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Tip-toeing towards reconciliation

Poll worker in Togo's 2010 presidential election in the capital, Lome
Poll worker in Togo's 2010 presidential election in the capital, Lomé, on voting day (Etonam Ahianyo/ IRIN)

As up to 3.2 million Togolese cast their ballots in the presidential election on 4 March, IRIN asked voters and experts what it would take to reach true reconciliation after decades of political violence. This is the first of a two-part series on Togo's road to reconciliation.

"Impunity will no longer be tolerated, the blood of Togo's sons and daughters will no longer flow freely on our land, the land of our ancestors." These words, penned five months after a bloody poll in April 2005 that killed at least 400 and dispersed tens of thousands, formed the basis of a truth and reconciliation commission, created to help the country move past decades of recurring political violence.

"Elections will not be enough to bring together the people," said Gameti Akuyo, a fabric vendor in the capital, Lomé. "Those who carried out violence must recognize their wrong and ask for pardon. If not, reconciliation is just a joke, and evil will continue."

President Fauré Gnassingbé, whose post is up for grabs, took power after his father died in early 2005 in an election marred by a security crackdown that included torture, rape and extrajudicial killings, according to Amnesty International, a human rights watchdog.

The truth and reconciliation commission was formed in 2006 as part of a peace pact between the opposition and ruling parties, but its president, Nicodème Barrigah, told IRIN that the commission had not yet begun the formal process of reconciliation so as to not destabilize the country before the elections.

When to start?

"We decided not to inflame again the hearts of Togolese [so near the election], but instead to ensure the holding of transparent elections ... to begin the reconciliation process afterwards," Barrigah told IRIN.

The commission interviewed more than 20,000 people in July 2008 about their vision of justice and reconciliation, and decided not to proceed with identifying the perpetrators of human rights abuses, or rendering justice.

But peace pacts and elections do not always guarantee lasting peace. "The commission is here to offer to Togolese the peace of mind of 'never again'. We have had violence, but still do not know who is guilty," a Lomé-based traditional justice expert, André Anfanou, told IRIN. "Beyond raising awareness [about its mission], which is a good thing, the commission should have the courage to propose harsh punishments."

Until the Togolese could close this chapter, there would always be the risk of renewed political violence, he said. "The same causes can produce the same effects ... You have to somehow attack as much as possible these germs of violence."

''Reconciliation is not an incantation, it is not a slogan, it is concrete acts that must be carried out''

Voter Ankra Wiliam was sceptical about lasting reconciliation. "It is the same ruling party that was in place during the 2005 violence, and I am sceptical we will reach a true reconciliation when the process is managed by the same people who have hurt us - I strongly doubt it."

Next steps

Commission president Barrigah told IRIN that once the elections were over, the group would start identifying the perpetrators of human rights abuses and "soothe the hearts of Togolese, and help them heal their wounds."

The 2007 legislative election was judged to be mostly fair and free, which unlocked a 13-year partial freeze on funding by the European Union (EU), imposed in protest over Togo's human rights record. The EU, Togo's largest bilateral donor, has re-launched programmes and committed US$441 million from 2008 to 2013.

Yet elections were only a first step in reconciliation. "A presidential election is not enough to reunite Togolese, but a well-run one would mark a very important step in the process of reconciliation," Barrigah commented.

Unlike the presidential poll in 2005, the 2010 presidential election is being scrutinized by hundreds of international election observers and more than 3,000 local observers.

The office of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights in Togo is on alert; two hotlines have been set up to report any violence; 600 Togolese Red Cross volunteers were trained in election day scenarios and have been posted at all voting stations, and a number of Togolese simply chose to abstain from the vote.

Ajavon Zeus, president of the Collective of Associations Fighting Against Impunity in Togo, a local NGO, told IRIN: "Reconciliation is not an incantation, it is not a slogan, it is concrete acts that must be carried out."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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