Opinion: Why we must all be concerned about Togo

by Akin Rotimi

Taking into account that having experienced conflict in the recent past is a good predictor for future conflict (Collier et al., 2008), Togo is at risk of the crisis escalating into violence particularly since the factors that incubated the post-election violence of 2005 are still very rife.

President Faure Gnassingbé was just a year old infant when his father Gnassingbé Eyadema seized power and became the President of Togo in 1967. He grew up as the privileged son of the President, educated at top rated schools at home and abroad. His father Gnassingbé Eyadéma reigned as president for 38 years until his death in 2005 aboard a presidential jet as he was being evacuated for emergency medical attention. At the time of his death, he was the longest serving African president.

Before Gnassingbé Eyadéma died, he had orchestrated his son to succeed him as leader of the former French colony. Asides appointing him as Minister of Equipment, Mines, Posts, and Telecommunications, he tinkered with the constitutional age limit for ascension to the presidency from 45 years to 35 years to pave way for his young son. Upon the senior Gnassingbé’s demise, Faure Gnassingbé was sworn in as acting President to “ensure stability” even though the constitution prescribed that the President of the National Assembly, Fambaré Ouattara Natchaba should step in till elections are held within 60 days. At the time, Natchaba was out of the country and refused to return for fear of being assassinated. Faure Gnassingbé capitalized on this vacuum and got himself elected as the president of the national assembly in a dramatic attempt to legitimize his consequential swearing in as president.

The unlawful takeover of power by Faure Gnassingbé was condemned by continental and regional bodies and the international community, with the African Union denouncing it as a military coup and suspending Togo’s membership. Nigeria took the lead in intervening in the impasse and steering the country away from conflict. Then President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo summoned Faure Gnassingbé to Abuja and obtained his commitment to “step aside” and allow the highest ranking official in the national assembly to take over power pending the outcome of a presidential election. The legitimate head of the national assembly Natchaba was not encouraged to return and in his stead Abass Bonfoh was elected president of the national assembly and thus sworn in as Interim President of the country with the immediate task of conducting elections.

In the election which held on April 24, 2005, according to official results, Faure Gnassingbé won with over 60% of the votes. International observers including the EU and the Carter Center considered the election significantly flawed. Mass protests by the coalition of opposition parties led to a crackdown by security forces that resulted in fatalities numbering over 1,000 and displacement of over 40,000 Togolese across borders into neighbouring West African countries. Faure Gnassingbé was sworn in as president for a five-year tenure on May 4, 2005.

Faure Gnassingbé has ruled the country since then, renewing his mandate in 2010 and recently winning re-election for a third term in office on April 25, 2015. Taffa Tabiou, the country’s electoral commission chairman announced late Tuesday night that Gnassingbé won the election with about 59% of the votes. The main opposition candidate Jean Pierre Fabre has rejected the results saying he considers himself to be president-elect. He further used very strong terms to express his dissatisfaction with the results inciting his supporters to protest against the outcome which he referred to as a “take over and a crime against national sovereignty”.

Amidst rising tensions in the francophone country, the Acting Chairman of ECOWAS and President of Ghana, Mr. John Dramani Mahama of Ghana and his counterpart from the Ivory Coast, President Alassane Ouattara, have visited Togo in attempts to mediate and stem the escalation of the crisis and prevent the type of post-election violence that characterized the election in 2005. Before the election, President Mahama had influenced its postponement by 10 days from the initially scheduled April 15, 2015, to allow for the opposition’s claims that the electoral roll had “serious anomalies” to be addressed.

The outcome of the election in Togo which has further entrenched the Gnassingbé family’s about half a century old dynasty is a less than salutary commentary about the culture of totalitarianism and the stifling of democratization in the country with a population estimated at 7 million. It is noteworthy that since 1967, 48 years ago, the brief interregnum of a little over two months between February 25, 2005 – May 4, 2005 was the only period that someone outside the Gnassingbé family ruled Togo. President Faure Gnassingbé’s participation in the election after 10 years in office thus goes against the democratic spirit and pushes to the fore the debate about term limits. Attempts to introduce term limits have been blocked in the legislature, where the incumbent’s party has a majority. Togo is one of two countries in the West African sub-region without constitutional term limits for the President, the other being The Gambia.

Taking into account that having experienced conflict in the recent past is a good predictor for future conflict (Collier et al., 2008), Togo is at risk of the crisis escalating into violence particularly since the factors that incubated the post-election violence of 2005 are still very rife. The electoral umpire and security agencies are not considered sufficiently impartial and institutions have not been adequately strengthened to cope with the underlying grievances including the need for justice and the addressing of mistrust among ethnic groups. A disputed election outcome at this time opens up old wounds and international experience has shown that in situations where (ethnic) groups distrust each other and are afraid of being victimized, this fear might drive them to resort to violence first in a preemptive move to minimize damage (Bardhan, 1997).

We hope for the sake of its citizens and regional stability, Togo is able to sustain the peace and dodge this bullet. However, as it appears President Faure Gnassingbé is up for another 5 years in office, Civil Society and the Development sectors should know in what direction to concentrate their efforts going forward, as the president seems poised to consolidate his grip on the country’s leadership and surpass the number of years his father spent as President. Togo has to democratize, and only strengthened institutions, an empowered civil society and a free opposition can moderate the incumbent’s stranglehold on state power.

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Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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