Lome, Togo | AFP | Hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters protested across Togo on Wednesday calling for constitutional reform, despite an apparent government concession to their demands.
Amnesty International country head Aime Adi told AFP “at least 100,000” were in the capital, Lome, with similar demonstrations taking place in some 10 other cities.
Opposition party leader Jean-Pierre Fabre for his part called the demonstration “unprecedented” and estimated that “more than one million people” were on the streets of Lome.
Neither figure was independently verified but AFP journalists on the ground said a tide of people had converged on the coastal capital, dwarfing previous protests.
Many brandished placards denouncing the regime of President Faure Gnassingbe, whose family has been in power for the last 50 years.
“The reforms are lies, we don’t believe them. If the people’s minds are made up, nothing can stop them, not even the army,” said one protester, Armand Jarre, 26.
Gnassingbe chaired a cabinet meeting on Tuesday evening, which saw ministers approve plans for a bill about restrictions on terms in office and changes to the voting system.
The opposition has been calling for both since 2005, when Gnassingbe succeeded his father, Gnassingbe Eyadema, who ruled for nearly 40 years.
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Civil service minister Gilbert Bawara told AFP the government had taken note of the public’s “strong expectation” and that a committee was looking into the proposals.
He invited opposition figures to enter into “dialogue and debate” on the issue.
But he said calls to limit the presidential mandate to a maximum two, five-year terms would not be implemented retroactively.
“There is no legislative reason to do so. But we need a consensus so the reform is accepted,” he added.
A consensus would mean the approval of four-fifths of parliament, said Bawara.
Parliament only returns from its summer break in October and exact details of the proposals are vague.
– Previous protests –
Most of Togo’s opposition parties decided to come together Lome and some 10 provincial cities on Wednesday, despite the government’s apparent olive branch.
They are calling for an acceleration of constitutional reforms, including the limit on how many terms a president can serve and the introduction of a two-round voting system.
“Unir (Unite, the president’s ruling party) calls for talks as soon as it is cornered,” said Tikpi Atchadam, the head of the Panafrican National Party.
“I think the people have made up their mind because they’re fed up,” he added, calling on Gnassingbe to “leave by the front door”.
“I don’t believe in dialogue with the regime anymore,” he said.
One man taking part in the protests said on condition of anonymity that after 50 years ruled by the same family, Togo’s problems were “too deep”.
Hundreds of people were killed in 2005 during violent protests following the death of Gnassingbe Eyadema and the succession of his 38-year-old son.
The president was re-elected in 2010 and 2015, although the opposition rejected the results.
Last month, at least two people were killed in anti-Gnassingbe protests in the city of Sokode, some 300 kilometres (185 miles) north of the capital.
On Tuesday, he appealed for “calm and restraint”, adding that the deaths were regrettable.