On Tuesday, the Israel-Africa summit, scheduled to be held in Togo in late October, was postponed indefinitely. Last week, the Togolese government shut down the internet. Clearly, things are amiss in this small, West African country. The cause of these upheavals is the country’s most significant political protests since 2005. Hundreds of thousands of Togolese citizens are taking to the streets to demand constitutional reform and protest the rule of Faure Gnassingbé, who rose to power after his father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, died. Eyadéma took control of Togo in 1967, meaning his family has controlled the country for 50 years. Unfortunately, five decades of experience has not taught the Gnassingbé dynasty how to improve the lives of its citizens. As a result, Togo’s people are demanding change.
Togo is a small country sandwiched between Ghana and Benin. It is fairly densely populated, with just under 8 million citizens living in an area about the size of Croatia and slightly smaller than West Virginia. Togo was colonized by Germany during the “Scramble for Africa,” but, after Germany lost its colonies following its defeat in WWI, it was divided between Britain and France. What is now called Togo is what was once the French portion. After WWII, European empires began to collapse, granting independence to their colonies. Togo was no exception, becoming independent from France in 1960.
For its first three years as an independent state, Togo was led by Sylvanus Olympio. In 1963, however, Olympio was assassinated and overthrown in post-colonial Africa’s first of many military coups d’état. Gnassingbé Eyadéma was instrumental in that coup d’état, and it is widely believed that he is the one who fired the bullet that killed Olympio. Eyadéma would not become president until 1967, however, after another coup d’état. His rule, which lasted from 1967 until his death in 2005, was characterized by authoritarian tendencies and economic stagnation.
Although Eyadéma was not unusually cruel, he ruled his country as a dictator. He established a one-party state and harassed members of the opposition. Disappearances and political assassinations were not uncommon. Eyadéma belonged to the Kabye people, a minority ethnic group making up only 12% of the population. During Eyadéma’s rule, however, 70% of the armed forces were Kabye. Over time, Eyadéma’s supremacy gradually weakened. In 1979, he transitioned away from military dictatorship towards civilian rule. The 1990s were characterized by a power struggle between Eyadéma and the opposition, and the struggle at times turned violent. In 1992, domestic and international pressure forced Eyadéma to accept a new constitution, which included presidential term limits. As a result, although Eyadéma managed to hold on to power, his power was no longer absolute.
By 2002, however, Eyadéma had succeeded in removing term limits, allowing him to win an additional term in 2003. That term was his last. In 2005, Eyadéma passed away at the age of 69, and the military installed his son, Faure Gnassingbé, as president. This was a violation of the constitution and was called a coup by international observers. It sparked massive, nationwide protests and a violent crackdown by the military. As a result, Gnassingbé agreed to step down and stand in elections, which he won. He has run the country since then, and it is his rule that is currently being protested.
Similarly to his father, Gnassingbé has thwarted democratic norms. In 2015, the regional economic bloc ECOWAS proposed imposing term limits in all of its member states. Togo and The Gambia were the only two out of 15 countries that opposed the measure, and it consequently failed to pass. Now that The Gambia has a new president, Togo is the only country in ECOWAS opposed to term limits. Gnassingbé has also failed to develop his country’s economy. Most of the population depends on subsistence agriculture, and 42% of the GDP is derived from agriculture. Structurally, the economy remains poorly developed. As a result, it has low standards of living: its Human Development Index (HDI) is ranked 166th in the world and shows little growth.
This is the context in which protests have again erupted. The Togolese protesters want term limits. They want constitutional and electoral reform. They have a government with 50 years of experience clinging to power but very little experience improving standards of living. The government shows no sign of changing, which means standards of living show no sign of changing. That is why so many people are protesting. If Faure Gnassingbé’s rule had brought significant improvement to the lives of Togo’s citizens, the citizens would have little to protest about. But his rule has had little positive effect, which means its continuation would similarly bring little progress.
Thus the protesters are teaching Gnassingbé a lesson that leaders around the world have learned time and time again: that the best way to maintain power is to positively impact standards of living. China, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States have all learned this lesson, and they have consequently been able to maintain authoritarian political systems. 50 years should have been more than enough time for the Gnassingbé dynasty to learn this lesson. So far, however, it has not.