Togo has long been mired in political crisis – and elections won't change that

Mawuna Koutonin
Photograph: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images

A familiar quote in Togo comes from the president, Faure Gnassingbé, who once said: “My father told me to never leave power.”

He has heeded that advice. The first African country where a coup d’etat occurred after independence and where the elected head of state was assassinated, Togo stands to be the last country in Africa to see the lights of a democratic alternation.

On Saturday, the country goes to the polls. But on past evidence, things are unlikely to change.

It was on 13 January 1963 that Gnassingbé Eyadéma, father of the current president, killed the first post-colonial president, Sylvanus Olympio, in a military coup.

Now, 57 years later, the Gnassingbé family still is in power. Only North Korea’s ruling dynasty has held executive power for longer.

There have been six presidential elections in Togo since the democratic movements of the 1990s, all won by the Gnassingbé family.

Before the first multiparty presidential election, in 1993, protesters were shot on the streets, and the persecution of political opponents triggered an unprecedented wave of migration to neighbouring countries that re-established Gnassingbé’s dictatorial power. Gross human rights abuses caused international donors to suspend development assistance. Eyadema Gnassingbé ultimately “won” more than 95% of the vote with a turnout of less than 36%.

On 21 June 1998, the second multiparty presidential election was held. Eyadema Gnassingbé, seeing the vote going towards opposition parties, had the country’s telecommunication lines and electric grid shut down, successfully halting the transmission of results from polling stations. The president of the electoral commission resigned and the minister of the interior took charge of counting the vote. On 24 June he declared Gnassingbé Eyadema elected, with 52% of the votes.

Gnassingbé Eyadema waves to the crowd during a parade on the 38th anniversary of his presidential reign in Togo in 2005. Photograph: Erick-Christian Ahounou/AP

In June 2003, the constitution, which limits presidential terms, was amended to allow Gnassingbé Eyadema to stand again. In addition, the electoral system was changed to a single round, and the presidential eligibility age was dropped from 45 to 35 (Faure Gnassingbé was 36 and his father’s health was fragile). The day before the election, the regime stopped people collecting their voting cards and the polling stations were changed overnight. On the day of the election, thousands found themselves unable to vote because their names were missing from the lists at their polling stations. Gnassingbé Eyadema was re-elected with 57.2% of the vote against 34.1% for his main opponent, Emmanuel Bob-Akitani.

Gnassingbé Eyadema died in February 2005 after nearly four decades of autocratic rule. The military proclaimed his son Faure Gnassingbé, then 39, the new head of state in defiance of the constitution. International protests forced the new president to call an election. Amid massive electoral irregularities, Faure Gnassingbé was sworn in as president on 4 May. About 700 people were killed, and more than 40,000 citizens fled to neighbouring countries when the military broke up protests.

The 2010 and the 2015 presidential elections followed the previous patterns.

All this would have been less harmful if the Gnassingbé family ruled Togo like Lee Kuan Yew, the prime minister of Singapore for 31 years until 1990, who made his country the most prosperous in south-east Asia.

But they did not. Nearly 70% of the rural population of Togo lives below the global poverty line. It ranks low in all the key indexes of development, freedom and economics.

Those less informed could be easily misled by the PR blitz of the Gnassingbé regime, touting the modernisation of banking, electricity, transportation and other commercial infrastructure. Some of those improvements made the World Bank rank the country among the top 10 reformers in the world. But debt-driven economic growth does not bring prosperity to the people. It goes to a “minority which monopolises the wealth of the country”, in the words of Faure Gnassingbé.

A 2016 study from the University of Munich concluded that “growth in Togo was not pro-poor because it left the poor worse-off”.

According to UN reports, Togo has become a major hub of drug trafficking and money-laundering in west Africa. Between 2005 and 2011, the country lost $17.8bn (£13.8bn) through illicit capital outflows.

Togo had attracted the worst of everything. Banks with diplomatic immunity are headquartered in the capital Lomé. Pervasive corruption happens with the patronage of the regime.

According to the 2019 corruption perceptions index by Transparency International, Togo is among the most corrupt countries in the world, ranking 130 out of 180. More than half of Togolese believe corruption has increased in the past 12 months, and 68% believe the government is not doing enough to fight it.

Is there any chance for change in this year’s election? The constitutional court and the electoral commission are filled with handpicked regime loyalists. The army, gendarmerie and police are also faithful to the government.

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Despite the two stage electoral system introduced in the latest constitution of May 2019, President Gnassingbé wants a “knockout”.

His friend, the minister of public administration Gilbert Bawara, declared to the media that there would be no second round for this election but “a clear, brilliant and indisputable victory from the first round”, saving resources “in order to respond to the real priorities of our populations”.

Christian Trimua, Togo’s human rights minister, warned the opposition parties that there would be no tallying of votes by polling stations, only aggregated results.

Everyone is tired of Togo’s unending political crisis. The overall feeling is that it’s time for change. But all the opposition parties can hope for to oust this regime is a post-electoral crisis. And that, sadly, could lead to fresh bloodshed and more suffering for the Togolese people.

• Mawuna Koutonin is editor of SiliconAfrica.com and a social activist for Africa Renaissance. @siliconafrica