Togo seems to be next in line, after Burkina Faso and Mali, to flare up in violence and instability, albeit so far on a limited scale. Old conflicts relating to the political legitimacy of power holders, and perennial questions over the establishment of fairer democratic institutions, have led to vociferous demonstrations in Lomé, the capital and, particularly, in the Quartier de Bé, a known hotbed of trouble-making for the regime, as it houses not only some of the poorer strata of the population, but also religious leaders, students, and other political activists and opinion makers. The Quartier de Bê often acts as a barometer of political tension. Violent clashes between thousands of pro-democracy advocates and security forces took place last week-end. The protests were very efficiently and quickly quietened through the use of force. Riot police intervened to squash what could herald the beginning of renewed long-term political unrest.
The protests in Togo have been directly inspired and influenced by recent events in neighbouring Burkina Faso, where street protests and demonstrations called on the demise of President Blaise Campaore. The wave of discontent in Burkina finds its source in Campaore’s refusal to step down, turning the presidency (officially an elected position) into a de facto dictatorship, or a fiefdom resembling a kingdom of old, without the safeguard of adjoining and complementary institutions. In Burkina, citizens’ protests resulted in the successful demise of its president, and his fleeing the field to seek refuge elsewhere. At the core of the street movements in Burkina has been an association created on the go, labelling itself le Balai Citoyen (the Citizen’s Broom), alluding to the task of grassroot movements to sweep the political landscape from littering debris and whisk into place a new, legitimate and untainted democratic order. (see previous posts on this blog by Lanzano, Hagberg and Bjarnesen).
Conflict in Togo has been looming for a long time. The previous president, Gnassingbe Eyadema, remained in power for the illustrious period of 38 years, making him the longest-sitting president in Africa’s history. He managed to cling to power come what may, surviving military coups and assassination attempts, and managing to foil demands at democratisation time and again, and holding firm when pro-democracy movements erupted in demonstrations and protests in the early nineties, inspired by similar movements in neighbouring Benin, Gabon, and then Zaire. Thus in the early 1990s, Eyadema succeeded, through a combination of masterful rhetorical politics and the knowledgeable usage of his iron-hand tactics, in undermining credible, burgeoning but fragile attempts at democratisation. The old adage of “divide and rule” was soon proven again to be both methodologically efficient and ideologically convincing. The use of military force, torture and coercion were also part of his arsenal of means of dissuasion. Hundreds of political opponents either disappeared or were brutally murdered, prompting the EU to suspend its aid to Togo in 1998. Corpses were said to have been dumped in the sea, washing up on the shore by the dozen shortly afterwards. Neighbouring Ghana acted as a haven for political refugees, helping with the setting up of camps as temporary shelter for opponents fleeing oppression. Thus the plethora of protests against Eyadema the elder’s one-man self-proclaimed de facto dictatorship, ranging from political parties in opposition to human rights groups demonstrating for the holding of fair elections, and student movements taking to the streets with similar demands, were all either undermined and swallowed up into the folds of power, or brutally put down and quietened by force. In the end, and in light of these rather destabilising turns, Eyadema the elder appeared as the only viable democratic force capable of ruling such a seemingly politically divided and unstable nation. Elections were proclaimed, which he won, again and again: he appeared as the saviour rather than the root cause of the problem; the benevolent patriarch rather than the ruthless dictator. His magical use of rhetoric can only be described as masterful. Yet, he continued to rule, until his death in 2005, over an increasingly divided and disillusioned country. Togo’s economy took a dive for the worse, political discouragement became even more entrenched, and the will that had been mastered to orchestrate the burgeoning pro-democracy movement waned into a barely audible murmur on the political scene.
It is against this background that the current political situation needs to be examined. Resentment has festered for a long time, as has the desire for change and a transition to a democratically elected leadership. Yet, upon Gnassingbe Eyadema’s passing in 2005, his son Faure Gnassingbe took over the leadership of his father’s political party and, soon afterwards, the presidency of the country pending the promise of democratic elections. The time lapse enabled Faure Gnassingbe to canvas and tie the political elite to his cause, and undermined, yet again, the efforts of opposition parties to garner enough support for a viable electoral campaign. Elections were held later in 2005, which Faure won, soon decried by international and local observers as having been anything but fair and democratic. Yet Faure Gnassingbe seems to have inherited more than the country that he considers to be his birthright: his underhand tactics appear to be as efficient as his late father’s, and he succeeded in “winning” even the following elections of 2010, this time again against a background of electoral fraud. The fact remains, nevertheless, that political opposition remains deeply divided and undermined, and finds it difficult to gain ground in such unpropitious and manipulated terrain.
Based on the French political system (Togo was a French colony taken over from Germany after World War I, and remained so until its independence in 1964), presidential elections are expected to take place every five years. This means, quite simply, that the next elections are due to be held next year, in 2015. Opposition parties, independent intellectual elites, and a large number of the “commercants”, the traders who constitute such an important part of the population of the capital in particular, have been calling for ground-breaking political reforms, among them changes to the constitution limiting the number of presidential terms to two consecutives periods only, a complete overhaul of electoral procedures (starting with local elections, then regional ones and finally culminating in presidential ones. The current order is reversed, giving the president the right of say over all political processes), greater freedom of speech, increased powers to unions and other associative organisations, and a review of processes of democratisation and the institutions to support this. The current constitution places no limits on the accumulation of consecutive presidential mandates. Faure Gnassingbe has been busy garnering support in order to enable him to be eligible for a third term in office. This has been decried by the opposition.
Thus it is that the Balai Citoyen in Burkina has inspired local activists in Togo. This street movement is led here by Claude Ameganvi, who launched the official start of a petition calling for a return to the reviewed constitution of 1992, when pro-democracy reforms had been introduced and temporarily curbed the powers of the presidency. The battle had been long-drawn and difficult, leading to human rights abuses and the assassination of one its leading proponents, Tavio Ayawo Amorin, leader of the Pan-African Socialist Party and chiefly instrumental in calling for these constitutional reforms. He was shot by armed and masked gunmen in broad daylight in the streets of the capital, and has now become an inspirational torch bearer for the Balai Citoyen, who launched its campaign on his tomb. The demonstrations and protests that had followed his death in 1992 led to further use of force by the regime, resulting in the deaths of some 300 Togolese citizens. The constitutional changes implemented in 1992 were later overturned by Eyadema senior in 2002.
The launch of Balai Citoyen Togo on November 20 is not fortuitous, as it commemorates the birth date of Tavio Amorin while also paying tribute to another innocent victim of the then leader’s insatiable appetite for power: it is claimed that a young man (whose first name was Innocent) was sacrificed on this day in 2002 in order to appease spiritual forces and secure the recovery of the ailing Eyadema Senior, said to have been suffering the ravages of throat cancer. The symbolic coincidence of these two deaths, both highlighting the excesses of a political leadership bent on holding on to power come what may, has become a pivot for the Balai Citoyen Togo, whose aim it is to assemble between 500.000 and one million signatures across the country.
The last word has certainly not been said.
Dr. Nadia Lovell is the author of Locality and Belonging (Routledge) and Cord of Blood: Possession and the Making of Voodoo (Pluto Press), and a number of articles on migrations, ethnicity, youth and politics in Togo.