“Enough is enough,” say protesters in Togo, complaining that the country has been led by the Gnassingbe dynasty for 50 years and it is time the nation had a new leader.
Togo is the only country in West Africa to have never had a democratic change in government or even term limits for its leaders.
A 14-party opposition coalition – Combat pour l’alternance politique (CAP) – has launched at least seven demonstrations attracting around 100,000 people since August, gaining increasing traction for calls for President Faure Gnassingbe to step down.
The demonstrations are part of an apparent trend towards regime change in West Africa. Burkina Faso overthrew its president of 27 years in a popular uprising in 2014, while Gambia changed leaders following elections in late 2016, which eventually forced long-term incumbent Yahya Jammeh to stand down.
Facing unprecedented pressure from the streets, Togo’s government has taken some steps to avoid facing the same fate. In September, it held a vote in parliament to change the constitution to limit presidents to a maximum of two five-year terms and introduce a two-round voting system.
The opposition boycotted the vote, saying the move was insufficient as the law would not be retrospective, potentially allowing Gnassingbe to remain in power for two further terms, until 2030. A referendum is now due to be held before the end of the year to vote on this change to the constitution, but the opposition coalition says protests will continue until the president stands down.
MILITARY COUP UNLIKELY
Togo has been here before. Significant protests took place in 2005 after Faure’s father, Eyadema, died and Faure won the subsequent election, raising prescient fears that the family would continue to rule Togo for years to come.
Faure Gnassingbe won elections again in 2010 and 2015 amid widespread controversy and allegations of vote rigging from the opposition, which sparked waves of anti-government demonstrations.
Lome has since clamped down on opposition activity. Protesters have accused security forces of targeting their houses with tear gas and said the crackdown has led to the deaths of at least three demonstrators in the latest round of unrest.
The Gnassingbe dynasty is well positioned to prevent unrest from escalating, as it did in Burkina Faso and Gambia. Both Faure and his father have surrounded themselves and packed the military with men from their own Kabye ethnic group.
The Kabye are a minority grouping and have disproportionate levels of power under the Gnassingbe government, making the possibility of a military-backed overthrow of the government unlikely.
Gnassingbe is also widely supported by the international community. There is no real backing from the Economical Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a 15-member regional group, for his overthrow, as there was in Gambia. Indeed, ECOWAS has supported the Togolese government’s constitutional referendum plans, to the dismay of the opposition.
Gnassingbe currently holds the rotating chairmanship of the group, further reducing the possibility that the organisation will get behind a move to oust him.
FEELING THE PRESSURE
Still, there are some signs that this time is different for Togo. More protesters than ever before have taken to the streets to demonstrate against Gnassingbe’s rule. Protests have uncharacteristically begun to take place in northern towns – a traditional stronghold of the government – in cities as far from Lome as Sokode, Bafilo and Dapaong.
This could be a result of the invigoration of the opposition by Tikpi Atchadam, the leader of the Pan African National Party, who has joined forces with traditional opposition leader Jean Pierre-Fabre of the National Alliance for Change. Atchadam comes from the north of Togo and has been able to rally support for protests among those who have typically remained faithful to Gnassingbe.
But this joint approach may not last. There are rumours that Atchadam is seeking a more hard-line approach, while Fabre is increasingly considering dialogue with the government. This might make continued pressure on Gnassingbe harder to maintain.
One thing is for sure, though – Gnassingbe is feeling the pressure. The opposition coalition announced this week that it would hold further demonstrations on October 18, sparking an announcement from the government that weekday demonstrations were prohibited.
The government said such protests posed a threat to public order, although it is more likely they feared an existential challenge posed by the increasing popularity of street demonstrations.