Togo Bishops Call for Free and Democratic Elections

Criticize Partisan Changes Made to the Constitution

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LOME, Togo, MAY 23, 2003 (ZENIT.orgFides).- Catholic bishops in this western African nation are concerned about the presidential election on June 1.

In recent times Togo, sandwiched between Benin and Ghana, has been at the center of a relatively stable zone. Tensions are now heightened because President Gnassingbe Eyadema, who has been in power for 36 years, is seeking re-election.

To help avert any political violence, the nation’s Catholic bishops have launched an appeal calling for truly free and democratic elections.

In a message entitled “In Truth Let Us Build Peace,” the bishops underline “the impelling need to create conditions for an authentic choice” — in other words, for “effectively free and transparent elections.”

The bishops criticize the changes made to the Constitution that allowed the president to seek re-election again.

“The rules of the game have been carefully modified in favor of one side and this has led to a profound change in the basic law elaborated and accepted by the people,” the bishops say in their message.

“It cannot be said in honesty that these alterations have strengthened national unity,” they add. “On the contrary, uncertainty prevails and the general impression is that peace and security are threatened.”

The bishops call for “authentic conversion. We launch a vibrant appeal to political leaders to join forces again to take measures to lead us to an authentic peace. To put aside divergences, selfish interests, personal ambitions, and give priority to the higher interests of the nation, the common good, the well-being of all the Togolese people, and the prosperity of the nation.”

The group Franciscans International has made an appeal to the world community to guarantee fair elections. In a press statement issued in Geneva, Franciscans International says: “The previous elections in 1993, 1994 and 1998 were marked by massive violation of human rights. In the absence of international involvement in the area, similar violation may also take place in the elections this year.”

Franciscans International calls on the international signers of the Lome Agreement to “exert pressure on the Togo government to respect human rights; release political prisoners; guarantee the security of civil society and, in particular, the opposition; guarantee access to the media for all; and re-establish the role of the independent National Electoral Commission.”

The Lome Agreement was signed after the 1998 elections which were contested by the opposition. The agreement, reached with the mediation of France, Germany, the European Union and French-speaking countries in Africa, commits all Togolese parties to set up a National Electoral Commission to guarantee free and democratic elections.

Last November a report by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights denounced violation of freedom of speech and press in Togo.

Since 1967, Togo has been governed by President Eyadema, who for over 30 years imposed the one-party regime of the Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais (RPT). In the early 1990s there was a turning point with multiparty elections. However, in 1993, the opposition accused Eyadema of fraud.

In 2001, Eyadema announced he would retire from political life before the end of 2003, in keeping with the Constitution which foresees only two presidential terms of office. Last Dec. 30, the RPT-dominated Parliament changed this rule to allow Eyadema to run in this year’s elections.

The main opponent, Gilchrist Olympo, leader of the Union de Forces du Changement (UFC), has been excluded from the electoral competition. The National Electoral Commission has in fact decided that Olympo failed to present a certificate of residence and a recent tax declaration. Olympo returned to Togo on April 27 after a long exile.

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