Togolese authorities have fired tear gas to disperse a protest of several thousand people in the capital Lome, the latest such move in the volatile build-up to parliamentary polls expected in October.
The streets of the capital were tense on Tuesday, with some protesters burning tyres and erecting roadblocks.
Protesters gathered in Lome’s Be neighbourhood and were planning to march to the major commercial area of Deckon, where about 100 police officers had been deployed after the government declared the zone off-limits to demonstrators.
Some of the opposition are seeking to delay the country’s elections to be held in October, to allow reforms to take effect beforehand while others want the repeal of changes to the electoral code passed by parliament on the grounds that they were not made properly.
The opposition says the country’s constituency boundaries, which were redrawn in May, favour the ruling party and is challenging a move to increase the number of seats in parliament to 91 from 81.
Faure Gnassingbe, Togo’s president was re-elected to a second term in 2010 in a poll marred by opposition complaints of fraud and intimidation. Previous demonstrations have also been dispersed with tear gas.
Tuesday’s protest was the first of three days of planned protests by “Let’s Save Togo”, a coalition of opposition and civil society groups.
It was not immediately clear whether the marches set for Wednesday and Thursday would go ahead.
Last minute diversion
Tensions flared when indications that the route for Tuesday’s march would be changed at the last minute, having it pass through Deckon instead of finishing there for a rally, but authorities and protesters could not agree on the itinerary.
The government of the west African nation banned street demonstrations in commercial centres, last week. It justified its decision by citing the difficulty of maintaining security and public order in such areas.
However, the opposition, which had already announced the protests and pledged to follow through on its plans, denounced the move as a bid to stifle criticism.
The tear gas was fired some 10 minutes after the start of the protest.
“No one will stop us from going to Deckon,” Dodji Amou, a taxi driver who was among the protesters, said before the march began. “The country belongs to all of us.”
Another protester, Edem Akou, said before the march that “we will no longer allow ourselves to be trampled on.
“The march will absolutely go ahead,” Akou said.
The coalition planned to hold a press conference later in the afternoon.
Tuesday’s protests were the latest in a series of violent protests in the West African state, a former French colony with a history of tough crackdowns on dissent, since June.
Togo has been run by the same family for more than four decades.
Gnassingbe Eyadema ruled the country for 38 years with an iron fist until his death in 2005 when Gnassingbe, his son, was installed in the presidency by the army.
Gnassingbe has since won elections in 2005 and 2010.
While the elections are expected to be held in October, no date has yet been set.