Lome (Togo) — A recent wave of protests by Togolese opposition groups and a heavy-handed clampdown by security forces have set the scene for a tense struggle for reforms in a country that has been ruled for 45 years by a father and his son.
Since April, the opposition has been holding demonstrations to press for electoral reforms ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for an as yet undeclared date this month. Their demands have steadily grown tougher: They now want to see the back of President Faure Gnassingbé who came to power following a bitterly contested poll after the death of his father, Gnassingbé Eyadema, in 2005. Eyadema had ruled the tiny West African country for 38 years.
“This is a citizen’s movement working to break the election-dispute-crackdown-dialogue cycle which is hampering Togo’s progress towards a democratic and lawful state,” said Zeus Ajavon, the coordinator of Save Togo, a coalition of opposition groups and civil society organizations.
The coalition is demanding transparent and fair elections, a two-term limit for the presidency – currently there is no presidential term limit – and respect for human rights among a raft of reforms. The last parliamentary polls were in 2007.
Street protests in June, August and September were violently quashed by security forces using rubber bullets and teargas.
The government in September led talks on electoral reforms, but the main opposition groups boycotted the negotiations. The talks’ outcome did not specify whether the two-term limit would take effect in future elections, implying that Gnassingbé could run for two more five-year terms.
“For the sake of political change… Faure Gnassingbé should not stand for re-election in 2015. Any scheme crafted to breach this limit exposes Faure Gnassingbé to yet unknown consequences,” said Agbéyomé Kodjo, an opposition party chief.
The government insists it is committed to holding peaceful elections and implementing reforms after negotiations with the opposition.
“The government’s aim is to hold inclusive dialogue to advance the country’s institutional and constitutional reforms, improve the electoral system and hold peaceful elections for Togo to consolidate democracy and build a lawful state,” said Gilbert Bawara, the territorial administration minister.
Prime Minister Arthème Ahoomey-Zunu said the negotiations in September were meant to calm tension and create “ideal conditions for transparent, credible and fair legislative polls”.
In 2005, soon after his father’s death, the military installed Faure Gnassingbé, sparking a barrage of international condemnation that forced him to resign and organize elections. However, the polls were disputed by the opposition as fraudulent, and triggered deadly violence. His re-election in 2010 also drew opposition complaints of malpractice.
“Every election time there are talks, whose recommendations are quickly shelved, then a fraudulent poll to cling to power is organized. We are no longer going to be duped,” said Jean-Pierre Fabre, head of the opposition group National Alliance for Change.
For Agbalè Homéfa, a market trader in the capital Lomé, the upheaval has awoken fears of a recurrence of the deadly 2005 poll unrest, a concern voiced by other residents IRIN spoke to.
“This is how things started in 2005. The opposition and the government clashed over the elections. Everybody knows what the outcome was,” said Homéfa. Fellow trader Da Yawa added: “The president’s silence is worrying. Faure should speak to the people and reassure us that his militia will not massacre us like they did in 2005.”
“The situation is very worrying. The opposition is hardening its stance and the government doesn’t seem to be listening. Holding elections under such conditions is a risky bet and a threat to peace,” said Saturnin Akué, a sociology student at Lomé University.
“I’m worried about the upcoming elections. I’m afraid they’ll cause violence if the government and the opposition don’t agree on the rules. If the make-up of the national electoral commission is already being contested by the main opposition groups, what about the results?” said Kokou Amékoudji, a mason.
The protests and the security forces’ heavy-handedness portray a country mired in crisis, argued Victor Komla Alipui, Togo’s former economy and finance minister.
“The peoples’ determination, despite the repression and threats, shows how much Togolese are angry about the government’s slip-ups in terms of human rights, acting arbitrarily and using the judiciary to cling to power,” Alipui told IRIN.