•100,000 rally to uproot Gnassingbe dynasty
By Emma Emeozor
His father seized power a year after he was born and ruled for 38 consecutive years. He has been on the saddle of power for 12 uninterrupted years after succeeding his father in 2005, bringing the total years of political clampdown on the tiny West African country of Togo by the Gnassingbes to 50 years. Still, President Faure Gnassingbe is not done with power. He was born on June 6, 1996.
The president has refused to accede to the call by the people to allow true democracy to thrive in the country. And as the people yearn for political freedom to elect their leader(s), he and a cabal of loyalists chose to use brute force to intimidate and silence them. The country continues to witness constitutional somersault as presidential tenure elongation clauses are sporadically reviewed.
Who owns the land
But between the Gnassingbe’s’ and the people, who owns the land? This is, aptly, the question Togolese seem to be asking since August when they embarked on street protests to express their angst and drum it home that ‘Enough is enough.’ The hashtag for the renewed efforts to uproot the Gnassingbe dynasty is: #Togoenmarche (Togo on the move). Unlike previous anti-government protests which involved a handful of opposition members, the ongoing protests sweep across major cities like Lome and Sokode.
According to media reports, no fewer than 100,000 people are participating in the rallies, with the number increasing daily. Also, protesters have marched through the streets in Accra, Ghana, Libreville, Gabon and Paris, France in solidarity with their compatriots at home. When the protests started in August, two people were killed and 12 gendarmes were injured.
The protesters aim to not only compel the government to review the constitution to include presidential term limits but also to stop Gnassingbe from seeking another term in office after his current term expires. He is currently serving his third term in office which ends in 2020. The protesters fear Gnassingbe would want to extend his rule to 2030.
Until the renewed pressure on him, Gnassingbe had never pretended over his preparedness to institutionalize the Gnassingbe dynasty. In 2015, his government reportedly voted against the introduction of regional term limits across the member states of the Economic Community of West Africa Community (ECOWAS). With the ‘drums of war’ beat harder, would Gnassingbe bow to the will of the people or allow the bloody revolt threatening now to manifest.
Demand of the protesters
The message of the protesters is concise: “50 years is too long.” Feeling helpless in the face of intimidating government gendarmes, the opposition is looking beyond the boundaries of Togo to seek assistance and support. They have called on West African countries, particularly Ghana and Nigeria to intervene before the tensions turns bloody.
Myjoyonline newspaper quoted the Vice General Secretary of the Democratic Convention of African Peoples (CDPA) as saying that Togo risks getting plunged into a civil war if the political tensions are left unresolved.
“If nobody will help Togo now, we will have a civil war in this country because we are tired; it’s enough. So I can call the head of state of Ghana, head of state of Ivory Coast, head of state of Benin, Nigeria, all these persons I call to come to help Togolese,” he said.
The leader of the National Panafrican Party, Tikpi Atchadam told reporters that President Gnassingbe has managed to dodge the people for too long. “We have been asking for political reforms since Faure Gnassingbe came to power in 2005 but he managed to dodge us since then. Now we are simply demanding a return to the 1992 constitution.”
In 1992, the late President Gnassingbe Eyadema had passed a law limiting the president’s tenure to two terms, following pressure by the opposition. But 10 years on, he amended the constitution and removed the two term limit, apparently to enable him continue in office. He died in office from cardiac arrest at the age of 69.
Reuters said during the march last week, protesters carried banners bearing slogans including “Free Togo” and “Faure resign.” BBC’s Focus on Africa programme quoted a journalist Blame Ekou as having said that people carried banners saying: “(President) Faure must go”, “Togo is not a monarchy” and “we need reform now.” One protester told Blame: “Fifty years is enough. The Gnassingbes must go. The reforms must be done. They must release political detainees now,” BBC’s Focus on Africa programme reported.
Reuters also quoted a Togolese, Kodjo Ametepe who participated in the Lome march as saying: “With today’s mobilization, it’s up to Faure to choose: either do the reforms or leave power.”
