West African leaders have made their first comments after two months of increasingly bloody violence in Togo, calling on the presidency and the opposition to sit down for talks.
France also called for an “immediate dialogue” between the two sides in its former colony, saying it was concerned about reports of civilian militia working alongside security forces.
At least 16 people have been killed and scores more injured in anti-government protests that have seen hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets across the country.
Three new marches have been announced for November 7,8 and 9, despite a government ban on weekday protests and recent clashes between gangs of youths, police and soldiers.
Ivory Coast’s president Alassane Ouattara said he and his counterparts from Nigeria, Niger and Ghana had met Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbe to discuss the issue on Tuesday.
“We believe negotiations are needed … and that these negotiations must lead to constitutional modifications already embarked upon,” he told reporters in Niamey on Tuesday at a meeting of the West African bloc Ecowas.
A coalition of 14 opposition parties wants Gnassingbe to step down and a limit of two, five-year terms introduced for presidents.
They also want a two-round election process rather than current one.
Gnassingbe has won three elections since taking power in 2005 after the death of his father, General Gnassingbe Eyadema, who ruled Togo for nearly 50 years.
Last week in Lome and the second city of Sokode, violence flared as police and soldiers tried to prevent opposition supporters from protesting.
According to an AFP count, two teenagers and two soldiers who were lynched by angry crowds are among the 16 deaths since late August. More than 200 others have been injured.
Faced with rising unrest, Togo’s government has proposed reforms in a referendum.
But the opposition is unhappy that the limit on presidential terms would not be retroactive, allowing Gnassingbe to stand in 2020 and again in 2025.
There has been little comment in West Africa about the violence, although Benin’s President Patrice Talon is said to have met Gnassingbe in the last week to discuss the issue.
The Gambia’s foreign minister was also criticised after he was reported as having called for Faure to resign.
With Togo, The Gambia is the only other West African country not to have a limit on presidential terms of office.
Ouattara said the heads of state condemned all violence and said it was “important there is a climate of peace in Togo”.
“Demonstrations must be able to occur but peacefully,” he said, saying Ecowas would respond to violence with unspecified “rigorous measures”.
In Paris on Wednesday, French foreign ministry spokesperson Agnes Romatet-Espagne made similar comments and called on Togo’s government to “respect the right to protest”.
“Protests should be expressed in a peaceful manner,” she added.