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Togo President Faure Gnassingbe with other heads of state and government in Berlin. Togo President Faure Gnassingbe, center, with other heads of state and government at the Federal Chancellery in Berlin for the “Compact with Africa” conference, Oct. 30, 2018 (Photo by Annegret Hilse for dpa via AP Images).

The Movement to Oust Togo President Faure Gnassingbe Faces an Uncertain Year

Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019

The Togolese opposition’s decision to boycott recent legislative elections seemed to play into the hands of the ruling party. As Togo President Faure Gnassingbe, whose family has ruled for over five decades, maneuvers to strengthen his position, his challengers’ options appear to be shrinking.

On a Saturday morning last month, opposition activists in Togo did what they’ve been doing with some regularity for the past year and a half: take to the streets to protest the continued rule of the Gnassingbe family, which has held power for just over five decades.

But the turnout was a far cry from the large-scale mobilizations that put their movement on the map in August 2017. Photos showed a relatively small crowd, some on motorbikes and many on foot, making their way to the outskirts of the capital, Lome, for a rally. While Brigitte Kafui Adjamagbo-Johnson, a leading opposition activist and politician, told Radio France Internationale that she was “not at all worried about the fact that today there have not been as many people as usual,” the weak showing raised questions about the opposition’s next steps at a time when its options appear to be shrinking.

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The grievances of Adjamagbo-Johnson and her counterparts are no secret and largely center on the inevitable drawbacks of dynastic rule. The current president, Faure Gnassingbe, took office in 2005 after a disputed election. He succeeded his father, Gnassingbe Eyadema, who had died in office after holding the top job since 1967. Faure Gnassingbe’s ascendance triggered an outbreak of violence that left hundreds dead, and he has done little to bolster his legitimacy since then. From the very beginning, one of the protesters’ animating slogans has been that “50 years is too long.”

At first, the government and the security forces tried to snuff out the movement, shutting down the internet, arresting activists and breaking up protests with lethal force. When the protests persisted, Gnassingbe consented to dialogue and negotiations.

Opposition leaders have been calling for the reinstatement of the 1992 constitution, which would, among other things, bring back a rule that presidents can only serve two five-year terms. The government has indicated it is open to such reforms, but insists that any revival of the presidential term limit, which was eliminated in 2002, would not be retroactive, meaning Gnassingbe could theoretically seek re-election in 2020 and 2025 and stay in office until 2030. The opposition finds this idea unacceptable, and there are no signs that any kind of breakthrough is imminent.

Recent weeks have seen the government maneuver to strengthen its position. In December, it went ahead with legislative elections, despite the fact that the opposition was pushing for reforms to the electoral commission to happen first. Unsurprisingly, tensions spiked considerably in the run-up to the vote. Amnesty International blasted the government’s handling of the situation, documenting the apparent use of live rounds against civilians and describing a new cybersecurity law as consistent with “an intensifying crackdown on the right to freedom of expression.”

A coalition of 14 opposition parties, known as C-14, followed through on their plans to boycott the elections, but this failed to do them much good while simultaneously allowing the ruling party, the Union of the Republic, to claim 59 of 91 seats. As Tyson Roberts, a political scientist at the University of Southern California, explained in this breakdown of the results, the remaining seats went to allies of the ruling party or “minor parties and independents unlikely to constrain the government.”

“Faure is skilled at picking off domestic opponents and at satisfying foreign governments with halfway measures.”

Given that it no longer has a voice in the legislature, what should the opposition do next? Roberts points out that while C-14 was originally formed to compete in elections, it has since announced that it will transition to a kind of “citizen movement” relying on civil disobedience tactics like protests and strikes. “However, success depends on the opposition remaining unified and on support from foreign governments,” Roberts says in an email, warning that meeting these conditions will be difficult. “Faure is skilled at picking off domestic opponents and at satisfying foreign governments with halfway measures.”

Indeed, such “halfway” measures have been a fixture of the latest news out of Togo. The ruling party garnered some positive international press last month by electing a woman, Yawa Djigbodi Tsegan, to lead the National Assembly for the first time. And after last week’s Council of Ministers meeting, the government announced the release of 44 people who had been rounded up “in connection with” anti-government demonstrations.

Gnassingbe’s critics have been dismissive of these gestures. In a piece this week for Vanguard Africa, Wolali K. Ahlijah, a co-founder of the Faure Must Go campaign, suggested that Tsegan’s election was a cynical attempt by the government to get plaudits for “empowering women.” The released prisoners, meanwhile, should never have been detained in the first place, he said, and were “held hostage and used as a bargaining tool by the regime.”

Moreover, to the extent that the government’s stance toward critics is softening at all, this only extends so far. Just two weeks before the prisoner releases were announced, a judge sentenced Folly Satchivi, a 23-year-old student and activist, to two years in prison for crimes including disturbing public order. Satchivi’s lawyer said prosecutors had failed to produce any evidence against him, and Aime Adi, Amnesty’s Togo director, also took issue with the verdict. “Even before the trial, we said in a report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights that Satchivi and other activists in detention needed to be freed,” Adi says in an email. “Their detention is a form of harassment of the activists and human rights defenders in the country.”

Regardless of the skepticism within Togo concerning the significance of the government’s recent conciliatory moves, they could be enough for Gnassingbe to keep international pressure in check. To be sure, that pressure was never all that intense to begin with. Western governments, notably France, the former colonial power, have been reluctant to weigh in on Togo’s crisis. And the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, a regional bloc, has also refrained from taking a forceful position. This is at least partly due to the fact that, in an awkward turn of events, Gnassingbe was serving as ECOWAS chairman when the protests began, a position he relinquished to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari this past July.

Even since Buhari took over, the bloc’s interventions have remained tepid. Its most recent statement, from December, commended the government in Lome for holding legislative elections, expressed regret that the opposition boycotted them, and, remarkably, called on the security forces to “continue to demonstrate professionalism in their mission of maintaining order.”

Roberts, from USC, predicts that, as Togo gears up for local elections this year and the presidential contest in 2020, ECOWAS will continue to tread lightly. This would likely only change if anti-government demonstrations swelled to the point where the state felt compelled to orchestrate another crackdown, and the ensuing violence risked getting out of control. After all, Roberts notes, ECOWAS “has an interest in maintaining stability in its member states.”

That leaves many Togolese in limbo, waiting to see whether, and when, their country’s crisis might escalate again. As Adi from Amnesty put it, “A situation of uncertainty is growing in the country despite a certain lull.”

Robbie Corey-Boulet is the senior editor of World Politics Review.

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