by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.
Amid ongoing campaigns against Boko Haram, Al-Mourabitoun, and Gulf of Guinea pirates, the Republic of Togo has been spared the instability and violence that has recently plagued much of West Africa. However, an attempt by the Gnassingbé clan to maintain its stranglehold on power in Togo, one of Africa’s smallest countries, risks this peace. In particular, an upcoming referendum probably in November that would impose a two-term limit on future Togolese presidents could serve as a catalyst for internal violence.
The referendum was prompted when the governing Union for the Republic (UNIR) failed to acquire the necessary support in the National Assembly, Togo’s unicameral legislative body, for a bill on 19 September 2017 that would have limited future presidents to two five-year terms but exempted the incumbent, Faure Gnassingbé, who has held power since 2005 and whose father, Eyadéma Gnassingbé, held the Togolese presidency from 1967 until his death in office in 2005. In response, spokespeople for the National Alliance for Change (ANC), Togo’s largest opposition party which also boycotted the vote in the National Assembly, called for the current president to resign and vowed to “set the streets against the referendum“.
Clashes between protesters and Togolese security forces have already reportedly resulted in the death of one child. In Togo, the escalation of such clashes is not without precedent. For example, rioting followed reports of widespread voter fraud in the 2005 presidential elections which cemented Faure Gnassingbé’s succession as president, with more than 100 civilians reported killed and the German cultural centre, the Goethe Institute, in the Togolese capital of Lomé burned to the ground. In 1963, Eyadéma Gnassingbé assassinated Togo’s first democratically elected leader, President Sylvanus Olympio, and installed a puppet government. Later, in 1967, the elder Gnassingbé led another coup, this time bloodless, to overtly exert control over the executive and legislative branches of government. In short, the ANC’s threats of countrywide protests are particularly bold, as the Gnassingbé clan and its allies in the security forces and the UNIR have a demonstrated willingness to employ violence to secure power.
Additionally, there is some history behind the opposition’s concerns about the integrity of the upcoming referendum. The European Union has deployed observer missions for several of Togo’s most recent elections, often reporting serious concerns with the integrity of the voting process and the fairness of the election. Non-governmental organizations, such as the Carter Center, have opted not to deploy observers because conditions in Togo were deemed insufficient to hold credible elections. There has also been no shortage of sham referenda in the country; the 1979 referendum that made Togo a one-party state for 13 years was, according to the local authorities, approved by 99.87% of the voters and 99.36% turnout. A 1972 referendum supposedly approved continued military rule under Eyadéma Gnassingbé with 99.9% of the vote and 98.7% turnout. These margins of support for the consolidation of political power under the Gnassingbé clan become yet more astounding when one considers how, even on the issue of Togolese independence from France, less consensus could be found: the plebiscite saw 77.3% turnout and 93.4% of voters support independence.
Fortunately, a political shift in the region may prompt Gnassingbé to cancel the referendum, resign, avert the impending crisis, and finally usher in multi-party democracy for Togo. In neighbouring Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré came to power in a 1987 coup and remained in power until public outrage at his own efforts to amend the country’s constitution in 2014 prompted him to resign and flee into exile in Cote d’Ivoire. Further to the northwest, in Gambia, Yahya Jammeh seized power in a 1994 coup, was finally defeated in the 2016 presidential election, initially refused to respect the results of the vote, but was finally pressured by the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and other regional players to step down and flee into exile in Equatorial Guinea so as to forestall a civil war. Of course, it remains to be seen whether the new leaders of Burkina Faso and Gambia will foster democracy in their respective states or if they, too, will seek to consolidate power and emulate their strongman predecessors. But clearly the momentum regionally is against the old dictators who stepped in to fill the vacuum left by colonial powers like France.
West Africa can ill afford a wave of refugees from Togo fleeing violence at such a crucial juncture in the effort to address other regional security threats. ECOWAS and the AU are well-positioned to mediate between the parties, with Cote d’Ivoire or a combination of neighbouring states providing security guarantees during the implementation of any resolution, whether that be early parliamentary elections or the advancement of the referendum under the independent oversight of the AU and ECOWAS. Others have proposed that Compaoré himself mediate, advising Gnassingbé to step down and accept exile much as he did in the wake of similar strife. It is unclear whether such an arrangement would be successful; whereas Compaoré seized power himself, Gnassingbé inherited the presidency and may feel he must resist calls for his ouster in order to preserve the legacy of his father’s rule in Togo. Whatever the case, the ECOWAS heads of state must send a clear message to Gnassingbé that this power grab does not advance the region’s interests and will not be condoned – a good starting point might be his removal from the rotating Chairmanship of ECOWAS.