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Togo protesters clash with police over constitution revision bill

From Erick Kaglan, For CNN
  • An attempt to change Togo's constitution is at the heart of the protests
  • Opposition leader says the proposal would mix judicial and executive powers
  • Lome University students also clashed with police in a separate incident

Lome, Togo (CNN) -- Angry Togolese opposition party protesters clashed with grim-faced policemen in the streets of Lome Thursday over the government's attempt to revise the West African country's multiparty constitution promulgated through referendum in 1992.

National Alliance for Change presidential candidate Jean-Pierre Fabre said he suspects the proposed revision "is an arbitrary and unilateral attempt to give sweeping judicial powers to the Togolese head of state, Faure Gnassingbe."

Hundreds of opposition supporters engaged police in running-streets battles by throwing stones and setting tires ablaze as security forces began firing canons of tear gas to disperse their planned protest march.

But the opposition leader said he was "very satisfied with Thursday's demonstrations though they were quelled."

"That's exactly what we wanted to see happen in the streets and this is our way of protesting this bill that intends to place the head of state at the head of Togo's judicial system," Fabre told CNN.

"The constitution draft states, for example, that the head of state chairs the superior judiciary council; that's unacceptable. That amounts to mixing up the powers of the judiciary with that of the executive," he explained.

He said he would call for more protest marches next Saturday and the coming Thursday "till the government withdraws this bill and proceeds to seek consensus with all the political stakeholders."

Some other critics from the opposition have accused the ruling RPT party of reneging on the political agreement signed in 2006 with Gnassingbe which calls for permanent dialogue with all stakeholders on all important matters affecting the interest of the nation.

In another separate development, striking students at Lome University faced off the security forces who fired tear gas to disperse them, on the campus and the outskirts of Lome.

The students were protesting the arrest Wednesday of five of their unions' leaders on charges that they possessed cans of gasoline and inflammable materials with the intention of setting parts of the university on fire.

Initially, the students have been holding demonstrations for weeks to protest their living conditions and a new LMD academic system -- which is the French acronym for the three university degrees, namely the Bachelor, the Master and the Doctorate -- which they describe as cumbersome.

As a result of their protests, the university had been closed down for about ten days and was reopened a week ago following a fragile truce signed between the government, the university authorities and the students' delegates.

But the radical students' union, the MEET, claims that the authorities have not sufficiently addressed their demands.