Lome (AFP) - Diplomatic talks and visits by experts are gathering pace in Togo as the former French colony looks to follow another Francophone nation and join the Commonwealth.
Rwanda joined the 52-member bloc in 2009, 14 years after Portuguese-speaking Mozambique became the first member never to have had a past link to Britain.
Togo, which is home to some seven million people, first began the process of applying for Commonwealth membership in 2014.
In February and June this year, experts met members of institutions including the constitutional court, electoral commission and human rights body to evaluate Togo's bid.
They also met members of political parties, civil society, women and youth groups to assess levels of democracy and development.
"Togo's bid is on the right track and we are optimistic for the next stage of the process," Foreign Minister Robert Dussey said after the latest visit.
"Togo's bid is on the right track and we are optimistic for the next stage of the process.
"Togo is a politically stable country where there is peace and democracy," he told AFP.
"Geographically, our country is in a strategic position with enormous assets, including a deep water port... which opens up countries in the hinterland (Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali)."
Togo is already part of the Economic Organisation of West African States (ECOWAS) and the International Organisation of La Francophonie, bringing together French-speaking nations.
Like Rwanda, Togo fell under German rule in 1884 when European nations carved up Africa, but Berlin lost both countries in 1916 during World War I. Belgian forces took Rwanda, while Togo was divided into French and British zones.
British Togoland chose in 1957 to become part of newborn independent Ghana and thus joined the Commonwealth six decades ago.
Dussey said Commonwealth membership would help diversify Togo "by making new friends and moving a bit closer to old friends" such as Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
Two visits in March and mid-July by Britain's former prime minister Tony Blair were seen in Togo as linked to the bid for Commonwealth membership.
Sources close to the presidency said Blair and Togo's President Faure Gnassingbe discussed the issue earlier this month.
But a Commonwealth spokesman said Blair is not involved in negotiations.
A decision on membership is expected to be taken at the next Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting in Britain next April, he added.
Confirming Togo's bid in March, the body said that the decisions "are made by the 52 heads of governments, who have laid out clear criteria for any country wishing to join.
- 'Inappropriate step' -
"This includes an acceptance of Commonwealth fundamental values and principles, such as a commitment to democracy, the rule of law and independence of the judiciary, the protection of human rights, and equality of opportunity."
Togo's political opposition and human rights campaigners have expressed concerns about the bid for membership.
"It's an inappropriate step. It's just a song and dance for the international community," said Eric Dupuy, spokesman for the main opposition National Alliance for Change Party.
"We have other priorities, particularly constitutional and institutional reform... which the current regime refuses to implement.
"These reforms will allow us to have transparent elections acceptable for everyone."
Togo's constitution was amended in 2002 but since then the opposition has been pressing for it to be revised further.
In particular it wants the reintroduction of a 10-year limit on presidential mandates.
It also wants two-round elections, a restructuring of the constitutional court and the independent national electoral commission, which organises and oversees elections.
Gnassingbe came to power in 2005 after the death of his father, Gnassingbe Eyadema, whose dictatorial rule lasted 38 years.
Gnassingbe won elections in 2005, 2010 and 2015, but the opposition rejected the results.
Human rights groups say arbitrary arrests, detentions, torture and other ill-treatment are commonplace in Togo, as are impunity and restriction on free speech.
Some 500 people are said to have been killed in violence linked to the 2005 vote.
Reporters Without Borders ranked Togo 88th in its press freedom index last year and said the government controlled information through dominant state media.
Amnesty International's Togo director, Aime Adi, said the human rights situation "remained fragile".
"We still see the use of the army to police peaceful demonstrations with deaths of protesters... intimidation of opposition figures and banning activities of opposition parties," he said.