Togo Returns to the Streets to Stop 'Unfair' Legislative Elections

Protesters have been marching in Togo for many months (file photo).
17 December 2018

The government seems determined to hold elections on 20 December and extend President Gnassingbé's rule, by any means necessary.

Togo is no stranger to political violence. Since the 1963 coup that claimed the life of the country's first president and founding father, the West African republic has repeatedly witnessed political killings, human rights violations and other deadly violence. Saturday 8 December, a grim day for the Togolese people, was the latest incident of this as security forces fired on protesters. Since that day, at least four people have been killed and tensions continue to escalate.

Togo's ongoing political crisis has now lasted for over a year. It began in August 2017 when demonstrators took to the streets to demand electoral reforms. Back then, the dominant sentiment among the population was one of quiet contempt for the government or resigned indifference. But since then, this has developed - somewhat unexpectedly - into widespread anger.

Under the banner of Togo Debout ("Togo Rise Up") and Faure Must Go, and spearheaded by a coalition of 14 political parties known as C14, protesters have repeatedly made their voices heard. They have demanded the reinstatement of the constitution adopted by referendum in 1992 and the right for vote for Togolese in the diaspora.

The government under President Faure Gnassingbé has refused to yield. Instead, it has killed dozens of protesters, conducted mass arrests of activists, and imposed a quasi-military siege on most of Togo's cities. Despite regional efforts to broker an agreement, the divide between the ruling party and the majority of the population has only widened.

Preparing for legislative elections

In the face of unrest, the government is now preparing for legislative elections on 20 December. This is in accordance with a roadmap proposed by the West African regional bloc ECOWAS this July. The opposition is fiercely against this move. Activists insist that the necessary measures to ensure a free and fair election, also required by ECOWAS, have not been met. They are particularly concerned about the ongoing imprisonment of political prisoners, the credibility of the voters' roll, and the independence of the electoral commission (CENI).

This latter body is supposed to be independent, but was - until recently - comprised of thirteen pro-government figures and four vacant seats. Gnassingbé's administration initially offered to appoint four members of C14 to the empty positions, but the opposition demanded equal representation. The government refused.

During this impasse, CENI went ahead with its voter registration exercise, which it held from 1 to 25 October. In protest at its lack of consultation, C14 called on supporters to boycott the process. The majority of citizens stayed away from the exercise, which was also marred by irregularities. Observers reported seeing children being enrolled and individuals being issued with multiple voter IDs. When CENI later conducted an audit, it ended up removing 38,000 duplicate enrolments and 33,000 minors.

Eventually, through further negotiations, the government and opposition agreed that C14 would be allowed to hold eight of CENI's seventeen seats. These officials were sworn in on 13 November, but not before the body ruled that registration would re-open for just two days to give a second chance to those who missed the October window. C14's CENI officials insisted that the process be started afresh now that they were present, but to no avail.

Back to the streets

The opposition is now demanding that the vote be delayed. It has promised to boycott it or even prevent it from happening altogether if it goes ahead. Major religious organisations such as the Catholic Church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and the Methodist Church have also pushed for a postponement to prevent an escalation of violence. But the government has refused to yield on the 20 December date.

In response, the opposition has resumed its strategy of street protests and called on ECOWAS to push for the vote to be postponed. Many Togolese are angry with the regional bloc, which has remained largely silent beyond calling for restraint, and accuse it of either naiveté or complicity in Gnassignbe's bid to stay in power. Many believe the president is determined to push through the elections confident that his party will be able to dominate parliament and help him tighten his grip going forwards.

On 8 December, C14 called for protests. The government used the pretext of the start of the campaign season to outlaw demonstrations, but it went ahead nonetheless. People took to the streets in towns and cities around Togo. In the capital Lomé the northern city of Sokodé, security forces responded by shooting at protesters.

The same day, a pickup truck was caught on tape cruising on a dirt road in Agoe, north of Lomé. In the video, a man in military uniform is seen firing his rifle at random targets as if he is on a hunting trip. One of those bullets hit a 12-year-old boy called Idrissou. The mechanic's apprentice died on the spot. Eyewitnesses claim that the shooter was General Felix Kadanga, head of the Togo armed forces and President Gnassingbe's brother-in-law. The Ministry of Security confirmed that the general was out patrolling that day, but said he was not the figure in the video.

Whether it was or not, the reason the armed forces, including their top commander, are riding the streets seems clear. Despite Togolese citizens demanding he step down, the same military that installed Gnassingbe in coup in 2005 is determined to keep him - and by extension, themselves - in political power, by any means necessary.

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