Mass Nationwide Protests Bring Togo to the Brink of Ending 50 Years of Dictatorship

Hundreds of thousands took to the streets of cities across the West African country of Togo on December 8, as part of a recently revived wave of nationwide protests demanding political reforms. At the center of their demands is the reinstatement of the 1992 constitution, which included a two-term limit on the presidency before being stripped away by former president Eyadéma Gnassingbé, father of current president Faure Gnassingbé.

Mass protests first erupted in August 2017, forcing the government into internationally-moderated negotiations, which — in an attempt to resolve the decades-long political crisis — led to the reinstatement of the two-term limit. However, outrage was soon reignited when it was discovered that past presidential terms would not apply, thereby allowing Faure Gnassingbé — already in his third term — to run for president in 2020 as if it were his first time. Negotiations broke down soon after that, leading to the revival of protests last month.

“Nobody is willing to take that in Togo,” said Togolese Civil League executive director Farida Nabourema. “After 51 years of the Gnassingbé, asking us to give them an additional 10 years, starting 2020, is basically asking us to commit suicide. It’s something we cannot let happen, and it’s the reason we are back on the streets.”

After first allowing protests in pre-approved zones, the government outright banned large demonstrations before the December 8 mobilization. When upwards of 500,000 people turned out in Lomé, the capital city, the regime deployed heavy military force, wounding dozens of civilians and killing at least three — including an 11-year-old boy.

A coalition of 14 opposition parties, known as C14, have been one of the major forces driving the protests and what’s known as the Faure Must Go movement. Since negotiations with the government ended last month, they have called for the cancellation of the legislative elections on December 20 and urged their members not to participate. According to movement leaders, the government has been engaging in voter fraud — by enrolling minors, as well as disenfranchising eligible voters through coercive tactics — in preparation for Faure Gnassingbé’s 2020 presidential bid.

While the government’s ban on protest remains intact, the C14 have stated that they will defy this measure and continue to organize demonstrations across the country, culminating in an active boycott on election day, unless their demands are met.

Dictators Seize Power

The military regime of Eyadéma Gnassingbé seized power through a military coup in April 1967, less than a decade after Togo gained its independence from France. Eyadéma then ruled the country for 37 years, exposing the Togolese to a host of human rights atrocities, including the unlawful detention, torture and killing of political dissidents and opposition supporters.

After a decade of “emergency rule” following Eyadéma’s military coup, Togo began its transition toward becoming a republic. Seeing an opportunity to break free from its tyrant and move toward a multi-party democracy, the Togolese people overwhelmingly voted in favor of adopting the 1992 constitution, which included a set of rules to limit presidential power with term limits and fair electoral rules.

Unfortunately, their hope wasn’t realized. During a period of intense crackdown in 2002, Eyadéma weakened the opposition and modified the constitution to allow himself a new term. Along with several other regressive provisions, he also reduced the election to a single round. For a country with over 100 political parties, each presenting its own candidate, a single-round election without primaries was a hugely anti-democratic move — making it possible for a candidate to win the presidency with only a fraction of the popular vote.

Eyadéma died in February 2005, offering a glint of hope to the pro-democracy movement. But, again, hope was only short lived. Eyadéma’s son, Faure Gnassingbé, took over the presidency with the help of the army. Local and international pressure temporarily intervened, forcing Faure to resign and run in a proper election. He subsequently used the support of the army and a rigged electoral system to declare victory and return to the presidency. According to the coalition of opposition parties, at least 500 people died in post-election violence perpetrated by the state.

To resolve the tensions created by these fraudulent elections, Faure engaged in talks with the opposition. In 2007, the two sides entered into an agreement with a set of promises to reform the political system and prevent electoral violence. Some of the provisions of the agreement included a return to the two-round ballot system and the reintroduction of term limits.

“Since 2007, Faure has yet to deliver the promised reforms,” said Wolali Koffi Ahlijah, a member of the Faure Must Go movement.

All attempts to implement the agreement have stalled, and the country of about eight million people still wallows in a cauldron of nepotism, corruption, media and internet censorship, arbitrary arrests and the killing of activists and citizens considered dissidents. In some cases, children were caught in the crossfire. Perhaps not surprisingly, the World Happiness Report has listed Togo as the country with the most unhappy people four times in six years.

The Rise of the Faure Must Go Movement

The first major step toward the formation of a nonviolent resistance movement in Togo was the creation of the Panafrican National Party in 2015. Led by Tikpi Atchadam, it is comprised of members of the Tem ethnic group, a dominant group in the central and northern part of the country — the same region as the Gnassingbé family. Atchadam soon had them join 13 of the other leading opposition parties to form the C14, the Gnassingbé government’s most powerful political adversary.

Momentum continued to grow as civil society groups began to get involved — including Togo Rise Up! Citizens’ Front, which is comprised of unaffiliated political parties, associations and trade unions; the Nubueke movement, which consists of groups whose leaders are mostly in jail or exile; the Coditogo, a group of diaspora organizations; and the Togolese Civil League, the leading civil society group both on the ground and abroad.

