Togo: Grappling with antithesis of democracy
For the Gnassingbe Eyadema’s dynasty in Togo, the poignant wisdom in Nigeria’s Afro-beat music legend, Fela Anikulapo Kuti holds true: “Na small small you catch monkey.” After Sylvanus Olympio was assassinated in the country’s first military coup, Eyadema, who led the putsch, planted Nicolas Grunitzky. In 1967, Colonel Eyadema overthrew Grunitzky and proclaimed himself President. From 1967, when their patriarch, seized the reins of political power in a military coup from Kleber Dadjo, who served as interim President after Grunitzky’s assassination, the country has been at the whims and caprices of the Gnassingbe family.
Unlike Libya and Zimbabwe, which enjoyed quasi-democracy under one ruler, Gnassingbe Eyadema 38-year reign was truncated in 2005. But while some citizens heaved a sigh of relief, the expected new lease of life did not come as a younger Eyadema, Faure Essozimna, took over.
Twelve years into the reign of the young Eyadema, his compatriots appear to be feeling unease, especially with tales of their West African counterparts in Ghana and Nigeria plucking the fruits of multi-party democracy in their respective countries.
Unlike his father, who was born Etienne, Faure did not have any military training, although he had the best of American and French education in the United States and France. It was partly due to the fact that his father participated in two military coup d’états in the small West African country, (prior to his mounting the saddle)-1963 and 1967- that helped him maintain a tight hold on power. Eyadema later moved from a dictator to a democratic president after conjuring some flawed reforms following the clamour for multi-party democracy in the country.
Despite his ruthlessness the older Eyadema was also dreaded on account of his fetishism, as most Togolese ascribed some shamanistic powers to him.
Bereft of these ignoble qualities, it was therefore expected that the current president would have to contend with a carryover of animosities against his family’s hegemonic hold on Togolese politics.
Thrashing Of Military Regimes
With its varied administrative experience in the hands of Germans, Britons and French, Togo’s march to statehood was defined by a lot of coup d’états. The incumbent president’s father having participated in two of such coups became a familiar figure within the country’s military.
It was this familiarity and acceptability to the armed forces that helped him to grip his country in the hollow of his iron fist, through drastic experimentation with dictatorship and quasi-democracy.
For 23 years Gnassinger, the elder, was the head of Rally of Togolese People (RTP), a political movement he founded and through which, in the name of waging relentless opposition to communism, subjected compatriots to the worst form of inhuman rule.
At the height of growing public complaints against his dictatorial one-party system, Eyadema, accommodated dissent by widening the political space, even though he applied grit, trick and African magic to tele-guide other political parties.
To this day, most Togolese that agitated for multi-party democracy could not fathom why the deceased, ruthless president succeeded in winning presidential elections on five occasions, including the fraudulent one in 2003, two years before he died with the title of Africa’s longest reigning dictator as at 2005.
Immediately after his death, his son, Faure, who practically spent more years outside Togo, mounted the saddle amid mixed reactions at the suggestion of dynasty politics in the tiny West African nation.
It was perhaps in a bid to groom Faure for the presidency that his father, in 2003, appointed him the country’s Minister of Mines, Post and Telecommunications.
Most Togolese still believe that Eyadema, with his immense powers, actually knew his end was near, reason he decided to bring his son to fraternise with the military, a recurring decimal in Togo politics.
This paid off because as soon as the father’s death was announced in 2005, the military helped to install Faure as president, albeit as a stop-gap. The first sign of constitutional frustration with the Gnassingbe family’s hold on power arose shortly after the installation.
In response to the illegitimacy of his ascension to power, the younger Eyadema was forced to quit, only for him to stage a quick come back via haphazard presidential election on April 24, 2005, exactly two months after his resignation.
Since then, Faure has stood election for the presidency on two occasions and won, with the latest being his 2015 defeat of Jean-Pierre Fabre, who left the Union of the Forces of Change (UFC) immediately it entered into a power sharing arrangement in 2010, with the ruling party to form National Alliance for Change (ANC).
Having dribbled Togolese back to power on three occasions, the old animosities against his father’s domination spurred fresh protests and demand for far-reaching political reforms. How Faure handles the latest onslaught against the Gnassingbe dynasty would reveal how far he has internalised his late father’s schemes, as well as, how long the army could go in sustaining its support.
Without doubt, the people are showing their weariness for the same family holding the destiny of the country in their hands. That is one fact etched on the faces of most protesters as they poured into the streets of Togo calling for constitutional provision for term limit for the Office of the President, among others.
