Faure, Fabre, Farida, Tikpi and the new Togo
By Richard Mammah
That Togo is standing on the cusp of change is no longer news to close observers of goings-on in the country presently. The question now is when exactly that change will come and what shape would it take? Or even better still, has it already come and we failed to notice it?
For one that is fairly conversant with the terrain of the tiny West African nation, the Togolese landscape has never really failed to dazzle. Entering Lome for example, one is struck not only by the city’s close proximity to the Atlantic, but its tree-laced waterfront and splendid view also literally invites you to stop and take a sip of coconut water.
Ot the other hand however, you do not escape the pressing problems. The ravages of erosion and ecological denudation are hard on the heels of this city and indeed the extended nation, even as overall infrastructure (from roads to schools, hospitals to markets) can do with a lot of help. And this opens us then to the bigger issues – many of which have risen so critically to the front-burner since August 2017, when the people of Togo began most assertively this time around, to shake up the national polity – how well is Togo being governed presently?
#TogoDebout (translated: #TogoRising) is the catchphrase of the nationwide protests currently ongoing in the country. When it began, the tentative goals were to ensure the restoration of constitutional term limits on the office of the President. Through its control of parliament, the Union for the Republic party of incumbent President Faure Gnassingbe had ensured that the lid was removed a few years ago, ostensibly to enable him continue to run and win endlessly.
As the issue garnered more widespread national support, Faure appeared to concede: a national referendum would be held to vote on the subject but its implementation would not be retroactive! For one who is currently into his third term in office and with a political and social structure that clearly permits the army-backed incumbent to win in every poll, the very clear game-plan as discerning observers interpreted that move was to at least guarantee that nothing would change until 2030. And then, like is the case in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda today, a fresh move would very likely then be made during the intervening period to change the constitution once again!
The opposition would not take this, and now, they expanded the list of demands to be met in the course of the protests: #Fauremustgo. Now! The fifty-one year rule by the ‘imperial’ Gnassingbe family must come to an end, they began to insist! As we would say in Nigeria, ‘haba, na only dem waka come!’
As if this was what they had been waiting for, the Togolese streets, which had long seen promise after promise of liberation flounder bought this new line of reasoning almost wholesale. And the crowds at the periodic protests that the opposition had been convening thickened! Now, opposition activists are saying that the concerns of the streets have really become quite dominant in the entire process. And for whatever it is worth, some say this in itself is quite some progress that has been recorded already!
A nation of 7.6 million people, the Togolese citizenry have largely been tame and subdued over the years. While they would occasionally rouse, notably at election times to express their political side, the recurrent and serial toll of relatively discordant and fixed negative outcomes from such exercises have largely left them despondent at the end of the day. This is more so when the critical political variables in the country – the army, the generally pro-establishment slant of the regional bodies (ECOWAS and the African Union), as well as the weight of imperial France as critical examples – have continued to be rigged in favour of the preservation of the status quo ante. Add to this a system of deliberate and systematic frustration and co-option of opposition leaders – as for example the incorporation of the erstwhile opposition champion, Gilchrist Olympio into the current administration after the last elections – then you will see why it has been very difficult to get Togo to the point where it is today, long before now. Then of course there has also been that most vintage of all African political burdens: the play on ethnic, religious and regional sentiments by sit-tight incumbents.
But a younger generation of leaders has been emerging. Notably concentrated in the Togolese diaspora and the capital city of Lome, it is these leaders that are providing the principal fuel for the ongoing protests. While many of them are not aligned with the formal political party system in the country, their advocacy has however found strategic resonance with those of the formal opposition and they are therefore working in tandem with them on the issues at stake. Thus the first face of the ongoing wave of protests is the current leading mainstream opposition leader and chair of the National Alliance for Change, Jean Pierre Fabre.
Underscoring also the seismic shifts that are going on in the country, the protests have also tended to break the traditional North/South political divisions in the country, with leaders like the Northern-emerging Tikpi Atchadam of the opposition PanAfrican National Party, PNP, breaking ranks with the divide and rule frame which the equally Northern-originating Gnassingbes have used over the years to aid their bargaining at the national power stage; but also colossally failing to develop the same Northern region. Incidentally then, one of the strongest bastions of support for the ongoing protests is an angry North, and notably the nation’s second largest town, Sokode, from where the Gnassingbes had in the past amassed colossal landslide support and wins!
Also playing a most critical role in the ongoing protests are civil society players and social media influencers. One of them, Farida Nabourema has indeed been so active that only a few days ago, she tweeted a veiled response to the fact that the authorities may presently be getting most infuriated with her activities and may even be contemplating silencing her. But even that threat she insists would not cow her!
Togo is definitely ‘rising’ and the world is taking note.