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Togo unrest a test for West African leaders

Credibility of regional and UN bodies at stake amid deadly anti-government protests

Faure Essozimna Gnassingbé, President of Togo, addresses the general debate of the General Assembly’s seventieth session. Cia Pak/UN Photo

Political violence in Togo claimed more victims this week. On Wednesday at least four people were shot dead in clashes between security forces and protestors in the West African country’s two biggest cities. On Tuesday, two soldiers and a teenager died. The deaths came amid unrest following the arrest of an imam with close ties to the opposition, and against a backdrop of months of anti-government protests.

Demonstrations calling for political reforms began in August, at the instigation of the opposition Parti National Panafricain, and have since taken place on an almost weekly basis in the capital, Lome, as well as in Sokodé and towns such as Kara and Anié. More than a dozen other opposition parties, civil society organisations and elements of the diaspora have allied themselves with the calls for change.

The numerical and geographical extent of the protests against the government of Faure Gnassingbé, which have taken place in all regions of Togo, including the historically pro-government north of the country, and in several capital cities across the world, is virtually unprecedented.

The tens of thousands of Togolese who have taken to the streets want an end to the Gnassingbé dynasty. The current president came to power in 2005, when the army installed him after the death of his father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who had ruled since 1967.

Ever since Faure Gnassingbé came to power 12 years ago, the opposition has called for the restoration of a two-term limit for heads of state, which is in line with the rest of West Africa and with a revision made in 1992 to the country’s constitution. This limit was abolished in 2002 and Gnassingbé is currently serving his third term. The way the opposition sees it, the reintroduction of the limit would mean he would have to leave office immediately.

According to a 2015 poll conducted by Afrobarometer, 85 percent of Togo’s population favour the reintroduction a two-term limit.

Other demands include the restoration of a two-round system for presidential elections, and the release of political prisoners.

The government has reacted mainly with repression – breaking up demonstrations, banning them outright on weekdays, and cutting internet connections on protest days.

Its efforts to make concessions have been unilateral and have failed to appease the opposition. In September, it put draft constitutional revisions, including the restoration of the two-term limit, to parliament. But without making the restriction retroactive, that could mean Gnassingbé would stay in power, and even run for re-election in 2020, and again in 2025.

Opposition legislators boycotted a vote on the revisions, so they failed to win the four-fifths majority needed for constitutional amendments, leading the speaker to announce the proposed changes would be decided in a referendum.

For the opposition, the referendum is a red herring – all that matters now is a change of president.

Regional response

Amid this increasingly fraught impasse, international bodies such the Economic Community of West African States, the African Union and the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel, have failed to bring the protagonists closer together or ease tensions.

On the contrary, the three organisations appeared to alienate the opposition with a 4 October joint statement which lauded the proposed referendum as “an important step in bringing Togo in conformity with democratic norms reflecting best practices in West Africa”, and urged the opposition to take part.

(A subsequent joint statement released on Wednesday to condemn the latest violence and call on all parties to exercise restraint and pursue dialogue made no reference to the referendum.)

If the unrest continues, the credibility of ECOWAS (and to a certain extent that of the AU and UNOWAS as well), which won praise for its role in Gambia’s crisis early this year, would be dented. In the months ahead, Togo could face at best intermittent instability and at worst a serious crisis which could affect its neighbours and the sub-region.

There are a number of options that could stop that happening.

First, Faure Gnassingbé, being the focus of the current discontent, could clearly state when he intends to leave office, for instance in 2020. Even if he is widely mistrusted, such a public statement would go some way to steering Togo out of its crisis.

Second, dialogue between the antagonists needs to be initiated, with the help of ECOWAS, the AU and UNOWAS. This would allow political solutions with broad support to be developed and subsequently incorporated into legal texts – such as constitutional revisions. Building such consensus is more likely to deliver a sustainable path out of the crisis than the unilateral moves made so far by the government.

Third, legislative changes could be made if antagonists reach an agreement that fixes the president’s current term in office as either his last or his penultimate. Once such a political deal is struck, precedents in West Africa and the rest of the world suggest that the issue of whether the law is retroactive could be left to jurists.

Whatever formula is agreed, the likes of ECOWAS, the AU and UNOWAS should be invited to help Togo put it into effect.

In the absence of effective follow-up mechanisms, previous political agreements in Togo collapsed, or were ignored, leading some key stakeholders to lose faith in dialogue. It is essential such faith is restored.

(TOP PHOTO: Togolose President Faure Gnassingbé addresses the general debate of the General Assembly’s seventieth session in 2015).


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