THE French word conference has taken on a strong, new political meaning in the Francophone heart of Africa. In Togo, in Cameroon, and even in the long repressed Central African Republic, the people are clamoring for democracy. They are demanding that their military and single-party rulers call conferences, or national constituent assemblies.The trade unionists, market women, and students who are leading the charge toward political freedom want the constituent assemblies to write new constitutions and sponsor elections, and thus to transform their autocratically ruled and largely impoverished countries into participatory democracies. Togo was the first to follow the conference route. In June, President Gnassingbe Eyadema, who came to power in a military coup in 1967, agreed to summon a national conference composed of rulers and opponents to discuss the establishment of new institutions, the formation of a transitional regime headed by a leader elected by the conference, and the organization of elections. Earlier, after a wave of urban violence led by students and market women, President Eyadema agreed in March to legalize opposition parties and welcome a free press. In April, the military retaliated against the opposition, and there were brutal killings in and near Lome, the capital. This led to a new wave of outrage among opponents, threats of strikes and more student-led riots, and, ultimately, negotiations between democrats and Eyadema. In order to persuade Eyadema to summon a conference, his opponents had to promise not to seek his immediate resignation, and to permit him to continue as head of state throughout the transitional period. In Cameroon and the Central African Republic, democratic movements are still seeking to push their rulers to accept the concept of a national conference. In both nations, the main urban centers have been closed down periodically as manifestations of "Operation Dead City." Bangui, the bustling capital of the Central African Republic, was deserted on several occasions in May and June as residents heeded calls by students to stay at home. Even the main markets closed, civil servants abandoned their desks, a nd buses and taxis were absent. In early July, another two-day strike closed down almost all activity. In Central Africa the "dead city" action, and the closing even of essential services like hospitals in provincial centers and rural areas, is aimed at compelling Gen. Andre Kolingba, the country's ruler, to convene a conference similar to the one in Togo. In April, President Kolingba was forced by a coalition of students and trade unionists to welcome multiparty democracy and political dissent. "All kinds of thought and all views nationwide can be expressed freely," he said. But General Kolingba has continued to avoid following the example of President Eyadema in Togo. He and Paul Biya, president of Cameroon, may believe that they can cling to power despite almost continual strife and, in Central Africa, an almost total cessation of economic and bureaucratic activity for 10 weeks. In early July, Kolingba banned trade union interference with commerce and arrested many of his opponents. IN Cameroon, President Biya has taken an equally militant stand against concessions. Despite three solid weeks of demonstrations in all of the country's major cities, and despite several months of tension and violence, he has called upon the security forces to maintain order and the flow of commerce. The opposition, including the country's Roman Catholic prelate, had earlier accused Biya's government of stalling on the introduction of democratic reforms and of "fiddling around" with the constitution while the country was approaching a condition of civil war. Urban dwellers in all three countries have voiced their discontent with single-party autocracy. They managed to persuade their rulers to begin talking, and to legalize more than the official party. But the transition to full national participation has been confirmed only in Togo. When the requested conferences are held, as they surely will be, all three French-speaking nations could achieve an opening to democratic freedom that has been lacking almost since independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s. If they can develop some form of lasting democratic rule, and thus emulate the outbreak of multipartyism elsewhere in Africa, they could begin for the first time to determine their own destinies in a popular manner. Now that such a democratic wave has engulfed even Bangui, one of the most isolated of African capitals, it signifies that the participatory imperative has embraced all of Africa as the countries of the continent enter their fourth decade of post-colonial independence.