UPDATE 1-Protesters mass for second day to demand exit of Togo's leader
* Internet and text messages cut country-wide
* Protesters begin sit-in at Lome crossroads
* U.N. top regional diplomat meets with president (Recasts, adds detail and context throughout)
By John Zodzi
LOME, Sept 7 (Reuters) – Thousands of Togolese marched for a second day on Thursday against President Faure Gnassingbe’s 50-year family dynasty despite a near blackout in communications.
The scale of this week’s protests, which the opposition says were attended by hundreds of thousands of people, represents the biggest challenge to Gnassingbe’s rule since he succeeded his late father 12 years ago.
In the past, security forces have violently suppressed protests, killing at least two people during an opposition march in August and hundreds after the contested election in which Gnassingbe took power in 2005.
But on Thursday, police officers armed only with batons gazed calmly at protesters wearing the red, pink and orange T-shirts of the opposition, who danced and blew whistles as they wound through the streets of the capital Lome.
“We want the end of this 50-year-old Gnassingbe regime. Enough is enough,” Kodjo Amana, a 42-year-old baker, shouted over a chanting crowd. At the busy Dekon crossroads, hundreds of opposition members joined a sit-in on the tarmac, a Reuters witness said.
The head of the main ANC opposition party, Jean-Pierre Fabre, was among them. “We have decided to stay here until we are satisfied that our demand is met. Our demand is the departure of the head of state,” he told reporters.
Amnesty International’s country head Aime Adi told Reuters that large peaceful protests were also under way in Sokode, 210 miles (340 km) north of the narrow country’s Atlantic capital.
U.S.-based company Dyn, which monitors the Internet, said traffic dropped off at 0900 GMT in what critics say was a move by the government to suppress criticism and protests, as other African incumbents have done.
Residents said that text messages had also been blocked. The communications minister could not be reached for comment, although another minister said earlier this week that the cuts had been carried out for security reasons.
The president’s father Gnassingbe Eyadema seized power in a coup in 1967, shortly after “Togoland” was granted its independence by joint colonial rulers France and Britain.
The current president this week sought to appease opponents by tabling a draft bill to reform the constitution and reintroduce a two-term limit that his father scrapped in 2002.
But opposition leaders are sceptical about the implementation of the reforms and Prime Minister Komi Selom Klassou confirmed on Thursday that the term limits would not apply retroactively.
That could mean that Gnassingbe, 51 and currently in his third term, could remains in power for two more mandates from the next election, until 2030.
Gnassingbe sent a Tweet from his official account on Thursday, saying that he had met with the U.N. Special Representative for West Africa and the Sahel, Mohammed Ibn Chambas, on the subject of reforms. A spokesman for the latter confirmed the meeting without elaborating on its content.
However, analysts say Gnassingbe may find himself isolated amid growing criticism of autocratic rule in West Africa.
“The president’s position is very fragile and we do not think his peers in ECOWAS or his friends in Europe will help him if things get ugly,” said the head of research at NKC African Economics, Francois Conradie.
Togo, a regional financial hub that aspires to be an African Singapore, is at odds with West African neighbours which mostly have laws restricting presidential mandates.
The government, along with Gambia‘s, voted in 2015 against introducing them across the 15 members of the ECOWAS regional body which Gnassingbe currently chairs. Since then, Gambia’s longtime leader Yahya Jammeh has been voted out of power.
African rulers, notably in Rwanda, Burundi and Burkina Faso, have moved to drop term limits in recent years in order to remain in power. In some cases this has sparked strong opposition that has led to violent unrest; in others, leaders have been driven from power, as happened in Burkina Faso. (Additional reporting and writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)