Togo's Battle for Democracy Amid Constitutional Controversy

President Faure Gnassingbé

Amid tensions and accusations of a constitutional coup, Togo heads to the polls next week. The African nation stands at a crossroads of democracy and dissent.

Togo's parliament adopted a new constitution last weekend, paving the way to transition from a presidential to a parliamentary regime in Togo. This has sparked great debate across the nation, with both opposition leader and civil society groups decrying the change in the political landscape as an attempted power grab by President Faure Gnassingbe.

The shift from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary regime marks a notable departure from Togo's political tradition.

Dodji Apevon, leader of the opposition party Action Committee for Renewal, told DW that the parliamentary decision to change the constitution needs to be overturned.

"Whatever it costs us, we will fight. We are all united around this ideal to save our country from the abyss into which President Gnassingbe is plunging it," Apevon said.

Opposition resolute to stop 'power grab'

The timing of the change is what concerns people the most, coming just days ahead of Togo's upcoming regional and legislative elections on April 29, says Nathaniel Olympio of the Party of the Togolese.

"People registered under the 1992 constitution. Along the way, during the campaign, the constitution is changed, and the vote will have to be conducted under another constitution. This has never happened before," Olympio said. "Two constitutions governing the same election is a deceit, it's a coup."

Other opposition parties have also shared their reactions, with Brigitte Kafui Adjamagbo-Johnson of the Dynamique pour la Majorite du Peuple (DMP), calling it "a constitutional coup against which the entire Togolese people are rising up."

"We say that it will not happen like this," Adjamagbo-Johnson told DW.

Civil society calls for intervention

Many civil society groups are also siding with the opposition in criticizing the constitutional overhaul, along with university professors and human rights advocates, who have all been describing the issue as a direct challenge to democratic principles.

Celestin Agbogan, a member of the Togolese League of Human Rights, called for the immediate withdrawal of the change. "This way of proceeding is an insult to the population," Agbogan told DW. "The Togolese population will have to revolt against this way of proceeding, and the head of state must take responsibility to withdraw this law."

Paul Amegakpo, president of the Tamberma Institute for Governance (ITG), agrees with Agbogan, adding that failure to withdraw the change could result in a political crisis in the country.

"The Togolese people deeply desire a political alternation in leadership, whether through a change in party, regime or at the helm of the state," he said.

The decision to change the constitution has also elicited reactions among the Togolese community abroad. Clement Klutse, a management consultant and regional politician for the Christian Democrats (CDU) in the northern German city of Hamburg, moved from Togo to Germany over 20 years ago.

Klutse's views echo those of opposition parties in Togo. For him, the changes are intended to centralize the president's power and weaken democratic values.

Gnassingbe "will be there as a lifelong leader," Klutse told DW. "He will hold all the powers, notably economic, military, and institutional."

A unanimous decision

Despite all these pleas, the Union for the Republic (UNIR) has remained steadfast in its agenda. Parliamentarians from the governing party have persistently advocated for constitutional reforms over the years, emphasizing the impact this could have on good governance and development.

Anate Koumealo from the UNIR says she feels hopeful about the transition to a parliamentary system -- highlighting the widespread backing for the constitutional change.

"The majority of Togolese adhere to this government and are ready to have a new experience," she told DW, stressing that the constitutional changes were adopted unanimously."

"This constitutional change will allow us to solve a lot of problems, to offer our country means for its inclusive and sustainable development," she added.

Even some opposition parties, however, agree with the ruling party that the change was necessary.

Sena Alipui, an MP of the Union des Forces du Changement (Union of Forces for Change) party, said that it was time to try a new approach in governance: "For us, it's better to try something else that resembles something we had already proposed to see if it can bring Togolese people together better," Alipui told DW.

"And in practice, we will adjust this constitution, since nothing is perfect, and we have to start somewhere," he added.

While some like Alipui argue that the new constitution will ushers in a new era of governance, others remain skeptical, expressing concerns about the potential undermining of democratic norms.

Reliou Koubakin and Noël Tadégnon contributed to the article.

Edited by: Sertan Sanderson

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