JOHANNESBURG, Feb. 7 -- When Gnassingbe Eyadema seized power in Togo in 1967, it was the era of the Big Man in Africa. Like many leaders of his generation, Eyadema ruthlessly crushed opposition forces, nurtured a cult of personality, then clung to power decade after decade, growing rich as his tiny West African nation stayed poor.
But his death from a heart attack on Saturday and the Togolese military's decision to anoint his son as his successor have come during a different -- and increasingly democratic -- era on the continent. Political analysts say the rule of law and respect for elections are on the rise in Africa, as is a willingness among the continent's leaders to criticize misbehavior by rulers of neighboring nations.
Two of sub-Saharan Africa's most influential presidents, Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo and South Africa's Thabo Mbeki, were quick to criticize the hasty transfer of power in Togo. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) condemned the move as a takeover by the military. And the African Union, which in 2002 replaced the meek Organization of African Unity, denounced it as a coup d'etat.
"All African leaders should not accept what has happened in that country until there is a democratic transition," Obasanjo, who also chairs the African Union, said Monday. "Events that have happened since the death of President Eyadema do not give us comfort that peace will follow."
The United Nations and European Union have also condemned the seizure of power in Togo, but within Africa, public opinion and pressure are often more influenced by the continent's leaders than by reactions from abroad. Some leaders have begun discussing the feasibility of sanctions against Togo, a former French colony with 5.5 million people living on a sliver of land smaller than West Virginia, home to fewer than 2 million.
And the African Union is considering whether to exclude the country's new president, Faure Gnassingbe, 39, from its ruling council on the grounds that its bylaws ban national leaders who acquire power through undemocratic means.
"This is a very good test case for the African Union, for the new attitude toward unconstitutional changes of government," said John Stremlau, a professor of international relations at South Africa's University of the Witwatersrand. "You just can't let this backsliding happen here."
When Eyadema died, ending his reign as Africa's longest-serving ruler after 38 years, the military took immediate control, closing the nation's borders and naming Gnassingbe president. It ignored a succession plan written into Togo's constitution that would have elevated the speaker of parliament, who was in Europe at the time, to the presidency and required elections within 60 days.
Parliament on Sunday overwhelmingly ratified Gnassingbe's ascension by changing the constitution to allow him to serve out his father's term, which was to have ended in 2008.
According to news accounts, Gnassingbe told the parliament that Togo was "unreservedly committed to a democratization process and openness which I intend to pursue to the end with your invaluable help. . . . There is a lot of difficult work to do, but I open my arms to all who will like to join me to do it."
The new president's references to democracy did not quell opposition in Africa. ECOWAS called a meeting for Wednesday to discuss the situation.
"What's happened in Togo does not honor Africa," said Niger's president, Mamadou Tandja, who heads the 15-member economic community, according to news reports. "We've told our Togolese brothers not to go in this direction. It's the worst route they could take."
The tough line against Togo's new government reflects a broader movement toward democracy on the continent, analysts say. Since the early 1990s, both South Africa and Nigeria have become democracies, though Nigeria's elections in 2003 drew allegations of fraud in some areas. Mozambique had a peaceful transfer of power, albeit within the same party, last week. Namibia's long-serving president, Sam Nujoma, has confirmed he plans to step down in March.
Togo's neighbors on either side, Benin and Ghana, are democracies, as are fellow West African nations Senegal and Mali. Across all of sub-Saharan Africa, according to the U.S.-based Freedom House research group, 32 countries are free or partly free, while 16 are not free. Togo is among those classified as not free.
Democracy in some other African countries, meanwhile, has deteriorated. Zimbabwe, for example, has scheduled national parliamentary elections for March 31, but opposition leaders and representatives of many independent groups say there is little chance the balloting will be free and fair. Freedom House in recent years downgraded Zimbabwe from "partly free" to "not free," ranking it as one of the world's most politically repressive nations.
The African Union has drawn criticism, as has South Africa's Mbeki, for not being aggressive enough in confronting Robert Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since the country gained independence in 1980. The executive summary of a critical human rights report by the African Union was leaked in July, but the full report has not yet been made public, frustrating Zimbabwe's opposition activists.
But Archbishop Pius A. Ncube, the outspoken Catholic leader in the Zimbabwean city of Bulawayo, has said the African Union is more aggressive in challenging misdeeds than its predecessor.
"The OAU, they never confronted their fellow African nations about their abuses against human rights," Ncube said. "So it's a start."