In the old Africa, it might have been just another coup-like plot in the annals of authoritarian regimes on a troubled continent: The son of a president grabs power after his father's death in a dubious inauguration backed by the military.
But in the new Africa, many of the continent's leaders insist that such old-time power plays will not stand and that they will be cracking down on antidemocratic acts like this in their midst.
How serious they are is now being put to the test in tiny Togo. Since a Feb. 6 "coup" there, Africa's leaders have sprung into action - imposing sanctions and a travel ban, and even hinting at military action if it isn't reversed.
Togo's only about the size of West Virginia on a continent four times as big as the continental US. But Africa's response to the situation in Togo - and next month's parliamentary elections in Zimbabwe, which US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has included in her list of "outposts of tyranny" - is shaping global perceptions about the region's commitment to democracy. The issue is not an theoretical one: The G-8, a group of major industrialized nations, are working to relieve billions of dollars in African debt on the condition that the continent improves its governance.
A new series of initiatives "require African countries to manage problems like this one, in return for support [such as peacekeepers and debt relief] from the rest of the world," says Mike McGovern, director of the International Crisis Group's West Africa office in Senegal. These proposals have, in turn, sparked "much more political will than there has ever been before" among African leaders for dealing with antidemocratic acts. So, he says, African nations and Togo are being watched to see how the drama plays out. "For the moment, this is up in the league with Darfur," he says, referring to the region of Sudan where the US says genocide has occurred.
The crisis began after the Feb. 5 death of Africa's longest-serving leader, Gnassingbe Eyadema, a barrel-chested former wrestler who ruled for 38 years with an iron fist. Soon afterward, his son, Foure Gnassingbe, took power with the backing of the army, while parliament quickly amended the constitution to allow him to serve out his father's term, which runs until 2008. That sparked outrage from neighboring leaders, chief among them Nigerian President Olesegun Obasanjo. He rallied West African nations to impose the sanctions and an arms embargo. "This is a family affair, and we want to show Africa can solve its own problems," says Remi Oyo, spokeswoman for Mr. Obasanjo.
Protesters both for and against the young Mr. Gnassingbe took to the streets in Togo, and three were killed during one demonstration when police opened fire. "We would like Obasanjo to take power here," says protester Amemka Martin, who wears an eye patch after being beaten while protesting. "We want troops."
With pressure mounting, the new president promised elections within 60 days, but that hasn't satisfied African leaders or the US or European Union, who have asked him to resign immediately.
Then on Monday, Togo's parliament reversed the constitutional changes - but stopped short of asking the new leader to step down. It's not clear what the next move will be, but with the constitution restored, it appears that pressure from West African nations is helping to improve Togo's prospects for democracy.
But all may not be sanguine, warns Richard Cornwell of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa. By bending to pressure somewhat, the Togolese elite - lawmakers, the army, and those close to the new president - have created a situation whereby elections will be held within 60 days under archaic and unfair voting rules, he says, "with the army still in power, and with all the weight of the oppressive apparatus of the state still in place." He argues, in fact, that Obasanjo and the West African states were outsmarted. The 5 million Togolese people won't likely have a free and fair election, he says, and human rights abuses in the country will probably continue.
It is, he says, instructive for Africa's leaders - and the larger diplomatic community - as they prepare to deal with Zimbabwe and elsewhere. "Too often, far too little attention is paid to human rights, while far too much attention is paid to the formalities of democracy and the power structure."