On the main eastern road into Lomé, signs of support for Togo's opposition Union of Forces of Change were easy to spot last week. A young man cycled past with palm-tree fronds - the party's symbol - trailing behind him. More palm leaves were wrapped round the legs of a ruling-party billboard, obscuring the face of President Gnassingbé Eyadéma. Though he claims popular support, Mr. Eyadéma - in office since 1967 - is accused of retaining power through fear and ballot fraud. Last year, Togo's constitution was also changed to allow Eyadéma to run for office again.
"We suffer a lot in Togo," said one trader. "[The president] has been in power for 36 years, but nothing has changed."
As Togo went to the polls Sunday, some of Africa's highest-profile presidents were due to meet leaders from the Group of Eight (G-8) industrialized nations at their summit in Évian, France. The African leaders, including Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo, want to build on promises by rich countries to offer the continent greater development assistance in exchange for evidence of good governance and respect for human rights. African leaders must convince the G-8 they can improve political conditions in Togo and other authoritarian states in the region, observers say.
"There is a dichotomy between the bright stories [in African politics] and the status quo," says Chris Fomunyoh, senior associate for Africa at the National Democratic Institute, a US-based pro-democracy group. "In [many] parts of west and central Africa, it just looks like there is no turnover of leadership."
The African leaders in Évian are promoting the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), under which African countries will encourage democratic reforms through a system of peer pressure. At a NEPAD summit last week in Abuja, Nigeria, heads of state approved a panel to oversee the process and monitor evidence of failings. The panel includes such figures as Graca Machel, a human rights activist and the wife of Nelson Mandela, and Chris Stals, former governor of the South African Reserve Bank.
African leaders say the appointments are a sign the continent is delivering on its side of a bargain struck at last year's G-8 summit in Canada. Mr. Obasanjo told the NEPAD summit it was "high time" a $6-billion Africa action plan announced by the G8 last year "took off in earnest." "In the face of many other distractions in the world, we should ensure that issues of concern to Africa remain on the global agenda," Obasanjo said. "The continent remains in crisis in many respects, and the assistance of the partners is still much needed."
But critics of the NEPAD plan express doubts about African leaders' willingness to criticize each other on the basis of peer-review reports, which will not be published. The continent's leaders have come into conflict with rich nations over Zimbabwe. Western countries have denounced President Robert Mugabe's government for alleged ballot rigging during last year's elections, but criticism within Africa has been much milder. A delegation including Obasanjo and Mr. Mbeki went to Zimbabwe last month, though the meeting has yet to provoke a significant announcement from the Zimbabwean president.
"[The elections] were a glaring example of how everything could go wrong," says a Western diplomat. "Few African countries would actually make a statement against President Mugabe and what went on."
Suspicions that the desire of African leaders for unity may trump pressure for good governance were highlighted by Obasanjo's second-term inauguration in Abuja last week, analysts say. Respected presidents such as Ghana's John Kufuor and Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal sat alongside leaders heavily criticized over human rights and governance issues, including Eyadéma, Mugabe, and Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea. Mr. Obiang and Eyadéma are part of a group of leaders in western and central Africa who have held power for more than 20 years. Observers say many of them have benefited from African solidarity and from being seen as helping Western interests, particularly oil.
The task for both African presidents and Western countries, analysts say, is to reject old mind-sets under which long-ruling African leaders are seen as valuable guarantors of stability. The key to improved governance is for African countries, supported by rich nations, to launch a serious attempt to create and sustain political structures that are independent and strong enough to allow reform. "There are no short cuts to understanding the political complexity of each country," says Bronwen Manby, deputy director of the Africa division at Human Rights Watch. "It's not about individuals - it's about institutions."