Human rights activists Farida Nabourema who was at the rally in Lome told Al Jazeera that Togo was at a turning point. “We believe this is it. This is the time that this country that has been ruled by the oldest military regime in Africa decided to rise for its freedom,” Nabourema said.
Apparently sensing the danger of unleashing armed gendarmes on the protesters, the government gave a no-action order that made the security agents to look on without interference as the protesters march in the streets. But this was not enough to calm people whose patience has exhausted.
The president felt the pulse of the people. Thus amid the protests, the government announced late Tuesday that it has drafted a constitutional amendment for the limitation of mandate. According to media reports, the president called it an initiative “to favour the preservation of a climate of peace and serenity.”
Expectedly, the opposition leaders dismissed it as political gimmick. They may not be wrong. The president’s father had played a similar trick on the people. Even now the fears of the opposition cannot be dismissed considering the fact that in 2015, a similar bill was rejected by the parliament. The president tacitly controls the parliament because the ruling party has majority seats.
The growing doubts about the bill was further informed by the fact that it was not stated when it would be presented to the parliament. Again, the announcement was silent on how the amendment to article 59 of the constitution would affect the president.
Opposition leader and Gnassingbe’s presidential rival during the last election, Jean Pierre Fabre reacted on Wednesday to the announcement. He said: “(The president) can deceive us once or twice, but he is not going to deceive us again this time around.” He reportedly told a crowd of thousands of protesters in central Lome that: “We will march again tomorrow. Faure should talk to us about the conditions for his departure. The (draft) law on mandates comes too late.”
Gnassingbe disappointing African youth
The aspiration of the African youth is to see security and stability across the continent. This, they believe would provide the needed platform for development and growth. But more importantly, they believe the young leaders must renounce the sit-tight president syndrome that made multiparty democracy and good governance unachievable in many countries of the continent.
They seek to have young but brilliant leaders having good foresight who are ready to improve on the socio-political and economic template of the old ‘brigade’ of rulers. This vision explains the ovation that trailed the emergence of leaders like former president of Burkina Faso, the late Thomas Sankara.
Faure Gnassingbe who became president at 39 knows this. During the 2005 presidential campaign, he told voters that he was “of the modern generation, educated abroad, and familiar with progress and technology.” “I am the new image of Togolese youth, the new image of Togo,” Bryan Mealer of the Seattle Times reported. The president pledged: “I’m going to take this country to the next level. More freedom, more democracy. It’s the only way we can solve our problems.”
Twelve years on, the president has succumbed to the allure of power. Those captivating version of his campaign speech have given way to the language of brute force to gag critics. Today, his story is that of ‘like father like son.’ He is the replica of his father in the political arena.
He has resorted to Machiavellian tactics to entrench himself in power just the way his father did. Indeed he has lost his bearing as a progressive African youth who was expected to be the beacon of hope to upcoming youth across the continent. Perhaps, he also wants to die in office.
Why ECOWAS, others must act now
The African Union and ECOWAS cannot pretend not to understand the plight of the Togolese. They cannot pretend not to know that political tensions in the country are high. The regional bodies know too well the character of the Gnassingbes when it comes to the issue of power.
ECOWAS played a commendable role when the military maneuvered the constitution and hastily installed Faure as president after the death of his father. It was the strong stance of ECOWAS with the support of the African Union, European Union, United States, Britain and La Francophonie group that forced Faure to withdraw and a transition government was put in place with the participation of the opposition.
ECOWAS must be wary of coups and civil wars in the region. The crisis of regime change has been witnessed in Ivory Coast and The Gambia in recent times. ECOWAS must also be reminded of past cases in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
It is mind bugling for ECOWAS to always wait till when crisis in member states turns bloody before efforts are deployed to return sanity. The demand of the protesters is clear. They are calling for reform and multiparty democracy just as it is practiced in Nigeria and Ghana, for example. Nigeria and Ghana received international acclaim when their incumbent presidents accepted defeat. But more importantly, these countries have presidential term limits included in their constitutions and there are no intentions by incumbent presidents to alter it. President Gnassingbe must be told to allow Togo to emulate Nigeria and Ghana and other democracies. Now is the time to tell Faure he must listen to the voice of the people.