Thousands of protesters have flooded the streets in the West African state of Togo, demanding change in what is a crucial test for the regime of President Faure Gnassingbé. Proposed reforms to the constitution, ostensibly designed to restrict the ability of any one person to cling to power for too long, have catalysed a protest movement calling for an end to the Gnassingbé family’s 50 year grip on power. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), regarded in favourable terms by the international community over their recent resolution of the presidential crisis in The Gambia, is conspicuous by its silence as Togo’s people agitate for change.

A fifty year dynasty

Ongoing since the start of September, organisers claim that at times over 100,000 people are out protesting. On 30 September opposition activists called for new protests to keep up pressure on the president. Faure Gnassingbé has been in power for 12 years, having been installed as president by the military following the death of his father Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who himself held office for 38 years. The two generations of Gnassingbé presidents represent the longest period in power of any political dynasty in Africa.

Presidential term limits were abolished by the current president’s father in 2002. Faure Gnassingbé’s party, The Union for the Republic, faced with growing disquiet over the longevity of the Gnassingbé dynasty, has attempted appeasement by proposing two term limits for the presidency. Crucially however, the rule applies only from 2020, allowing the current president to run for a fourth and possibly fifth term in office. Members of the opposition are demanding an amendment to the reform which would consider terms already served. These calls have fallen on deaf ears, giving the president the possibility of ruling the country until 2030. In an attempt to legitimise the legislation in its current form, Gnassingbé declared a referendum to formalise this proposal. The opposition, infuriated that their amendment has been dropped, called for protests.

faure gnassingbe president of togo
The President of Togo, Faure Gnassingbé. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

Togo is split along ethnic fault lines. The north of the country is where the Gnassingbé family’s ethnic group, the Kabyé, are from and is normally a stronghold for the President. The south is populated by the Ewe and Mina ethnic groups who, despite making up a higher proportion of the population than the Kaybé, are kept out of powerful positions by Gnassingbé. The current leader of the opposition, Tikpi Atchadam, is a northerner himself and, unusually for Togo, has ignited protests against the government in the north of the country.

West African precedent

Contrary to recent history in West Africa, Gnassingbé seems likely to remain in power for the short term at least, despite significant unrest and dissatisfaction with the regime. The Togolese situation has important differences to those of Burkina Faso and The Gambia, two other West African countries which have recently switched from autocracy to democracy.

In Burkina Faso, the army backed the protesters and effectively forced the then President, Blaise Compare, out. In Togo, the army is mainly run by ethnic Kaybé officers from the north of the country which historically backs the Gnassingbé family. It is unlikely that they would trade away their privileged position for a protest movement they think they can outlast. In The Gambia, Yaha Jammeh left power only after defeat in an election, weeks of negotiations, denouncements from other members of ECOWAS and the formation of an ECOWAS military force which was ready to force him out.

The region turns its back

ECOWAS has been conspicuously less proactive over the current situation in Togo. Back in 2015, ECOWAS proposed term limits for presidents for the whole region, but this was blocked by The Gambia and Togo. The recent developments in The Gambia mean that Togo is the only nation which doesn’t have term limits.

Why then has ECOWAS not acted in Togo? Part of the answer lies in the identity of the organisation’s chairperson, which rotates every year between the West African heads of state. The chairperson during the Gambian crisis was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the current Liberian President who has announced she will be standing down at the end of her current term. By contrast, the current chairperson of ECOWAS is none other than Togolese president Faure Gnassingbé. He is highly unlikely to facilitate his own removal.

ECOWAS building Togo
The headquarters of the ECOWAS Bank for Investment and Development, Lomé, Togo. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

Despite the probability of protests continuing for the time being, with the most recent protests taking place on the 4/5 October, regime change remains unlikely. ECOWAS and individual neighbouring countries have been silent on the issue. Loath to stir up unrest on its borders, Ghana has said very little, perhaps fearing a refugee crisis in a region all too familiar with displacement. Indeed, it has been reported that it was the Ghanaian president himself who nominated the Togolese president  for the chairperson position of ECOWAS.

With a disunited opposition of small parties and no obvious successor should Gnassingbé unexpectedly step down, a fractious situation could spiral out of control. The best opportunity for a peaceful transfer of power in Togo could be the presidential elections in 2020. Whether either side is willing to wait that long remains to be seen.

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