Togo's opposition calls for protests to stop president from signing off on a new constitution

LOME, Togo (AP) — Activists and opposition leaders in the West African country of Togo called on Wednesday for protests to stop the country's president from signing off on a new constitution that would scrap future presidential elections and could extend his decades-long rule until 2031.

The constitution, which was passed by the country's lawmakers earlier this week but now awaits President Faure Gnassingbe's final approval, grants parliament the power to choose the president, doing away with direct elections. This makes it likely that Gnassingbe would be reelected when his mandate expires in 2025.

Some legal experts say the constitution actually restricts the power of future presidents as it introduces a one-term limit and hands over greater power to a figure similar to a prime minister. But opposition fears the role — officially, the president of the council of ministers — could become another avenue for Gnassingbe to extend his grip on power.

The new constitution also increases presidential terms from five to six years. The almost 20-years that Gnassingbe has served in office, after taking over from his father, would not count toward that tally.

The opposition and the clergy say the legislation is an effort by Gnassingbe to prolong his rule. Some have promised to stop it from becoming law by calling on the people to rise up and protest.

“We know that the struggle will be long and hard, but together with the Togolese people, we will do everything we can to prevent this constitutional coup d’état,” said Eric Dupuy, a spokesman for the opposition National Alliance for Change party.

”We’re calling on the population to reject this, to oppose it massively," he added.

However, police on Wednesday broke up a news conference called by the opposition, throwing leaders and journalists out of the venue.

A group representing Togo's Catholic bishops said the parliament's mandate had expired in December ahead of the country's April 20 parliamentary elections and that the lawmakers had no right to adopt a new constitution.

The bishops urged Gnassingbe to delay signing off on the new constitution and instead engage in an inclusive political dialogue after next month's balloting.

“The Assembly has no power to revise a constitution,” said Zeus Ajavon, a lecturer in Constitutional Law at the University of Lome. “The power to revise the constitution is vested in it during its term of office.”

Ajavon also argued that a referendum was necessary for the country to adopt a new constitution.

Togo, a nation of around 8 million people, has been ruled by same family for 57 years, initially by Eyadema Gnassingbe and subsequently by his son. Faure Gnassingbe has been in office since 2005 after winning elections that the opposition described as a sham.