In his New Year’s address, given on January 3rd, the President Faure Gnassingbe of Togo spoke directly to the public for the first time since large-scale protests against his rule began in August 2017. In his first message, he reiterated his government’s official stance of dialogue and negotiations with the protesters to deal with the growing disavowal of his legitimacy amongst the people.
Togo has been gripped by protests since the end of summer, as hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand an end to the Gnassingbe dynasty, a term used to describe the successive rule of the former President, Gnassingbe Eyadema, and his son, the current president, for a collective five decades in power. The protests have been largely peaceful, with 16 people killed – including two police officers- since they began, but the scale and continuity of the demonstrations are considered to be unprecedented in this West African nation.
The younger Gnassingbe has been in power since 2005 when he was installed in power by the army following his father’s passing, whom Togo was ruled by for 38 years prior. The takeover was considered illegitimate since the constitution dictated that the second in command in the chain of succession in the case of a president’s death would be the Speaker of Parliament. Due to heavy regional and international pressure, Gnassingbe called for new elections and remained in power in the meantime, only to then win the election by a 60-40 margin against his opponent.
The opposition leader claimed to be the true winner of the fraudulent elections and the resulting conflict led to the death of approximately 800 people and the fleeing of twenty-four thousand people to neighboring Ghana and Benin. Gnassingbe won his third term in office – also controversial – in 2015.
The current protests against Gnassingbe’s rule have lasted for months and the grand opposition coalition that has formed against the President and his ruling party have rejected calls for talks that are mediated by the government, preferring instead to have neighboring Ghana mediate. The regional economic and political body, ECOWAS, has called for talks to be held between the two sides, which are to be mediated by Ghana and Guinea. The talks have not occurred to date though, since the opposition has insisted that there must first be “de-escalation steps” taken, such as the release of detained protesters and the withdrawal of heavy security forces in the north of the country.
The oppositions’ main demand is the return to the 1992 constitution which caps the presidential term to two terms, a total of 10 years, as well as a two-round voting system. The government has accepted this demand but insists that the new electoral law would not be applied retroactively. By doing so, the government still leaves the opportunity for Gnassingbe to run for president twice more after his current term ends in 2020, meaning he could be in power until 2030. Such a scenario would mean that the Gnassingbe dynasty would have been in power in Togo for a total of 67 years, or two-thirds of a century.
The government hopes to put the new law that is not retroactively applied to a referendum for the people to decide, which, although democratic, is a maneuver to tie the opposition’s hands in the form of a yes or no question. A no vote or a boycott would mean voting against their own demands and goals, giving Gnassingbe negotiating leverage. A yes vote, however, would signify the acceptance of Gnassingbe as possibly remaining in power until 2030. And without the power to force a change of decision, or an acceptance of Gnassingbe to resign, the opposition is forced to rely on international pressure to give it more of a mandate to negotiate with.
Similar pressure is hoped for as in the case of The Gambia when ECOWAS intervened militarily to ensure that former strongman leader Yahya Jammeh would step down after losing the presidential election to current President Adama Barrow. Unlike The Gambia, however, Togo’s economy is well integrated into the West African economy, and any disruption would be unwelcome, as well as the fact that Gnassingbe is the sitting chairman of ECOWAS.
Internationally, the United States – which also voiced support in the cases of The Gambia and more recently, Zimbabwe – has stayed silent about the events unfolding in Togo, similarly to how it had done so with the ongoing democratic and peaceful protests in Honduras. Both Honduras and Togo were among the 8 countries to vote against the General Assembly resolution at the United Nations condemning President Donald Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
At a time when Africa as an entire continent is experiencing significant change, in its long-term trend towards democratization, with a renewed sense of change such as in Zimbabwe, Morocco, The Gambia, South Africa and others, there must be an international and regional push to not reverse the democratic strides made. An empowerment of authoritative tendencies in any nation in Africa can lead to the same occurring in other nations. Sending messages that symbolically run counter to the principal beliefs of youth empowerment, leadership transitions and democratic change will be used as political loopholes for years to come.