Rival protests in Togo as government blasts street ‘coup d’etat’
Agoe - Thousands thronged the streets of Togo's seaside capital Wednesday after the ruling party asked supporters to march at the same time as planned opposition protests demanding the removal of President Faure Gnassingbe, the scion of Africa's oldest political dynasty.
The rival demonstrations in Lome came a day after the opposition boycotted a vote on constitutional reform which would have included a presidential term limit, arguing that it was a ploy to let Gnassingbe remain in power till 2030.
The opposition wanted the limit to apply retroactively so that Gnassingbe, who has been in power since 2005, could not run again in 2020. His father Gnassingbe Eyadema ruled from 1967 till his death in 2005.
The opposition marches began at around 11:00 am (1100 GMT) at three meeting points.
They came after giant rallies on September 6 and 7 seeking the president's ouster that drew more than 100,000 people on the streets -- a record in a country which has been widely criticised for stifling democracy.
The protesters held up posters declaring "Faure must go" and "Free my country, 50 years is enough".
Police and soldiers armed with heavy machine guns flanked the streets in pick-up trucks. Mobile phone networks and 3G services appeared to have been severed.
"We are not jihadists, we are not rebels," said Abdallah, 42, a supporter of the Panafrican National Party (PNP). "We just want democracy, we are tired."
Communications Minister Guy Lorenzo condemned what he called a "coup d'etat" on the streets.
The government meanwhile asked the opposition to show "responsibility and restraint" and warned that "people of foreign nationalities were looking to participate in acts of violence" during the marches.
- 'Explosive situation' -
More protests are planned on Thursday against what veteran opposition leader Jean-Pierre Fabre called "the monstrous machine that has been crushing Togo's people for more than 50 years".
He said there would be "no let-up" as long as Gnassingbe remains in power.
Comi Toulabor, head of research at the Institute of Political Studies in Bordeaux, called the counter-rallies by the ruling Union for the Republic (UNIR) party "a strategy to disrupt the opposition protest".
"It's very amateurish but it shows the party isn't ready to give way," he told AFP, calling the situation "explosive".
About one thousand UNIR supporters quietly gathered on the beach in Lome on Wednesday, some sitting in the shade of palm trees.
"It is a pleasure to be here," UNIR supporter Georgia, 34, told AFP. "We are peaceful."
One young protester said he received 5,000 CFA francs (7.50 euros, $9) to participate in the pro-government rally.
"You think we're here for politics?" asked Justin, 17, as his friends nodded approval.
The failure to pass the constitutional reform bill in parliament forced a referendum, which a member of the government said will be held in the coming months.
Gnassingbe has now won three elections, the results of which have been contested by the opposition.
Half of Togo's population lives below the poverty line, according to the United Nations, despite a GDP growth rate of five percent over the last three years.