LOM'E, TOGO — THE government of Togo's one-party state announced last week that its people have given a ``firm and unanimous `no' to a multiparty system.'' But a variety of people in this small West African country contend that they want a change to multiparty democracy. They want freedom to speak out against a regime that they say does not tolerate criticism.
They also seek economic improvement, because Togo is one of the world's poorest countries.
``Most people want a multiparty [system],'' claims one Togolese professional, who asked not to be identified, fearing government reprisals. ``You can't have democracy with one party,'' adds an intellectual.
President Etienne (Gnassingbe) Eyadema, who seized power in a military coup in 1967, recently sent teams of officials to various parts of the country to ask the people's opinions on multiparty democracy. ``Power flows from the people,'' he said.
But the debate over the issue was ``a comedy,'' says the Togolese intellectual, who also asked not to be named. ``They [the government] shaped the question.''
He and numerous other Togolese interviewed (both in and out of government) say the fact-finding teams lectured people on the virtues of one-party rule and perils of multiparty systems. Then, sources say, government officials asked the people, many of whom depend on the government for assistance or jobs, whether they were happy with the president.
The outcome was not surprising in a country where the president's word is law. The president has no intention of ever having a multiparty system, says a Western diplomat in Lom'e.
So why all the effort to hold public meetings on the topic?
The exercise came in the wake of rapid moves toward democracy in Eastern Europe. Western governments have hinted that democracy would help ensure the flow of development aid to Africa - that may now compete for funds with Eastern Europe.
In its effort to portray African multiparty systems in a negative light, Togo's state-run television broadcast the strikes and violence in nearby Ivory Coast and Gabon, two states with ongoing debate on multiparty democracy.
There are concerns here, too, that moving to competition between political parties could cause disruption in public order.
``I'm against only one candidate for president,'' said another professional. But he suggests that this long, slender country might develop a north-south division, possibly along tribal lines, if multiple parties were allowed.
And the president does have supporters. A Togolese woman with high-level political connections says the president has ``changed the country, even if it's a one-party state. There's been improvement. All is not negative.'' She cites construction as examples of progress new roads, hospitals, and schools.
Compared with most African nations, Togo is very poor. This is partly due to falling world cocoa prices - Togo's main export crop.
Economic reforms in recent years, encouraged by the World Bank, have brought some economic growth. Late last year a program was enacted including ``the best package [of incentives] in the world to encourage export processing,'' says Kadress Vencatachellum, a United Nations official specializing in industrial development. The export processing plan has not yet begun. And some Togolese suggest it may not create the new jobs the government hopes for. ``Even though there's been economic improvement, Togo is in an economic crisis,'' says Raymond Razafindrakoto, a UN official here.