#TogoDebout: Demonstrations Against President Gnassingbé Continue Despite International Indifference

Screen capture from Bill Emile Davolk's #TogoDebout video on YouTube

After the large demonstrations against President Faure Gnassingbé in August and September 2017, thousands of Togolese have once again rallied in the streets in December. The mobilization is in response to an appeal from a coalition of 40 opposition parties demanding that the president step down because his third term is a violation to the 1992 constitution.

Faure Gnassingbé has been in power in Togo since 2005 when he succeeded his father Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who was president from 1967 to 2005. Gnassingbé Eyadéma's regime was subject to a boycott by human rights organizations due to the execution of hundreds of people after the announcement of the 1998 election results.

Although his son is not accused of the same exactions, the recent repressions by armed militia against protesters are reason for concern for observers of Togolese politics.

The rising tension in Togo goes back to mid-August when a new coalition of opposition groups called a joint national protest action against Gnassingbé. Demonstrations demanded the curtailment of the president's mandate power — in effect, an end to the “Gnassingbé dynasty”.

These events rapidly overtook the police who, alongside pro-government militias, used violent methods to disperse the demonstrators, causing the death of several people — most notably in the city of Sokodé.

Many Togolese activists are seeking to alert the international community about the situation in Togo. Among them is Farida Nabourema, a Togolese human rights activist who publishes frequent updates on the situation in Togo. Nabourema posted the following messages on Twitter:

In order better to understand the context of this persistent crisis in Togo, Global Voices interviewed Sylvio Combey, a Togo journalist, and Yawa Degboe, a Togo-born former media analyst.

Global Voices (GV): The demonstrations in Togo began back in August 2017. In your opinion, what are the underlying causes of this anger?

Yawa Degboe (YD): Togo's three bordering countries (Ghana, Benin and Burkina Faso) have all experienced political transitions in recent years.  The wind has changed direction in the region, but it has yet to blow Togo's way.  However, it's not been for a lack of trying.  Many people have died over the years to defend democratic ideals and to demand a transfer of power but nothing has come of it. I sincerely think the decision of Kenya's Supreme Court last August to seek a second Presidential vote over irregularities in the electoral process, gave fresh breath and hope to the current movement in Togo. The accumulation of power in the hands of a single political family has huge and devastating impacts in terms of the distribution of wealth across the population. These are, for me, the underlying reasons for the anger of the Togo population.

Sylvio Combey (SC): In reality, the demonstrations did not begin in August 2017, but long before. On the other hand, they escalated and took on prominence in August with the National Pan-African Party's appeal. The deep causes are connected with problems of governance. Togo has been governed by a single family since 1967. The late Gnassingbé Eyadéma saw out 38 years in power and his son has now seen 12 years in power. That should require the current president to leave power. That's the main sticking point now.

GV: The crisis has been going on for several months. How is this situation experienced by the people of Togo? Have there been reprisals by the forces of order? And is there a fear that the demonstrations will degenerate?

YD: There are scenes of violence in the streets; by militiamen and by soldiers, under who knows whose orders. Lots of information is circulating on WhatsApp or social networks. There, you can see injured, dead, members of the militia chasing demonstrators on the street.  But in the age of ‘Fake News’ and disinformation, I'm standing as far back as I can from all this. The diaspora receives information from the few media sources which carry African or related news stories.  We all need to sift through and identify for ourselves which information sources are trustworthy. All I know is, at this moment in time, people in Togo are suffering amidst general indifference and have been doing so for too long.

SC: For years now the situation in the country has been hard for the Togolese to take in. The demonstrations of 19 August were forcibly put down, with many injured as a result. And then, many demonstrators have been imprisoned and only released after multiple mediation attempts by civil bodies and foreign embassies. In November 2017, militias (called by the Government ‘self-defence committees’) were mandated to carry out reprisals against the demonstrators. The escalation of violence has been invoked by the Government to suspend the right to demonstrate, but that has fuelled the opposition's anger.  Intense mediation became necessary under the auspices of the embassies of Ghana, Guinea and other countries before the demonstrations could start up again and prevent another unleashing of violence.

GV: Has there been an economic or social impact on the functioning of the country?

YD: In the context of the economic situation of the country, the majority of those demonstrating are part of the informal economy, unemployed or students.  An employee will not take a day — or a few hours — to go and demonstrate, because they can't guarantee the post which enables them to feed their families and meet their basic needs will still be waiting for them on their return. So firms are working, certain things are being made, but the economy is slowing down.

SC: The current crisis has had a sharp economic and social effect. Traffic is forced to slow down during demonstrations, which has an impact on the activities of taxis, public transport, and trade in general.  Tradespeople in the town centres are also subject to a slowdown in their activities.

GV: Does the constitution set out any terms for the selection of candidates at the next elections?

SC: There are no limitations in the constitution as it stands. The constitution has been modified on several occasions. The one which was voted for by the majority of Togolese in 1992 was amended by a national assembly which was in favour of the then-President. The demonstrations want to return to the 1992 version which rules that no one can serve more than two terms.

YD: Quite honestly, I don't know what the constitution says anymore. It's been changed, abused or reinterpreted so many times that I don't trust it anymore. The Togolese people must create their own rules.

GV: In your opinion, what are the possible outcomes of this crisis?

YD: There are two possible scenarios: the status quo or change. In 2005, after the death of President Gnassingbé Eyadéma, the current President's father, there were numerous demonstrations by people from Togo to demand a political change. Nothing came of them. The status quo won and the son succeeded the father. After the fall of the former President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso, I had the good fortune to interview Ambassador Charles R Sith who was running the old African Presidential Center at Boston University. When I questioned him on the political transitions in West Africa, he said “power is a seducer and once you're in its embrace, it's difficult to turn your head aside. It is very hard to stay in power more than 8 to 10 years and still have something to contribute”. The status quo is very tempting but we are at a point where Togo needs change. Change can take on several forms. The different political transitions in Ghana, Benin, Burkina Faso, Kenya, or most recently in Zimbabwe, show us various models. It's up to the power in place to decide which path it will choose to follow.

SC: It must come to dialogue, but a real, constructive dialogue. Many attempts at dialogue have drawn a blank in the end because no agreement has been respected. An agreement, signed by all parties, must be reached with a Government recommendation for its implementation.

GV: Which single public misconception about the Togo situation would you most like cleared up?

YD: People are dying and suffering and it's been going on, not only since August, but for years.  When I go back to my country, I can see with my own eyes the deterioration of the economic situation of the population, and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. I don't need economic statistics to do that. And that hurts, because on paper, Togo has every opportunity to prosper. It's a country with considerable wealth across only 57,000 km2 and 7.6 million inhabitants. In my parents’ time, Togo was known as the “Switzerland of Africa”. My generation has never known that time. In spite of it all, the Togolese population is quite resilient, and religious on the whole. An ironic phrase has been doing the rounds in recent weeks since the fall of Mugabe in Zimbabwe: “We pray for Togo, and God answers in Zimbabwe”.

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