Together, with the C14, these groups began mobilizing hundreds of thousands of ordinary Togolese to join weekly street protests in September 2017, leading to the birth of the Faure Must Go movement. Their main tools were social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, as well as blogs and WhatsApp, forcing the government to continually cut off internet service within the country. As a result, organizers turned to more traditional means of communication, like print media, word of mouth and press conferences.

After 10 months of unprecedented numbers marching in the streets of Togo and other cities around the world in weekly protests, Faure Gnassingbé refused to budge. In April 2018, he orchestrated massive and violent repression, including the lockdown of the northern part of the country, the activation of militia cells, the jailing of civil society leaders and many youths, and the restriction of public events.

Instead of asserting the legitimacy of the protests and their demands for democratic reforms, the international and regional communities took a soft approach. They sought a negotiated solution with the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, at the helm. While the majority of the movement’s leaders were against it, they agreed to stop the street protests and allowed the C14 to serve as their representatives.

Following a conference in Lomé in July 2018, a communiqué, dubbed the ECOWAS roadmap, was drawn up. It made a number of recommendations, including a two-term limit to the presidency, a two-round ballot in presidential elections, the revamping of the Constitutional Court and the adoption of all these reforms through parliament. The ECOWAS roadmap also urged the government to revise the voters’ registry before the parliamentary elections on December 20. ECOWAS then held follow-up dialogue sessions on the roadmap in August and September. This dialogue was supposed to result in the return of the 1992 constitution, which would prevent Faure Gnassingbé from running in the 2020 presidential election. Street protests were, again, reluctantly put on hold.

“Halting the protest has had no impact on the demands of the people,” Ahlijah explained at the time. “However, it has projected the impression that the issue is resolved, even though the crisis is still real.”

To movement leaders, the dialogue seemed flawed from the start. For one thing, Faure Gnassingbé was the chairman of ECOWAS. How could they expect him to sanction his own transfer of power? That is why it was no surprise when the government and C14 failed to reach a consensus agreement on the implementation of the constitutional reforms.

“These fantasies of the ECOWAS experts are only the instructions of Faure Gnassingbé,” Farida Nabourema said. “We have been saying for months that this dialogue will not bear fruit, but [regime partisans] have defended the false dialogue that was only intended to weaken the opposition. We cannot let [ECOWAS] trample on the aspirations of the Togolese people, who have been too patient with this regime.”

Despite refraining from street protests, the Faure Must Go movement remained active by keeping the pressure on the political parties to stay the course with their demands.

“We were frustrated that the opposition parties called for the halt of the protests during the dialogue,” Nabourema said. “But experience taught us to continue mobilizing because we expected these dialogues to fail, and they did. So for us, mobilization continued.”

There has not been much downtime for the Faure Must Go movement. Throughout the past few months, it has organized to keep pressure on the political parties to stay on course with the main demands, namely the resignation of Faure Gnassingbé.

According to Ahlijah, it helped that movement leaders — from the beginning — talked openly about the danger of pausing demonstrations. “By voicing these concerns during public forums and on the media, it created the impression that the unity of the opposition depended on the ability of the politicians to remain responsive to the people.”

The movement positioned itself as a watchdog of the politicians during the dialogue, with an overhanging threat to disassociate from the C14 if the politicians gave in to the electoral process organized by the government. This proved to be a strong threat because — according to movement leaders — the opposition parties initially shied away from insisting that Faure resign immediately, instead focusing on negotiating electoral reforms that would lead to parliamentary elections.

Heeding a call to action from the C14 after the stalemate of the talks, street protests resumed on Nov. 17. Mobilizing people proved to be a relatively easy task, as the population remained angry about its demands still not being met.

Next Steps for the Movement

There has always been an unspoken hope that the international and regional communities could be pressured into helping the movement achieve its goal. This is why most of the leaders of the movement have gone out of their way to mobilize international support through conferences, seminars, media and any available platform. Speaking at the Oslo Freedom Forum, Nabourema categorically criticized the French government for supporting the atrocious Faure Gnassingbé regime.

Unfortunately, it seems this strategy will not yield much and the general impression is that international and regional bodies and countries won’t contribute anything substantial to the struggle. As Ahlijah noted, movement leaders have come to see the regional institutions as duplicitous and “doing everything to protect Faure Gnassingbé.”

Another crucial lesson for the movement is the importance of continuing to hold political parties accountable. Without its active oversight, the political parties who have varying interests could easily put aside the interests of the people to seek their own demands. By appointing itself the watchdog of the political parties, the movement has allowed the core issue of Faure’s departure to stay front and center in the dialogue between the opposition and government.

Ultimately, however, the movement realizes its best leverage against the dictatorship remains its ability to mount mass protest, which is why it has resumed street protests in Togo and in the diaspora.

“We hope to encourage more peaceful public protests and civic disobedience and be able to maintain the pressure until the regime falls,” Nabourema said.

But the immediate goal is to get ECOWAS to revise the roadmap and pressure the government into accepting the reforms before the parliamentary elections on December 20. The movement is working hard to train more people in civil resistance and has planned more than two protests every week — both in the country and abroad — between now and the election. Should the government proceed without accepting the reforms, the movement is willing to keep the protests going indefinitely until their goal is achieved.

“For now it will be more and more protests,” Ahlijah said. “Protests have been very effective in pushing the government in the past.”