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Togo bucks the trend of political reform in West Africa

13 September 2017   |   7:19 pm
His family has ruled Togo for more than 50 years but President Faure Gnassingbe has in the last week faced unprecedented public pressure to step down.

Protesters march during an anti-government demonstration led by a coalition of opposition parties on September 7, 2017 in Lome. Huge crowds turned out in Togo’s capital for the second day running to demand political reform, in the largest opposition protests against President Faure Gnassingbe’s regime. The opposition has long demanded the introduction of a two-round voting system and limiting the number of terms for the president.<br />/ AFP PHOTO / PIUS UTOMI EKPEI

His family has ruled Togo for more than 50 years but President Faure Gnassingbe has in the last week faced unprecedented public pressure to step down.

He and his country stand alone in West Africa in resisting calls for constitutional reform, even as parliament begins to look again at the issue.

“Togo is the only ECOWAS country never to have seen any real democratic change,” said political analyst Gilles Yabi, referring to the West African regional bloc.

“The current regime is carrying on the one before it, which was one of the most brutal Africa had ever known,” he told AFP.

“Beyond (constitutional) reform, the Togolese people want real change.”

Faure Gnassingbe took over as Togo’s president in 2005 after the death of his father, Gnassingbe Eyadema, who ruled the French-speaking nation for 38 years with army support.

Bloody riots followed elections that year, which the opposition disputed. Faure was re-elected in 2010 and 2015.

With The Gambia, Togo was the only ECOWAS member to reject a proposal to limit the number of presidential terms across the region, during a summit in Accra in May 2015.

After peaceful changes in power in Benin and Ghana, popular uprisings in Burkina Faso, Togo and The Gambia won them a “bad boy” reputation in a region often cited as an example in a continent where many leaders cling to power.

The fate of Gambian president Yahya Jammeh was sealed in December 2016 after his refusal to recognise defeat at the polls.

ECOWAS sent troops to ensure he left office after 22 years.

In Togo, human rights organisations have criticised cases of torture, arbitrary detention, as well as the muzzling of both the press and the opposition.

But unlike Gambia’s Jammeh, Gnassingbe, who currently holds the rotating presidency of ECOWAS, is not an isolated figure, experts say, noting that he enjoys the support of his counterparts.

‘Radio silence’
Last Wednesday, Marcel de Souza, president of the ECOWAS commission, made an unannounced visit to Lome to meet the opposition as protesters demanded Gnassingbe’s resignation.

Apart from a handful of former heads of state, such as Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo and Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings, who backed Togo’s people, West Africa has been largely silent over the protests.

“We shouldn’t expect any strong reaction,” said Yabi.

“Like France and the European Union, they are partners that value stability above everything.”

Comi Toulabor, head of research at the Institute of Political Studies in Bordeaux, described the lack of reaction as “radio silence”.

Togo’s neighbours “close their eyes because, for many of them, security problems and the terrorist risk have become more important than everything else”, he added.

Toulabor said Togo’s regime had this time bowed to pressure by allowing last week’s protests to take place.

In 2005, the authorities cracked down on dissent, leaving at least 500 dead following a wave of post-election violence, UN figures show.

Wooing his detractors
Gnassingbe has also made apparent overtures to his detractors by proposing a bill to limit the number of presidential mandates to two five-year terms and introduce two-round voting.

As such, he was “trying to make people forget the barely democratic nature of his regime and show himself to be very active on the international diplomatic front”, said Yabi.

The country has hosted a number of international summits, such as the African Union meeting on maritime security in October 2016.

Last month it held the annual African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) forum and had been due to host the Africa-Israel summit in October before it was postponed this week.

Lome, with its deep-water port and new international airport, wants to become a regional hub and is wooing foreign investors.

Economic growth is at 5.0 percent a year and the country has long been calm, despite high unemployment among young people and widespread poverty.

Former colonial power France has made no comment since the start of the protests.

Asked about the events, a foreign ministry spokesman said only that France had “followed the events of recent weeks closely”.

“France calls for responsibility and consensus to begin constitutional change”.

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