Togo – Trouble for long-tenured President Faure Gnassingbé

President Faure Gnassingbé is facing relentless calls for his departure. The sale of T-shirts with the slogan #Faure Must Go is booming.  Since August, massive waves of protesters in the streets have demanded a return to the 1992 constitution with its two-term limits. Faure is currently serving his third five-year term. He took over as president in 2005 at the death of his father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who came to power in April 1967 through a coup. This year thus marks the 50th anniversary of one family’s rule over Togo.

Togo has become an anomaly in West Africa – the only country where a president is serving more than two terms. Along with The Gambia, Togo voted against a proposal to limit the number of terms presidents can serve across the ECOWAS region, a proposal put forward at a regional summit in 2015. Since then, long-serving autocrat Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia lost reelection in 2016. The coalition that brought his successor Adama Barrow to power has presidential term limits as one of its declared constitutional reform priorities. This would leave Togo as the only country in West Africa without presidential term limits.

Protests against presidential overstay in office have been ongoing for months. At the forefront of the demonstrations taking place in major cities across the country has been the National Panafrican Party (PNP) of Tikpi Atchadam, an opposition party created in 2014. The PNP conducted an active grassroots mobilizing campaign that demonstrated its effectiveness when on August 19  the party organized demonstrations simultaneously in four out of five regions of the country, from north to south, calling for a return to the 1992 constitution and an end to the ruling family dynasty. Thousands of Togolese took to the streets in five cities, including Lomé, Sokodé (the country’s second largest city and Tikpi’s home) and Kara, a traditional bastion of support for the Gnassingbé family (Eyadéma was born nearby). The demonstrations were violently repressed and at least two people were killed in Sokodé. Togolese of the diaspora also demonstrated in New York, Berlin, Libreville and Accra.

This show of force and capacity of mobilization has reinvigorated the Togolese opposition. In contrast to most of the country’s longtime opposition leaders who hail from the southern part of the country, Tikpi is a northerner like Faure and his family. His rise as an influential opposition leader has shattered the traditional north-south divide that has characterized Togolese politics since the 1960s. Worried by his mobilizing power, the government has sought to cast Tikpi as a “radical Muslim.” The August demonstrations led to the creation of a 14-party opposition coalition and further marches in September that drew more than 100,000 Togolese into the streets across the country. Alleging threats on his life, Tikpi has been less visible in recent weeks, leaving the limelight to historical opposition leaders such as Jean-Pierre Fabre (ANC) and Brigitte Adjamagbo-Johnson (CPDA).

The government has responded to the protests with the adoption of a constitutional reform bill that would reintroduce two-term limits – the measure would, however, not be retroactive, meaning that Faure could run again in 2020 and 2025. The opposition boycotted the legislative vote on the bill in September and it failed to muster the required 4/5 majority vote to pass. The ruling party declared it would instead submit the constitutional changes to a referendum, which is yet to take place. As clashes continued in October and led to several hundred Togolese seeking refuge in Ghana, Togo’s neighbors have gotten involved in seeking a solution to the political crisis. At least 16 people have been killed since August, including two soldiers. President Nana Akufo-Addo has been designated by ECOWAS to act as mediator and his representative traveled to Lomé in November in an effort to calm the situation and create conditions for dialogue.  In the same vein, Tikpi, Fabre and Adjamago-Johnson met with African Union President Alpha Condé in Paris on November 21 to discuss modalities for political dialogue with the government.

Regional mediation efforts may be bearing fruit. Faure Gnassingbé has declared that talks could start in “a few weeks.” It remains to be seen whether common ground can be found. The opposition would have reasons to be wary. Faure’s father Eyadéma weathered the 1991 national conference and gradually voided the constraints on presidential power and tenure introduced in the 1992 constitution through a process of “putsch by installments” (Handy 2005, p.48). Similarly, the incumbent president has ably avoided discussion of institutional reforms – notably the return to presidential two-term limits – a discussion mandated by the Accord Politique Global (APG) of 2006. The APG was signed by the ruling and opposition parties following the 2005 post-election violence in which several hundred Togolese died.  The 2010 presidential election was again contested, though demonstrations did not turn as violent. In response, Faure included historical opposition leader Gilchrist Olympio in a power-sharing government, thereby weakening the opposition.

Given the less than stellar family track record in terms of respecting past agreements, the opposition may worry that any measure short of ending the family rule will again be rolled back. The military could come to play a crucial role, as it did in 2005 when it ensured the transition of power from father to son at the death of Eyadéma.  The majority of army officers are from northern Togo, notably from Faure’s home region of Kara. Faure has publicly renewed his confidence in the military and blamed the opposition for the October violence that caused two soldiers’ deaths. On its part, the opposition sent an explicit message to the Togolese security forces on November 18 during its latest round of marches with the reading of a statement declaring “you are our brothers.”

While discussions continue on conditions for initiating political dialogue, the opposition coalition is maintaining pressure and has called for demonstrations again on November 29-30 and December 2.

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