Togo was the only ECOWAS member to reject a proposal to limit the number of presidential terms across the region, during a summit in Accra in May 2015.
After peaceful changes in power in Benin and Ghana, popular uprisings in Burkina Faso, Togo and The Gambia won them a “bad boy” reputation in a region often cited as an example in a continent where many leaders cling to power.
The fate of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh was sealed in December 2016 after his refusal to recognize defeat at the polls.
ECOWAS sent troops to ensure he left office after 22 years.
In Togo, human rights organizations have criticized cases of torture, arbitrary detention, as well as the muzzling of both the press and the opposition.
But unlike Gambia’s Jammeh, Gnassingbe, who currently holds the rotating presidency of ECOWAS, is not an isolated figure, experts say, noting that he enjoys the support of his counterparts.
Last Wednesday, Marcel de Souza, president of the ECOWAS commission, made an unannounced visit to Lome to meet the opposition as protesters demanded Gnassingbe’s resignation.
Apart from a handful of former heads of state, such as Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo and Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings, who backed Togo’s people, West Africa has been largely silent over the protests.
“We shouldn’t expect any strong reaction,” said Yabi.
“Like France and the European Union, they are partners that value stability above everything.”
Comi Toulabor, head of research at the Institute of Political Studies in Bordeaux, described the lack of reaction as “radio silence.”
Togo’s neighbors “close their eyes because, for many of them, security problems and the terrorist risk have become more important than everything else,” he added.
Toulabor said Togo’s regime had this time bowed to pressure by allowing last week’s protests to take place.
In 2005, the authorities cracked down on dissent, leaving at least 500 dead following a wave of post-election violence, UN figures show.
Gnassingbe has also made apparent overtures to his detractors by proposing a bill to limit the number of presidential mandates to two five-year terms and introduce two-round voting.
As such, he was “trying to make people forget the barely democratic nature of his regime and show himself to be very active on the international diplomatic front,” said Yabi.
The country has hosted a number of international summits, such as the African Union meeting on maritime security in October 2016.
Last month it held the annual African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) forum and had been due to host the Africa-Israel summit in October before it was postponed this week.
Lome, with its deep-water port and new international airport, wants to become a regional hub and is wooing foreign investors.
Economic growth is at 5.0 percent a year and the country has long been calm, despite high unemployment among young people and widespread poverty.
Former colonial power France has made no comment since the start of the protests.
Asked about the events, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said only that France had “followed the events of recent weeks closely.”
“France calls for responsibility and consensus to begin constitutional change.”


US Senator Graham urges Trump to meet Pakistan PM Khan

Updated 20 January 2019
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US Senator Graham urges Trump to meet Pakistan PM Khan

  • US and Pakistan should have “strategic engagement”, not transactional relationship
  • The American senator sees a “unique opportunity” to change diplomatic direction of US-Pakistan ties

ISLAMABAD:  US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said on Sunday President Donald Trump should meet Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan as soon as possible to reset long-difficult US relations with Pakistan and push for a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan.

The comments, which add to growing signs of improved relations between Islamabad and Washington, come amid efforts to press on with talks between the Taliban and the United States aimed at an agreement to end 17 years of war in Afghanistan.

"I've seen things change here and all in a positive direction," Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who has generally been a staunch supporter of Trump, told a news conference in Islamabad.

He said a meeting with Khan, who has declared strong support for a peace agreement in Afghanistan, would leave Trump "far more enthusiastic about the region than he is today".

"With Prime Minister Khan we have a unique opportunity to change our relationship," he said. A previously transactional relationship, based on rewards for services rendered, should be replaced by "strategic engagement", including a free trade agreement, he said.

US relations with Pakistan have long been dogged by suspicions that elements in the Pakistani establishment were aiding the Taliban, a charge Islamabad strongly denies. However, relations have appeared to improve in recent months amid efforts to push the Taliban towards a peace deal.

Trump, who has in the past argued for the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan, has made it clear he wants to see a peace accord reached rapidly although the Taliban have so far refused to talk directly with the Afghan government.

Graham's trip to Pakistan coincided with a visit by Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, and top military commanders including General Joseph Votel, commander of US Central Command.

Khalilzad left Islamabad without announcing a new date for talks with Taliban representatives, who have refused further meetings until the US side agrees to discuss a timetable for withdrawing its forces.

The uncertainty has been increased by reports that Trump is prepared to order more than 5,000 US troops out of Afghanistan, a move that would represent a sharp change in course from Washington's previous policy of stepping up military action against the Taliban.

With Afghan forces suffering thousands of casualties a year and struggling to hold back the Taliban insurgency, the reports have caused alarm in Kabul, prompting many close to the government to question the US commitment to Afghanistan.

Asked whether there had been confusion over the US message, Graham, who has called for a Senate hearing on Trump's plans to withdraw US troops from Syria and Afghanistan, said "without a doubt" but added that he did not believe Washington would stand by and allow a Taliban victory.

"The world's not going to let the Taliban take Afghanistan over by force of arms. That would be unconscionable," he told Reuters. "Any president who let that happen would go down in history very poorly."