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Anti-Government protests in Togo

Zipporah Nyambura
September 7, 2017

Thousands marched through the streets of Lome for the second day running calling for president President Faure Essozimna Gnassingbe to step down. Togo's opposition has been calling for constitutional reforms.

Protesters march with placards in Lome
Image: Getty Images/AFP/P. U. Ekpei

For 12 years now, Faure Gnassingbe has ruled the West African nation of Togo. Gnassingbe took over power after succeeding his father, Gnassingbe Eyadema, who ruled for nearly four decades. Togo's opposition now wants changes in the voting system and a term limit for the presidency. DW spoke to Alex Vines, head of the Africa Program at Chatham House in London to find out more. 

DW: How can you describe the current political situation in Togo?

Alex Vines: Well there have been demonstrations in Togo, so it's tense. There were significantly larger demonstrations in August and some of them were violent. This time the demonstrations look more peaceful but there is tension on the streets of Lome the capital of Togo in particular. And it's all to do with pushing President Gnassingbe, who has been president since 2005, to consider leaving office.

Why is the government so quiet at the moment? Do we expect to see more of a reaction?

Alex Vines heads the Africa Programme at Chatham House
Alex Vines heads the Africa Programme at Chatham House Image: DW/M. Sampaio

There was some government violence in the August demonstrations, which is why people were injured. This time around the government is hoping to manage the situation. As you know the cabinet of Togo yesterday approved a draft bill, which includes electoral reforms, such as, the reintroduction of presidential term limits for Togo. So any future president for Togo, can only stand for two terms of five years.

Now that has been planned for a while. In fact, President Gnassingbe had been encouraging it and so the only thing that's happened is that that decision is being brought forward. The question now, is that President Gnassingbe will face elections again in 2020 and he could argue that under the new constitution he will be allowed to run for at least two more terms if he wanted to and obviously that's something that the protesters wouldn't be interested in.

So, there is the question mark over whether he will think of running again. I do think personally, that Togo is a bit different from what we saw a few years ago in Burkina Faso. Some of you will remember how Blaise Compaore  was forced out because of popular protest. In Togo the scale is much less but the security forces are also very loyal to President Gnassingbe. So I can't see it as a Burkina Faso situation occurring very soon in Togo.

A recent cabinet meeting approved plans for a bill about restrictions on terms in office and changes to the voting system, but the opposition thinks this is not enough. Do we know why?

The opposition wants things to move quickly. They are disadvantaged. Remember that the party in government, the Union for the Republic, dominates the legislature and has 62 of the 91 seats in the national assembly and it has rejected most of the bills introduced by the opposition so far and the opposition will feel that this cabinet approval of the term limit is at least a sign that the government is increasingly nervous.

What happened in Togo yesterday is significant, because it does mean that the whole of the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS), every state in ECOWAS basically respects two term mandates and that's strategically important for West Africa, but its also a really important precedent for the whole continent.

So we will see what happens moving forward. One thing that I have not heard people talking about is that President Gnassingbe is a relatively young man. He is in his early fifties, but from my understanding he is not that healthy. I think one of the things he had been considering was how to get a soft landing.

And that's why the draft bill for containing electoral reforms and term limit is something that he himself had been encouraging. The opposition I hope, put that into their calculation, that it could be that Gnassingbe doesn't have the vision to go indefinitely as president and is looking for maybe a face-saving, soft landing for himself in the run-up to the next election in 2020. But I am just speculating here.

Do you foresee their demands being met anytime soon?

Well, already there is progress from their point of view, of having the cabinet decision being moved forward. So they will feel emboldened by that.

There is no doubt that those fatigues in Togo are the Gnassingbe administration, because the father who was president since the 1960s and then was succeeded by his son, the current incumbent and he has been in power since 2005. So in a changing Africa where incumbents are stepping down after many years in power - the most recent one would be President Dos Santos of Angola who is stepping down as President later this month, having being president of Angola since 1979. Increasingly there will be pressure on those who have remained in power for a very long time.

Do you think the situation might get out of hand?

I think that the security forces and the army have shown that they have suppressed those protests forcefully in the past and helped the president to remain in power since 2005. Although I think there could be more violence from protesters in Togo, the president still remains a strong grip on power. I am not sure, that there is a strong incentive for the loyalty of the security forces to move away from Gnassingbe currently.

You just mentioned that the president is not healthy and that people have not been talking about his health condition, why do you think he is adamant in adapting the constitutional reform?

He is a thoughtful man and has a bit of a vision for Togo. Some of it has been a bit more successful, about making Togo the Dubai of West Africa. He is attracting international investment. He is planning on holding an Israel-Africa summit soon in Togo. I think that if he is aware that the politics is changing in Africa and particularly in West Africa, I think he is thinking of what his legacies are and when it might be advantageous for him to no longer be president. I think he must feel even more isolated now, given the advancement we saw in The Gambia, with former President Jammeh having to leave reluctantly and going into self-imposed exile.                                                                                                        

Alex Vines is the head of the Africa Program at Chatham House in London.

The interview was conducted by Zipporah Nyambura.