To go or not to go

September 26, 2017, 3:38 am

ASSOUGEY, a technician from Lomé, the capital of Togo, was arrested on September 7th. His crime: participating in one of the anti-government protests that have rocked the country in recent weeks. A policeman beat him with the butt of his gun, he says. His left leg is covered in bruises. Like many of his fellow protesters, Assougey says he joined the demonstrations because the same corrupt people have been in power for too long.

Faure Gnassingbé, Togo’s president, has ruled the small west African country for 12 years. In 2002 his late predecessor and father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, lowered the legal age limit for a president to make way for his son. Eyadéma had seized power in a military coup in 1967. Fifty years later, the family has been in power longer than any other African regime.

Despite Mr Gnassingbé’s best efforts to quash the protests, they continue. Initially centred around Lomé, they have spread to other parts of the country, including Sokodé, Togo’s second city and a traditional stronghold of the Union for the Republic (UNIR), the ruling party. The government cuts the internet to stifle criticism. At least three people have been killed. The police in Lomé threw tear gas into people’s houses, “creating terror”, says one witness.

A bill that would limit presidents to two terms was drawn up to appease the opposition. When UNIR said it would rush this through the National Assembly, where it holds 62 of 91 seats, the protests stopped temporarily. But it was soon revealed that the two-term restriction would not apply retroactively, allowing Mr Gnassingbé, who is already in his third term, to run again in 2020 and 2025. The measure failed to gain the necessary supermajority after the opposition boycotted the vote, so UNIR has decided to put it to a referendum.

Mr Gnassingbé’s opponents have long sought term limits and other reforms. Now they want him gone. But the opposition is divided. More than a dozen parties were behind the recent protests. Jean-Pierre Fabre, the leader of the National Alliance for Change (ANC), the main opposition party, has been complaining about the regime for decades, to little effect. Mr Fabre, who came second in the election of 2015, is from the south, whereas the ruling class has traditionally come from the north.

Togolese politics hinge on tribal loyalties. Mr Gnassingbé’s Kabyé tribe, from the north, are a minority, but they punch well above their weight. After grabbing power, his father increased the size of the army and filled the top jobs with fellow Kabyé officers. His son has done the same and packed state institutions, such as the constitutional court, with cronies. The southern Ewe and Mina tribes, taken together, are far more numerous than the Kabyé, but they have been kept out of power since Sylvanus Olympio, a former president and an Ewe, was murdered in 1963. (Eyadéma claimed that he pulled the trigger himself.)

The political alignment may be changing though. Tikpi Atchadam, the charismatic leader of the Pan African National Party, has teamed up with Mr Fabre. Hailing from the north, Mr Atchadam has stoked protests in the region, which suffers from a lack of investment, but until now has remained loyal to Mr Gnassingbé.

Some of the opposition look to the Gambia, which saw off attempts by Yahya Jammeh, its longtime dictator, to cling to power after losing an election last year. Jeff Smith of Vanguard Africa, a consultancy that advised Adama Barrow, the Gambia’s current president, says: “Behind the scenes many Togolese and Gambian activists are collaborating, sharing lessons learned.”

Pressure from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a 15-country regional group, was crucial to the Gambia’s success. It stationed troops on the Gambian border and threatened to invade unless Mr Jammeh gave up power. But ECOWAS has been slow to respond to the crisis in Togo, which aspires to be a hub for business in west Africa. Marcel Alain de Souza, the president of ECOWAS, visited Lomé on September 13th to encourage Mr Gnassingbé and the opposition to hold talks. Mr de Souza is married to the sister of Mr Gnassingbé, who currently holds the rotating chairmanship of the group.

Tensions are mounting. The opposition, at least, plans to keep the pressure on Mr Gnassingbé. But Togo has a history of violent political repression. A nine-year-old boy was killed during the latest protests.

Source: The Economist


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