Protesters took to the streets of Togo’s capital, Lome, on Saturday as they continued demonstrations against the administration of President Faure Gnassingbe. Faure Gnassingbe was at the time of the protests in Nigeria, chairing the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) summit in Abuja. Protesters in Togo have held demonstrations in the country since August, intensely hoping for an end to the Gnassingbe dynasty which has ruled Togo for more than 3 decades. Interestingly, the protests were not discussed at the summit of the West African nation bloc.
Togo banned protests during week days in October, and announced that protests can only be held on weekends. However, this has not dettered the Togolese people, as Saturdays and Sundays have become protest days. Faure became president in 2005 after the death of his father Eyadema who had also been president for 38 years. Faure was then installed as President of Togo with the support of the Togolese Army and to the dismay of the people.
After some pressure, he stepped down to grant himself some legitimacy by contesting in the presidential elections in April 2005. He eventually won the election albeit with some controversy. He won a third term in office in April 2015 with 60 percent of the total votes, defeating main challenger Jean Pierre-Fabre. The election was described as ‘fraudulent’ by European Union observers and the Carter Centre. Protests against the election led to the killings of about 1,000 people by Togo’s security forces. Under the current constitutional term limits, Faure Gnassingbe could run for president till 2030.
Gnassingbe was made ECOWAS chairman in June this year, replacing Liberia’s Elle Johnson Sirleaf. Asides from a brief statement calling for calm in Togo, ECOWAS has largely remained silent after the protests began in August and has refused to address this issue in its regional bloc summit in Abuja, with the subject being its chairman. Issues discussed in the summit included Morocco’s intention to join ECOWAS, Tunisia’s intention to be an observer nation, and peace keeping missions in Guinea-Bissau. Human Rights violations including an internet shutdown in September, extra-judicial killings and the excessive use of force by the military and the police (all these atrocities can be seen on Farieda Nabourema’s twitter page @Farida_N) were not discussed or mentioned at the summit.
So, while Togo’s citizens protest for consitutional term limits in Togo, and also for its president to step down, West African leaders have deemed it unnecessary for discussions to hold over the fragile ‘democracy’ in Togo. Of all the presidents in ECOWAS, Gnassingbe remains the only president who has spent the most terms as president, and Togo the only ECOWAS state without a clear and defined constitutional term limit.
Although the numbers look negligible, refugees from Togo are already spilling into neighbouring countries. The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR has already been told to prepare itself to welcome more refugees as the situation in Togo remains unresolved. “Togo’s neighboring countries are quite worried that if the situation is not resolved soon, maybe more people would flee…That is why they have approached the U.N. refugee agency to prepare themselves for any further refugee arrivals.” a UNHCR spokesperson told VOA in October.
ECOWAS preaches regional integration and also has the right to investigate human rights abuses in member countries. While the refugee situation still seems controllable, the displacement of people from their homes is no negligible matter. At what moment will ECOWAS feel a compulsion to wade into the situation in Togo?