The latest installment of the Republic of Togo’s on-again off-again political crisis appears to have a little more heft than usual. Over the past several weeks, tensions have escalated between the government and a coalition of opposition parties and activists. Large-scale rallies, marches and gatherings have sprung up in a number of cities around the country. With the internet and cellular technology suspended by the Ministry of Information, signs suggest that this may be blossoming into a serious threat to the half-century-long Eyadéma dynasty.
Several historical markers point provide some context for this simmering tension. The first elected regime of Sylvanus Olympio ignored many issues affecting Togolese beyond those of interest to its southern Ewe ethnic stronghold, and quickly devolved into authoritarianism. Olympio’s government was the first sub-Saharan nation to fall victim to a military coup d’état, and from 1967 the military presidency of Gnassingbé Eyadéma and his in a one-party state under the Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais (RPT) became a loyal western satellite. Under Eyadéma, political dissidence was brutally suppressed; tens of thousands were summarily executed or “disappeared” by rigidly loyal Kabyé ethnic kinsmen and their allies. Many hundreds of thousands fled abroad, creating large exile communities who continue to fund opposition activities. The short-lived democratic multiparty experiment in the early 1990s collapsed in further bloodshed. And after Eyadéma’s son Faure assumed power, he maintained the fiercely faithful ethnic superstructure of the economic and political realms inherited after his father’s death in 2005. He even elevated his father’s chief of security, the notorious brutal torturer Lieutenant Colonel Yark Damehame, to the role of Ministre de la Sécurité.
The current unrest began in mid-August when a new coalition of opposition activists declared a joint national protest action. Unlike previous demonstrations — planned, permitted, spontaneous or otherwise confined to the south and to known opposition strongholds — this particular action involved events in more urban locales, Sokodé, Kara, Bafilé, Anie, and the capital and largest city, Lomé. The new protests explicitly demanded term limits on the presidency and an end to the “Gnassingbé dynasty.” These events quickly overwhelmed the police, who along with pro-government militias used lethal force to disperse demonstrators in Sokodé, with as many as seven or more killed. Police and gendarmes also injured and arrested many others, including Sama Kossi, the secretary general of the relatively marginal opposition Pan African National Party.
Researchers often use Togo’s political history as a template for understanding post-independence African political instability. A north-south tension was coopted by Eyadéma; he appealed to ethnic and clan allegiance in times of crisis, but smoothed it over when national unity was his goal. The ethnic divisions in terms of economic, political, educational, and security apparatuses are palpable. Political power and the security apparatus have long been dominated by the RPT and Eyadéma loyalists; while educational and economic privileges have remained the domain of southerners. And even after the father to son delegation of power resulted in a certain relaxation on the part of the more oppressive paramilitary entities, Fauré’s reshaped RPT, the Union pour la République (UNIR) continues to maintain a stranglehold on government.
The death of protesters is hardly news in Togo. Several were killed in Lomé in February 2017, and a number of others shot dead in Mangu in 2016. Not a single Togolese policeman, soldier, or gendarme has ever been charged with, let alone prosecuted for extrajudicial killing. Amnesty International and other NGOs have long decried the culture of complete impunity that operated under Eyadéma’s dictatorship and continues today under that of Faure. The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial killings, Manfred Nowak, condemned Faure’s utter reluctance to address criminal actions by Togolese government forces; and Togo has admitted it tortures before the UN Human Rights Council. But this particular massacre appears to have dramatically recast the opposition’s platform by thrusting Tikpi Atchadam, President of the Pan African National Party, to national prominence. Whereas until now, Jean-Pierre Fabre, the head of the Alliance Nationale pour le Changement (ANC), was the titular lead of the national coalition opposition, the rise of Atchadam forecloses criticism that this unrest is simply sponsored by the disgruntled southern Ewe community.
A second unusual component of the unrest is the platform of demands. Protesters marching in the streets have long demanded the “démission” of Faure, just as they did his father. But the call for the re-imposition of term limits is a marked departure. Term limits were introduced in Togo during the National Conference in 1991-92, which briefly saw Eyadéma relinquish power, only to violently return in 1994. Eyadéma pretended to adhere to term limits, but then had them stripped from the constitution (by a single supermajority vote in the single-chamber assembly his party controlled with 95% of the seats). When French President Jacques Chirac visited Togo, he extracted a public concession to abide by term limits; Chirac himself was remaking the French constitution, and questions were raised about his own intentions too. So it was no surprise when Eyadéma reneged on his pledge. When his son seized power, he copied the actions and attempted actions of many of his neighbors, such as the former presidents of Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Benin.
Faure is now in the second year of a third term. His UNIR party has drafted a constitutional change re-imposing limits. But it may be a case of too little too late. Faure may find himself emulating Burkina Faso’s presidential transition more closely than he planned, and much earlier than he thought possible.