Argument

Africa’s Next Revolution?

Yet another African autocrat is looking vulnerable. As protests roil Togo, President Gnassingbe stands defiant.

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Over the last two months, large opposition protests have rocked the small West African nation of Togo. In November, thousands of opposition protesters marched through the streets of the capital Lome, where two were injured in clashes with security forces. A few weeks later, women with brooms took to the streets of Sokode, the country’s second-largest city, chanting that it was time to “sweep” out the current regime. Building on this momentum, opposition and civil society groups called for massive nationwide protests on Jan. 5 to demand political reforms ahead of the upcoming presidential elections in March.

President Faure Gnassingbe came to power only in 2005, but together he and his father have ruled Togo for nearly five decades, and many Togolese have had enough. The key opposition demand is a constitutional amendment that would introduce presidential term limits and prevent Gnassingbe from running again. Though the Jan. 5 protests were postponed after the president made some concessions, they were rescheduled for January 13 after this key demand was not met. While the details remain unclear, local reports say that security forces blocked a planned march through the streets of Lome and have made several arrests. The opposition has called for daily protests to continue.

So will Togo, a sliver of a country with 6 million people and a small but growing economy, follow the path of its neighbor Burkina Faso, where Blaise Compaore, president for 27 years, stepped down in October after a week of widespread protests? Togo and Burkina Faso share several characteristics: both are impoverished, Francophone countries with semi-authoritarian leaders and a history of military coups. But a regime change in Togo appears unlikely for several reasons.

President Gnassingbe’s party, the Union for the Republic (UNIR), enjoys a commanding majority in parliament, meaning that the constitutional amendments demanded by the opposition are unlikely to pass. The president has the backing of the military, which installed him in power on Feb. 5, 2005, the day his father died in office. Gnassingbe has also proven a savvy political operator. After the withdrawal of several opposition parties from a power-sharing agreement in 2010, he handily won the elections that year with 61 percent of the vote. In an effort to distance himself from his father, he abolished the old ruling party and re-founded it as the UNIR in 2012. This political gambit seems to have worked, as UNIR and Gnassingbe’s support has expanded beyond their traditional base in the north of the country.

Over the past several years, the opposition has staged intermittent demonstrations for political reform, with a spike in protests and political violence in the run up to long-delayed legislative elections held in July 2013. Just before that, UNIR had signed an agreement with the opposition featuring a number of government concessions, including increased opposition representation in the electoral commission and the release of several anti-government activists. In July 2013, I spent a few weeks in Lome interviewing current and former government officials, international actors, and members of civil society, and what I heard suggested that the agreement had helped ease tensions ahead of the elections. It didn’t help the opposition’s poll results, though: UNIR won overwhelmingly, consolidating its majority in parliament and decreasing the likelihood that the party would be open to passing additional reforms down the road.

Many opposition parties feel that the 2013 agreement did not go far enough, particularly since President Gnassingbe appears set to extend his dynasty’s rule over Togo. In the current protests, protesters have marched with signs saying, “Without reforms, no elections” and “50 years for the father and the son is enough.” Meanwhile, at pro-government rallies in November, UNIR supporters held signs that read “Don’t touch my constitution.”

How does this end? Will Togo be sub-Saharan Africa’s next revolution? Codjo Delava, the Secretary General of the main opposition party, suggests that this could be a real possibility in the absence of meaningful reforms: “I’m not hoping it can happen. But there is a chance it can…if Faure Gnassingbe continues to refuse to implement political reforms so that elections can be free and fair, so that presidential mandate can limited [sic], maybe it will happen.”

In 2014, the last time the parliamentary opposition attempted to pass a constitutional amendment to limit the president’s powers, hardline elements in the ruling party blocked the bill. Though there have been some indications that Gnassingbe and his more moderate supporters may be open to the idea of term limits as long as they go into effect after his reelection, Gnassingbe himself ruled out any changes to the existing constitution.

A piecemeal agreement that makes some concessions, along the lines of the July 2013 accord, does appear more likely. Discussions between Gnassingbe and the main opposition candidate Jean-Pierre Fabre began in November. And the announcement of a committee discussing political reforms before the March elections, which includes representatives from civil society, is a step in the right direction.

While Togo is as yet unlikely to follow the path of Burkina Faso, protests and the risk of political violence will intensify in the run-up to the March elections if Gnassingbe refuses to make more than token concessions. Increased EU and regional engagement — from France, the United States, and the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) in particular — could help mitigate the risk of violence by pressuring Gnassingbe to participate in genuine and inclusive dialogue, both before and after the upcoming elections. International actors would also be wise to push the divided opposition to come together and negotiate with one voice. In any case, Togo is worth keeping an eye on.

EMILE KOUTON/AFP/Getty Images

Alexander Noyes is a political scientist at the Rand Corp. Twitter: @alexhnoyes

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