Togo is heading for disaster

FILE - In this Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019, file photo, the flags of the nations of Benin and Togo, the west African homes of the survivors of the slave ship Clotilda, remain on display on a monument at what was the Africatown Welcome Center in Mobile, Ala. The center was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and hasn't been rebuilt. On Wednesday, May 22, 2019, authorities said that researchers have located the wreck of Clotilda, the last ship known to bring enslaved people from Africa to the United States. (AP Photo/Julie Bennett, File)

Togo’s long-time ruler Faure Gnassingbe, who has run the country with an iron-fist for 15 years, retained his grip on power, when he won the most obviously one-sided municipal elections last week.

Only 53 percent of people turned out to vote. Early results give Gnassingbe’s ruling Union for the Republic (UNIR) 895 of the 1490 council seats, in 114 municipalities, in the West African country, nestled between Ghana in the west, Burkina Faso in the north, and Benin in the east.

The National Alliance for Change, one of the three major opposition groups came second after securing 134 seats. The Opposition Coalition (C14) secured 131 and the Union of Forces for Change (UFC) secured 44 seats. The leader of the opposition Pan-African National party, Tikpi Atchadam Party (PNP), is exiled, although the party participated in the election.

The opposition, was divided, and failed to rally around one presidential candidate, giving Gnassingbé an advantage. A total of 570 political parties and independents contested the elections, the first since 1987.

This was the first municipal elections in 32 years in the West African country, with 8 million people. Voter turnout in the capital Lome, which have seen regular public protests over the past years against the president’s autocratic rule, fell below 30%. Voting was cancelled in three regions of the country – strongholds of the opposition, for supposedly “technical reasons”. 

The Gnassingbe family has now controlled the West African country for 53 years. Gnassingbe was handpicked by the military in 2005, after the death of his father, Eyadema Gnassingbe, who ran the country autocratically for 38 years after take power through a military coup, when he ousted the country’s second post-independence president, Nicolas Grunitzky, in 1967. Faure Gnassingbe’s appointment in 2005, unleashed massive public protests, which were met by violence by the government, killing 500 people. 

Ahead of the elections, Gnassingbe jailed potential rivals, suppressed opposition parties, civil society and the media, and crushed dissent. He manipulated election districts to give his party the advantage.

In May, Gnassingbe controversially pushed through a new law that will allow him to run two more terms. This means that Gnassingbe will be in power until 2030. The last municipal election in Togo was in 1987. Those who were elected in 1987 stayed in their positions for 14 years, although they were supposedly elected for only 5 years.

The Constitutional Court and Electoral Commission are packed by allies of the president. The country had legislative elections for the National Assembly in 2013. Gnassingbe’s party won, but the opposition rejected the results saying the elections was not fair or free.

The country held parliamentary elections 0n 20 December 2018; which the opposition boycotted. Gnassingbe’s authoritarian rule has unleashed deadly violence, with opposition groups forming militias, many citizens fleeing into exile and mass poverty.

Togo’s Catholic bishops have warned previously that Gnassingbe are increasingly pursuing a policy of setting up ethnic and religious groups against each other to retain power. The country is made of 30% Christians, 20% Muslims and 50% practicing indigenous religions.

Gnassingbé himself is a Christian. He is from the Kabye ethnic community. Germany colonised Togo; followed by the French. German and French colonisers favoured the Ewe community in the south. The Ewe, 30% of the population, is the largest community.

The Kabye community, 20% of the population, based in the north, were recruited into the army under French rule. At independence in 1960, the Ewe were dominant in politics, public service and business; and the Kabye community dominated the army. The Tem, and other smaller ethnic communities make up the rest of the population.

Togo’s first independence president Sylvanus Olympio was backed by the Ewes. Olympio was assassinated in a military coup in 1963. Grunitzky, also from the Ewes community, took over from Olympio.

When Eyadema Gnassingbé, from the Kabye community took over in 1967, he brought in people from his community, and marginalised others. He established his own party, the Rally of the Togolese People Party, introduced a one-party system in 1969 and banned all other parties.

Eyadema Gnassingbé typically, like many other African autocrats, during the global democracy wave in the early 1990s, at the end of the Cold War, introduced “elections”, and in 1991 allowed political parties, which went on to suppressed. Not surprisingly, Eyadema Gnassingbé, went on to win all “elections” held in 1993, 1998 and 2003.

Togo’s electoral system must be made more transparent. The voter register system must be cleaned up. A two-term presidential limit must be introduced. The Composition of the Constitutional Court, Electoral Commission and other oversight agencies must be based on merit; and they must become more transparent.

Appointments to the public service, military and awards of government tenders must be based on merit, rather than ethnicity or closeness to the president. Nevertheless, African continental and regional organisations and leaders will have to step in before Togo plunged into ethnic and political violence which will break the country.


William Gumede is Chairman of Democracy Works Foundation (, and author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg).