If Togo's parliamentary election set for 14 October is peaceful and credible, the country could begin to shed the burden of its tumultuous and undemocratic past and regain favour with the international community, politicians and analysts say.
“Togo has been deprived of aid for 15 years,” the health minister and a candidate for the ruling party in the unicameral parliament, Charles Kondi Agba, told IRIN.
“Today, we’re totally destitute. The state budget barely suffices.”
A transparent and democratic legislative election “could lead to the full resumption of the European Union’s cooperation with Togo,” according to Joao Melo de Sampaio, the acting head of the Togo delegation of the EU, once Togo’s biggest donor.
In the run up to the election, as electoral lists were being drawn up and political campaigns got underway, observers say they were encouraged by the seriousness of the process, in which nearly 2,200 candidates will vie for 81 seats.
“The political parties have become less intransigent,” Yacoubou Hamadou, president of the Togolese Human Rights League, told IRIN. “They are all aware of the stakes and so are the people. No one wants to be responsible for a failure.”
Civil society and many citizens also appeared to recognise the importance of pulling off an orderly and fair poll, observers say.
“We just want to work and have enough to eat,” a young driver of the ubiquitous motorbike taxis in the capital, Lome, told IRIN. He said he would go out and vote “so the elections would be credible.”
Former president Gnassingbé Eyadéma who took power in a coup in 1967 ruled Togo until his death in 2005, essentially shutting out civil society and the opposition as he held on to power through disputed elections. The EU cut ties with the country in 1993 over “a democratic deficit”.
After Eyadéma’s death the army installed his son Faure Gnassingbé as president but then – in response to international condemnation over the succession – the appointed leader agreed to stand down and go to elections. He won but the tainted process set off clashes in which hundreds of people were killed.
“Having been treated as a pariah state Togo now needs to come out of that shadow,” Chris Fomunyoh of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs told IRIN from Washington. “It needs to be taken seriously.”
The EU did start funding some projects earlier this year but the international community is watching the upcoming election as the first major test of the government.
As some 3,500 national and international observers arrive in Togo for the election -- nearly one for every 1,000 registered voters -- analysts already say they are encouraged by the run-up to the polls, with consensus on new electoral lists and the participation of opposition parties.
The Economic Community of West African States in a statement released 9 October congratulated the Togolese government for its “sense of responsibility during the election process.” One political analyst said the atmosphere is “a miracle, given the country’s history.”
But many say the situation is still fragile and Togo’s political past too troublesome to assume that the positive signs mean the country has turned the corner. “We must not rest on these advances,” Hamadou from the human rights group said. “We remain vigilant; we can give a grade of ‘fair’ but not yet of ‘very good’.”
Human rights violations in clashes following the disputed 2005 election have not been addressed. The UN says between 400 to 500 civilians lost their lives following weeks of protests and a crackdown by security forces. Tens of thousands of people fled the country.
Human rights activists and citizens say impunity is unacceptable.
“We cannot forget these horrible crimes ,” Hamadou said. “Those responsible must be brought to justice even if they are eventually pardoned.”
Yet some government officials have said that going after those responsible could threaten Togo’s fragile stability and many Togolese remain concerned.
“We don’t want disorder, we don’t want roadblocks,” said another motorbike taxi driver. "We want security.”