Gambian ministry says up to Togo to resolve crisis

BANJUL (Reuters) - Gambia’s Foreign Ministry said on Monday it was up to the people of Togo to decide whether President Faure Gnassingbe should stay in power after the minister told Reuters at the weekend that mediators should persuade Togo’s leader to step aside.

FILE PHOTO: Togo's president Faure Essozimna Gnassingbe addresses the 31st session of the Human Rights Council at the U.N. European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, February 29, 2016. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo

Gnassingbe took power in 2005 on the death of his father who had ruled since 1967. Togo is mired in a political crisis in which at least 10 people have been killed during protests since August.

“At this moment, there is no reason warranting the government of the Republic of The Gambia to take a position, since the Togolese people continue to make efforts to find a solution to the crisis,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement after the Reuters interview was published.

Two days previously, Gambia’s Foreign Minister Ousainou Darboe told Reuters: “I think the African Union and ECOWAS should engage Togo and persuade the president to step down,” referring to the pan-African body and West African regional bloc.

“When it goes against accepted norms I don’t think it should be treated as an internal affair,” he added.

Currently, Gambia and Togo are the only countries in the 15-nation ECOWAS bloc without time limits on mandates. ECOWAS sought to make this law across the region in 2015 but Togo and Gambia voted against it, although Gambia is now changing its constitution.

The Gambian ministry statement on Facebook said that whether Togo’s president should remain in power was the sole and sovereign decision of the people of Togo. It said the two countries remained bonded by strong ties.

Gnassingbe is currently in his third term. Opponents have organized mass protests since August amid growing frustration over delays to constitutional reform and are seeking an end to his rule.

Security forces have repressed protests, firing on demonstrators, and raised the chances Gnassingbe could be toppled as a result of popular anger, as happened in Burkina Faso in 2014.

Criticism of Gnassingbe’s government by foreign powers and other ECOWAS countries has so far been muted, perhaps because the Togolese leader holds the ECOWAS chairmanship until June 2018.

Darboe was the main opponent of former President Yahya Jammeh during his 22-year rule which ended in January as ECOWAS troops marched into Gambia to uphold an election result.

He was imprisoned for most of last year for joining a series of protests on electoral reform and repressive measures against Jammeh’s opponents.

He told Reuters in the interview he thought regional talks with Gnassingbe should begin after a planned referendum in Togo on term limits. A date for the vote has yet to be set.

The planned referendum has failed to appease the opposition who say that it would not be retroactive, meaning that Gnassingbe could stay until 2030.

In a statement, the AU and ECOWAS have welcomed the proposed reforms, called for peace and encouraged dialogue.

Gambia’s government plans a constitutional review to cap a president’s tenure to just two four- or five-year terms, among other reforms, Darboe said. “No national assembly should have the power to nullify that law as we’ve seen elsewhere in Africa,” he said.

Editing by Edward McAllister and Alison Williams