There are moments in history when you know that the people aren’t going to back down. Neither repression, nor a major international media blackout will deter the hundreds of thousands of people from reaching for their dream.
Make no mistake, the opposition movement and calls for President Faure Gnassingbe to step down are only growing louder in Togo.
Authorities in this west African country, fearful that mass dissent will make the streets their home, are reportedly conducting daily raids in the capital and in the northern town of Sokode, where the calls for change are rapidly taking root.
Public gatherings have been banned, internet and communication networks slowed intermittently.
Even if he is just 51 years old himself, Gnassingbe is part of the old guard of authoritarian African leaders who believe in never leaving the job.
Eyadema, Faure’s father, ruled the country for 38 years until he died in 2005. Faure took over after winning consistently contested polls between 2005 and 2015. In effect, the Gnassingbes have run Togo since 1967.
As it stands, the current president will be able to run till 2030 and the opposition simply refuses to accept it.
They began protests in August, demanding institutional and electoral reform, including a return to the 1992 constitution, which imposes term limits. But their protests fell on deaf ears.
“The president has demonstrated that he had no interest whatsoever in listening to the people. The decision to ban freedom of association is proof that they won’t care about the principles that guide democracy,” Farida Nabourema, an activist in Lome, said.
“If we cannot discuss peacefully with our government, then we want them to step down. We don’t want another option; either we get the reforms or he resigns. Since he has refused the reforms, we want him to resign."
Activists say that up to 13 people have been killed and hundreds of people have been rounded up, as a means to intimidate and to persecute.
The death toll is likely to rise as the government stance hardens and protesters feel like they have nothing to lose.
Of course, there is a history of protest in Togo; this is a country that has raised dissent with the changes in the constitution and electoral processes before, but routinely squashed by authorities. Again, there is a certain clarity that was missing before.
One of the differences with today’s protest movement has been the rise of a little known politician named Tikpi Atchadam, the leader of the Pan-African National Party.
According to scholars of the region, it has been his ability to speak plainly that has captured the imagination of people, but even more importantly, managed to unify the opposition. Activists have drawn tremendous esteem from the fact that protests have moved beyond the capital and into the country’s northern areas which have traditionally been pro-government.
But if activists are looking for esteem from their neighbours, or from the international community, it is unlikely to be forthcoming for now. Media coverage of the crisis in Togo has been typically poor.
In mid-October Ghanaian journalist Elisabeth Ohene castigated the Ghanaian media for not covering Togo better. Accra is but a 40-minute flight from Togo’s capital, Lome. “The African story is, therefore, left largely to be told often by non-Africans and then we complain,” Ohene said.
But Togo has also been mostly ignored by the international English-speaking media as well. And if efforts have been made, international journalists have been left in the cold by Togo’s communication ministry, which refuses to let them in. You can tell a lot about a country by the way they treat the media.
Meanwhile, and linked to the poor media coverage, few African countries have spoken out officially on the rapid deterioration of social and political life in Togo. Ecowas and AU for their part have issued generic statements that “welcomed proposed reforms, called for peace and encouraged dialogue".
Last week, Ousainou Darboe, The Gambia’s new foreign minister, called for Togo’s president to step down. “When it goes against accepted norms I don’t think it should be treated as an internal affair,” he added.
But Darboe released a statement two days later saying that it was not up to The Gambia what happens in Togo.
In many ways, this illustrates the nefarious nature of African politics.
Even a new government like The Gambia, which only as recently as January saw Ecowas troops deployed to the country to get rid of former president Yahya Jammeh, is not able to speak out. If Gambians do so, they are immediately called to order. It might have something to do with the fact that Togo’s embattled president is also the current chairperson of Ecowas.
Where it had been bold and brave and interventionist when it came to removing Jammeh, it is now awkward and confused when it comes to dealing with the collapse of rights in Togo, showing once more that our institutions are still run by personality and not policy.
* Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founder of The Daily Vox.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
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