On the morning of October 18th, I woke up to a message from a friend in Togo, West Africa: “Hello, Liza. For the past three days, the situation has not been going well in Togo following the removal of an opposition leader by the army in Sokode, a provincial capital in the North. Many deaths on both sides: civilian and the army.” Accompanying the text was an image of at least seven bodies inside the back of a van, some dressed in military fatigues and others with civilian clothes. He said the photo was sent to him by a friend who lives in Sokode.
My reaction was of shock and fear of what could unfold and how my Togolese friends may be affected. During my years as a Peace Corps volunteer (2000-2002) and then subsequently as a doctoral researcher in anthropology, my impression of the populace’s tolerance of country’s repressive regime was rooted in a desire to avoid bloody conflict at all costs – “better the devil you know than the one you don’t.” Given the decades of authoritarian dictatorship under Eyadema (1967-2005) and then his son Gnassingbe (2005 to present day), getting to a tolerance saturation point was inevitable. And perhaps 2017 as the marker of the family’s fifty years in power was the necessary trigger for widespread protest.
Immediately after getting the What’s App message, I went online and read the international news coverage. What I found was a markedly different story than represented by social media. On Agence France Press, Reuters or the New York Times, I saw images far more benign than the twitter posts from #FaureMustGo or #TogoDebout. Over the coming days, I continued to get a daily flow of images, audio clips and videos of dead bodies, some being evacuated on motorcycle, some being prepared for funeral, as well as images of burned out buildings and broken cars, as evidence of the government’s brutality. One of the more disturbing messages I received was of the possibility for an impending genocide with government back militias allegedly distributing arms to the ruling Kabye ethnic group with the purpose of attacking the Kotokoli to the South.
These social media posts are in response to recent anti-government protests and the subsequent backlash of violence that ensued after an estimated 100,000 Togolese (according to Amnesty International) took to the streets, calling for a reversion back to the 1992 constitutional provision of presidential limits to two terms of five years each. The flashpoint for heightened tension was the killing of two soldiers and a civilian following the arrest of a prominent opposition supporter, Imam Alpha Alhassane. Not only did the major news outlets publish more tempered images, their casualty numbers also differed than what was circulating on social media, with their counts mirroring the official line articulated by the Security Minister Yark Demehane, a man who was formerly head of security for the former president, Gnassingbe Eyadema, and notorious for his brutality.
In an attempt to get to the veracity of these twitter posts and What’s App chains, I looked for other sources of information. During my Facebook correspondence with American volunteers living in Togo, I learned that their consensus was that the incidents were largely contained after the October 16th arrest of Alhassane. These testimonies were convincing, as was the corroboration of another Togolese living in Europe who thought many of the social media photos came from the 2013 conflict in Mali.
He stated he had received these same images the year prior and had noticed that the landscape and license plates were Malian.
While the discrepancy is logically due to the fact that the professional news organizations are bound to print the truth and must exercise caution whereas lay persons on Twitter do not have the same consequences for posting “fake news”, there are other factors that may explain the difference, such as the bias of government informants or the dearth of reporters present in the country. And interspersed with controversial posts are invaluable viewpoints from the people unencumbered by the barriers of language, ethnicity or compassion fatigue from documenting the events unfolding in their conflict.
In a country repressed by fifty years of a one-family dynasty, denied opportunities for open political debate and freedom of the press, what weight do these graphic images and descriptions play in the imagination of Togolese? How much are we in the dark with what is going on?
These posts also serve as a means for Togolese citizens to respond to mainstream news stories. One friend posted on What’s App the full transcript of Imam Alhassane’s sermon and transcribed into French to show that Alhassane was not inciting violence against soldiers or calling for a Boko Haram, instead he was providing an interpretation Allah’s great power over his followers. Or the postings of Lome residents videotaping their homes after soldiers’ searchers or capturing images of burned-out buildings allegedly set afire by government backed militiamen dubbed “pickup boys” because of the trucks they ride on by Twitter posters.
This current conflict unfolds in uncharted territory for the Togolese given the widespread adaptation of cellphones, allowing for a democratization of the production and circulation of stories, images and perspectives. But what’s true and what’s fiction must be sorted out. Could technology be leveraged to open up that possibility? For example, is it possible to collect metadata from cellphones linking the image to a GPS coordinate and time to lend veracity to the photos and testimonies captured by Togolese citizens? Could this call for delving into the medium of “fake news” provide more tools to those who have the greatest at stake to do the necessary work of human rights documentation? Regardless of who wins or loses, the violence must be documented, if only to check the Gnassingbe regime’s unwavering grip on power.