Togo: Unlocking the gate to political succession
Protests have erupted over constitutional reforms and the Gnassingbé family dynasty. Will the people of Togo finally get the change they’ve long been demanding?
he Gnassingbé family have ruled Togo since 1967 when Eyadema Gnassingbé seized power amid political conflicts between rival parties. A sergeant of the Togolese army and former soldier in the French colonial army, Eyadema’s ascent to power began in 1963, when he led a military coup against the first president of the newly independent Republic of Togo, Sylvanus Olympio, who was killed in the attack. A civilian government, put in place after the coup, failed to stabilise the country. This eventually led to the intervention of the army, who installed Eyadema into power.
Thus, the roots of political crisis in Togo run deep and are intimately interwoven with Eyadema. The patriarch of the Gnassingbé family managed to rule the country for 38 years, surviving multiple uprisings and challenges to his power and staging his own succession to ensure his family had full control of the country.
When Eyadema succumbed to a heart attack in 2005, the Togolese army, which has been the pillar of his systems, appointed his son Faure Gnassingbé as president – an act that was in violation of the constitution.
Despite regional and international outcry, President Faure Gnassingbé has held on to that power through elections in 2005, 2010 and 2015. These elections, by most credible accounts, were deemed unfair due to the fact that Faure’s government has tailored rules that favour his own party over the opposition. Now in power for 12 years, he has been instrumental in shaping the 50 years of absolute Gnassingbé domination over the Republic of Togo, much to the dismay of his critics.
"If history is a good omen, this is a decisive moment for Togo."
A West African exception
Togo is the poster child for the complexities of political succession in Africa. While most countries have seen some form of political change through elections, coups or even war, Togo remains an exception. Its situation is highlighted by the fact that every other country in the region has changed its head of state over the past decade. With the recent demise of the Jammeh regime in Gambia, Togo has truly become an outlier in political terms in West Africa – and the current leaders of Togo seem quite comfortable with this.
This peculiar situation was not created by chance. Rather, it is the result of years of deliberate actions by the late Eyadema, his party and his army to systematically neutralise any effort to surrender power to the people of Togo.
First there is the repressive nature of the regime: countless political assassinations, the imprisonment of opponents and the exile of most dissidents. Then there is soft coercion through corruption: buying out renegade members of the opposition and appointing them to favourable positions to dampen their criticism. Finally, there is the intentional crafting of rules, policies and laws as well as key political appointments to ensure Faure remains in power. In other words, the Gnassingbé leaders have clothed a hardcore dictatorship with democratic outfits to create the appearance of rule of law.
This last strategy is at the heart of the political contention since Faure became president in 2005. To understand it better, one must go further back in time to 1992, 2002 and 2006.
1992. After strong popular mobilisation against Eyadema, a transitional body drafted a new constitution to usher in democracy in Togo. The text was adopted by more than 98% of the voters with a participation rate of over 74%. The highlights of this constitution included only allowing citizens aged 45 or older to run as presidential candidates; limiting presidential tenures to two five-year terms (no one was allowed to ever serve more than two terms); requiring two rounds of elections; and creating an independent electoral commission.
2002. The infatuation with democracy did not survive the push-back from Eyadema and by 2002 he regained full control of the country. His party and allies were the only ones represented in parliament as the rest of the opposition boycotted all actions of the government. With no legislative opposition, Eyadema’s party modified the constitution to remove the term limits (Eyadema’s second term was ending in 2003); decrease the age from which candidates could run for president to 35 (Faure was 35 at the time); and reduce the election to a single round (the 1998 runoff between Eyadema and Gilchrist Olympio – the son of the first president – was a victory for the opposition, according to some observers). To cap it all off, Eyadema made several political appointments of loyalists to the judiciary and the “independent” electoral commission.
2006. A year after Eyadema died in the middle of his third elected term, Faure, who was clinging to power, signed a comprehensive political agreement with the opposition. It stated that political reforms should be instituted in order to prevent future electoral violence. In spite of his promises, which included reinstating a two-round ballot and term limits, the president has stalled progress and has displayed no intent to make a change.
In March 2017, the ruling party, the Union for the Republic (UNIR), introduced a bill requesting a referendum on the issue. Its proposal required that any outcome would not be retroactive, hence securing Faure’s eligibility for two more terms. However, the bill failed to gain traction and was never put to a vote despite UNIR's majority in parliament (62 out of 91 seats).
The people rise up
This led to the events of 19 August 2017 when scores of protesters flooded the major cities in Togo to demand the reinstatement of the first version of the 1992 constitution. The protesters heeded the call of the newly formed Pan-African National Party, which broke away from the traditional opposition after acknowledging that the gridlock was propelling the country towards electoral violence.
Internal division and an absence of a coherent strategy among opposition parties are to blame for the lack of success in instituting the needed reforms.
However, the energy and scale of these protests have galvanised opposition forces, who were almost lethargic and mostly compliant with the status quo in the past, into action. The excessive use of force by security forces, which has claimed at least two lives, has also been a rallying cry for them.
They now appear more unified than they have been in decades. If history is a good omen, this is a decisive moment for Togo. All the previous steps toward democracy – including the constitution of 1992 and the end of single-party rule – have been possible because of a unified opposition.
To date, there has been a muted response from the regional and international community on the recent protests, either out of neglect or skepticism of its effectiveness. However, the people of Togo are intent on change and wide demonstrations are planned for the coming weeks.
(Main image: Getty/AFP/Patrick Kovarik)