Togolese Opposition Calls Strike to Protest Military Rule

BARREN wooden tables in the main, open-air market. Block after block of shops with doors closed. Not a single taxi in sight.

In a test of wills with continent-wide implications, this normally bustling West African capital came to a near standstill yesterday in the first day of a general strike. Trade unions and pro-democracy opponents to Gen. Gnassingbe Eyadema called for the shutdown, intending to cut into state revenues from taxes levied on commerce and demonstrate that the 25-year military dictator has lost widespread popular support.

The strikers are demanding formation of a special security force not answerable to General Eyadema to ensure free and fair elections.

If opponents to Eyadema, one of the most entrenched and defiant dictators in Africa, can unseat him peacefully, both democratic reformers and determined dictators in other African countries will take note.

But in a year that was supposed to mark the transition from military to democratic rule in Togo, political tensions and prospects for conflict have increased, say most political opponents of Eyadema here.

"If the strike fails [to bolster reform], it will be a disaster," says Edem Kodjo, heads of the opposition Togolese Union for Democracy. "Frustration will be high and I fear for security in the country."

"A civil war, a palace coup - anything can happen," says Leopold Gnininvi, leader of another opposition party, the Democratic Convention of African People.

Activists here express concern that Eyadema will provoke public violence to discredit the strike. Eyadema told a government rally here Saturday that "the state has the right to maintain security."

"It's not a strike, it's terrorism," says Amoussouvi Vigniko Amedegnato, secretary-general of Eyadema's party, the Togolese People's Rally.

Eyadema assumed power in a coup in 1967, seven years after independence. He declared himself president for an indefinite term and banned opposition parties.

Following a series of nationwide protests and strikes over state crackdowns on anti-government activity in the fall of 1990, Eyadema established a constitutional committee that October to initiate multiparty reforms.

Last August, reformists stripped Eyadema of much of his power under terms for the establishment of an interim government; the general backed down in the face of pressure from Western donors and Togolese opponents. (The United States suspended a $19-million aid program to Togo Friday in protest over delayed reforms. France and Germany have also reduced or suspended aid.)

Most presidential powers were shifted to a reformist prime minister, who was charged with preparing Togo for multiparty presidential and parliamentary elections during a one-year transition.

But Eyadema never gave up control of the Army, which Mr. Gnininvi describes as Eyadema's "private army," and the year of transition became a year of turmoil.

Last December, the Army attacked the prime minister's office, killing at least a dozen people. The interim prime minister, Joseph Kokou Koffigoh, survived the attack. Earlier this year, a leading Togolese human rights advocate was assassinated. On Oct. 22, the Army invaded the interim parliament.

In a Monitor interview in his new, well-guarded office (the old one was badly damaged in the Army's attack), Prime Minister Koffigoh said Eyadema "has never wanted democracy, and he doesn't want it [now]."

As the one-year transition period was running out, the possibility that Eyadema might simply reclaim total control prompted Koffigoh to strike a deal to extend the transition to Dec. 31. But he had to give back to Eyadema the power to name most of the key Cabinet posts. A date for the election still has not been set.

Disappointed by Koffigoh's moves, trade union leaders and opposition leaders last week demanded that he step down. But the main target of the opposition remains Eyadema. With Eyadema back in charge of the ministries that would run the elections, Western diplomats and opposition leaders worry about electoral fraud.

It is against this background that several political youth groups, a women's political organization, and key unions pushed opposition party leaders to call for the general strike.

Along with a new security force to ensure safe elections, the strikers also want those who attacked the interim parliament brought to court.

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