Is there an end in sight to Togo's political crisis?
Elections and a constitutional referendum are set to take place in December 2018, but government and the opposition remain deadlocked on critical issues, writes Wolali Koffi Ahlijah.
he streets of Lomé are quiet, but their ostensible calm
barely masks the anger and discontent of citizens, who over a year ago took to
the streets en masse to demand political reforms.
In August 2017, hundreds of thousands of protesters around the country sought the reinstatement of presidential term limits that would prevent longstanding President Faure Gnassingbé from seeking another term in office. The protests continued for months, but have fizzled out due to government’s brutal crackdown on civilians. At least six were killed and hundreds more injured or arrested. Security forces have denied protest permits and shut down civil gatherings. Severe restrictions on public protests and freedom of expression remain in place in Lomé. Other major cities such as Sokode and Mango continue to see a strong military presence. Community organisers Messan Kokoroko and Joseph Eza of the Nubueke Movement are still in jail. Ditto for human rights activist Assiba Johnson. They were joined on 23 August by youth activist Folly Satchivi, who was arrested for organising an unauthorised press conference.
Togo opposition leaders (from L) Nathaniel Olympio, Brigitte Adjamagbo (2nd L), Dodji Apevon, and Jean-Pierre Fabre (R) arrive at the residence of leader of the PanAfrican National Party (PNP) Tikpi Atchadam, to show solidarity after a crackdown against anti-government protests calling for constitutional reform led by a coalition of opposition parties, in Lomé, on 8 September 2017. (Image: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images)
These anti-government protests were by far the most serious challenge to Gnassingbé’s rule since he succeeded his late father Gnassingbé Eyadéma in 2005. With the full support of the Togolese army and through three dubious elections, the younger Gnassingbé managed to assume and stay in power. He is currently West Africa’s longest-serving leader and has given no indication that he will step down in the near future.
In February 2018 talks began to end the political crisis after Togo’s regional and international players, including the European Union, Germany, France and the United States, called for dialogue between the two sides. The protesters were represented by the Coalition of Fourteen Parties of the Opposition (C14); the government by the ruling party. The aim was to agree on a set of reforms that would guarantee a peaceful transition to democracy.
However, talks stalled since the parties could not agree on any prerequisites, such as freeing those arrested during the protests or even the agenda of the negotiations. Neither Gnassingbé nor Tipki Atchadam, the charismatic leader of the Parti National Panafricain (Panafrican National Party) that ignited the initial protests, could be persuaded to sit around the table. Subsequent meetings between February 2018 and June 2018 yielded no progress. The latest round on 27 June led to a stalemate and an escalation to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
It is important to note that the democracy movement in Togo holds ECOWAS in low esteem. To many Togolese, the institution lost its credibility when it failed to take action around the 2005 elections to prevent the killing of hundreds of opposition supporters by state security forces during Gnassingbé's ascent to power. Moreover, the same institution certified those elections and subsequent ones, giving Gnassingbé's rule a stamp of legitimacy. In parallel, ECOWAS has also encouraged political reforms brokered during a Comprehensive Agreement signed between the government and the opposition in 2007. However, with its mere statements and no strong leverage to sway the Togolese government, ECOWAS is viewed by many Togolese as complacent at best, and as an accomplice of the regime at worst.
Nevertheless, Togolese politicians pragmatically heeded calls to rely on the regional institution to find a way out of the political crisis. It didn’t seem like they had much of a choice. Security forces were cracking down brutally on street protests and it had become apparent that the international community had thrown their weight behind ECOWAS, which was fully backed by the African Union.
Following the Conference of Ecowas Heads of States and Governments in Lomé in July, the institution made a series of recommendations including a two-term limit to presidential office, a two-round ballot in presidential elections, the revamping of the Constitutional Court and an adoption of these reforms preferably through the Parliament. It also urged the government to revise the voters’ registry before legislative elections in December.
The communiqué, dubbed the ECOWAS roadmap, has done little to edge Togolese closer to the end of 51 years of single-party rule. If anything, it re-energised the ruling party by failing to condemn the violent repression by the government and address the plight of political prisoners. Gnassingbé appears reassured of the support of his fellow Heads of State and confirmation from ECOWAS that it is not going to take a firm position against the Togolese government’s continuous undermining of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
Response from the C14ECOWAS envoys held follow-up sessions on the roadmap in Lomé in August and September, but could not get the parties to agree on the implementation. The continued detention of opposition activists and the restrictions on public demonstrations are major roadblock.
The C14 has expressed strong reservations about the roadmap, but continues to reluctantly participate in these follow-up sessions. Is this a confession of powerlessness or acceptance of defeat? It is too early to tell.
Togo’s opposition made a gamble to retreat from the street and engage in a negotiation process over which they had little control. Twenty-seven times since 1990, the ruling party has signed agreements with the opposition. And 27 times, they violated them. This latest attempt at an agreement seems like a soft jab at a hardened autocratic system that relies on a mixture of violence, deceit, buyouts and networking to remain in power. The setup and the players have unfortunately become too familiar.
Gnassingbé, on the other hand, appears comfortable with the roadmap. He has initiated an electoral process by appointing new members to the National Electoral Commission, which this week set a date for local elections and a referendum on constitutional reforms on 16 December. Unsurprisingly, no details on the reforms were provided. The regime appears eager to pull off elections quickly, while retaining full control over the mechanisms.
Civil society and the diaspora have started to seek alternatives outside of the C14 as they organise to rebut the roadmap. If such organisation bears fruit, it is likely to present a new serious challenge to Gnassingbé’s rule. Indeed, the protests may have been muzzled but the determination of the people has not.
(Main image: Abdou Razak (C) of Togo demonstrates with others against President Faure Gnassingbé in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza outside the United Nations in New York on 19 September 2017. – Corey Sipkin/AFP/Getty Images)