LOME, Togo – With Togo's (search) presidency being claimed both by an official election winner who has the support of his late father's military and a loser with thousands of young people willing to fight, many fear this tiny West African nation is on the brink of self-destruction.
African leaders and the European Union (search) are scrambling to end the presidential-succession crisis that Togo's disputed April 24 election was supposed to solve. But many see little hope for a peaceful outcome.
"The infrastructure for civil war in Togo is already in place," said Emmanuel Anin, a political analyst for African Security Dialogue and Research, based in neighboring Ghana. "I fear the situation will only get worse before it gets better."
Togo was thrown into turmoil on Feb. 5 when dictator Gnassingbe Eyadema, who ruled the nation with an iron fist for nearly four decades, died of a heart attack.
A loyal military briefly installed his 39-year-old son, Faure Gnassingbe (search), as president in what many decried as a coup. But intense pressure at home and abroad forced him to step down and hold elections instead.
Two days after the April 24 vote, the electoral commission announced Gnassingbe's victory, sparking days of violence across the country. Gnassingbe took 60 percent of the vote, versus 38 percent for opposition rival Bob Akitani — who accused the ruling party of massively stuffing ballot boxes and has claimed the nation's top post.
At least 22 people were killed during clashes between security forces and demonstrators last week. Though much of the violence has eased, refugee numbers are growing. According to the U.N. refugee agency, street violence and crackdowns in opposition neighborhoods have forced 16,500 people to flee to neighboring Ghana and Benin.
Last week, Gnassingbe reiterated his confidence in the nation's security forces and the "political maturity of the Togolese."
"I do not think Togo will tip into civil war," he told the French daily Le Monde. "Not, at least, as long as I am at the head of this country."
Togo's constitutional court on Tuesday certified the disputed election results
So far, Togo has avoided serious bloodshed because the military holds most arms, and most citizens don't have weapons.
Armed with slingshots and Molotov cocktails, Akitani's undisciplined mobs have waged a mostly losing battle against security forces, but some fear it's only a matter of time before they find the guns they desperately want.
On Saturday, Togo's minister of information, Pitang Tchalla, claimed guns were being smuggled into opposition neighborhoods from Liberia and "other African suppliers."
The opposition denied the accusation, saying its followers have no guns.
The United Nations accused Eyadema of smuggling weapons, diamonds and fuel to Angolan rebels in the late 1990s, and there is speculation that infrastructure for illicit trade remains in place — leaving weapons available for the highest bidder.
Anin said guns could flow easily into the country because it's been propped up by corrupt businessmen who worked under Eyadema. That combined with an angry opposition whose supporters are keen for arms, and an ill-trained military, were key ingredients for conflict.
Anin also suggested that any armed conflict in Togo could split the military, whose allegiance to the government, he said, may be slipping after Eyadema's death.
Togo's opposition has spent more than a decade protesting the government, saying three separate presidential ballots since 1993 were rigged.
"The opposition is more psychologically prepared for a showdown," Anin said. "Putting that rebellion down will be very difficult."
France, Togo's former colonial ruler, and the 15-nation regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States, both deemed the elections free and fair despite evidence of ballot stuffing by the ruling party. The United States has been the only government to question the legitimacy of the vote.
A delegation from ECOWAS and the continentwide African Union swooped into Togo's capital Friday, eager to find a solution to the deepening crisis. So far, Akitani's opposition movement has refused offers to negotiate a power-sharing transitional government, as proposed by Gnassingbe and ECOWAS.