Failing The Crucial Test
As it turned out, Faure went back in time to fetch an antiquated method in a vain effort to solve the new political challenge. Mimicking his late father’s days, the Togolese authorities began cracking down on the protesters, and in the process killing some.
At the height of that brutal onslaught, the Internet, the famed instrument of modernity enjoyed by younger generation of Togolese was severed. Some wily Togolese, living outside the country took the social media and started comparing Faure and the North Korea leader, Kim Jong-un, for the attempt to repress and move against free speech and communication.
Although the uprising came barely two months into his headship of the sub-regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Faure’s attempt to quell the demonstration was partly due to frustrations that the black spot in his country’s polity would reduce the expectation from his office. Usually rotated among the 15-member nations, it is the chairman that points the political direction for the bloc.
The implication of the timing and essence of the constitutional reforms sought by the Togolese citizens includes a direct affront on Faure to emulate other members in the body or remain as a hypocrite.
Over and above the reality of the internal frustration with the Togolese strangulating political system, is the decision of the Togolese authorities to consent to host the Israeli-Africa summit in the country.
Given the delicate balance of diplomacy, economy and religion in the region, many nations viewed Israel’s participation in the summit with disdain. Israel has been having a running battle with the rest of Arab over the nationhood of Palestine.
The Israeli-Africa Summit was promoted as “a framework that will permit the leaders of the trade, security and diplomatic sectors of Africa and Israel to meet, network and collaborate.” Even at Togo, which was chosen as host, was highly endorsed as “a beacon of political and economic stability,” and lauded as a genuine hub in the West Africa sub region “and thus constitutes the ideal location to hold the summit.”
It is therefore not impossible that internal opposition to Faure was propelled from outside forces, which must have seen the holding of the summit in Lome, as celebrating Israeli’s denial of homeland and perceived human rights abuses against the Palestinians.
This is because, no sooner was the summit put off than the Palestinian authorities attributed its cancellation to the rejection of Israel’s participation by most members of the African Union, due to their occupation of Palestinian territory.
The four-day event was to hold from October 23 through 27, 2017. At a pre-event meeting in August, Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had disclosed that ever since the summit was scheduled for Togo, a variety of pressures were mounted on the Togolese president to cancel the conference.
Although Israel was revitalising the legendary Gold Meir’s African Policy, the Togolese summit came at such a time the nation was in political turmoil. The protest against constitutional constriction of the political space in Togo, rather than lobby from Arab and Muslim nations for boycott of the conference should be attributed to the cancellation.
Although promoters of the summit announced that the event was postponed, it is possible that by not fixing a future date, the Togolese seem to have been given enough elbow room to address the political challenges.
If therefore Faure Gnassingbe is sold highly on the summit, the demonstrators would have seen the international event as a golden opportunity to have the President consent to constitutional amendments that would give the average Togolese hope that he/she can work hard and become President or any other elective official.
However, it is possible that Faure Gnassingbe Eyadema, in trying to play to the international league, forgot the political imperfections of his base. Being well educated and urbane, there is no likelihood that Faure wanted to enjoy a life-long presidency like his late father. But he has been forced to inherit the political ‘sins’ of the father, who veered into military straight from primary school to be listed in the French Army and trained in weapon handling..
In the 38 years that he ruled Togo, it was not smooth sailing for Eyadema. There were several assassination attempts, which he survived.
For instance, in 1974 it was by a hair’s breadth that he survived a plane crash in Sarakawa, northern Togo. His body also tried to assassinate him. He mocked the failed attempt by carrying about the very bullet extracted from his body by Medical doctors, which some described as amulet.
In 1991, a national conference was organized which produced Joseph Kokou Koffigoh as Prime Minister, which rendered Eyadema redundant as a ceremonial President. His attempt to abort the conference failed as he was forced to accept the outcome.
While it is left to be seen whether Faure would be a survivalist in power like his father, it would be risky for him to make peaceful change impossible and thereby invite the cycle of military coups or assassination attempts. It is obvious that the people are determined to have a change.
Yet the imminent danger, which must have roused the Togolese citizens to street protests, could be the likelihood of power moving from one Gnassingbe to another, after indeterminate terms. And so the citizens decided to strike when political life seems to be sweetest to their president, who began to search for international pedigree and roles for himself.
No matter what happens, the fruit of present unrelenting demonstrations on the streets of Lome is that by 2020, Faure Gnassingbe Eyadema may loathe to seek another term. That would be the first sign of victory for the Togolese people.
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