The people behind the uprising against the Gnassingbé Dynasty
Tensions heightened in August 2017 after bloody clashes between loyalists of the regime and the opposition. In September more blood is shed and an embarrassing incident involving fake news hit the regime. Blankspot’s Martin Schibbye visited Togo to take the pulse before the upcoming local elections in 2018 and the looming presidential election in 2020. In May, he met with members of the growing opposition, democracy activists, university professors and students.
The teargas hangs like a veil in the air over the Togolese Republic’s capitol city, with protester, dressed in the bright red color of the oppositional party PNP (Le Parti national panafricain.)
“Fifty years is too long,” a woman chants as a reminder of how long the president Faure Gnassingbé and his father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, have held the power.
The crowd demands that the national constitution be changed to limit presidential mandate periods.
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Many of those who gather in the streets of Lomé on Saturday, August 19, are inspired by the positive development in other countries of the region. The president of the Gambia was forced into exile after losing the election and 21 years of power, and in Gabon and Burkina Faso demonstrations have yielded results. These are changes rooted in the new generation’s relentless protests.
The Twitter hashtag #Togoenmarche streams photos while different Whatsapp-groups are simmering with information and rumors.
“If one drop of blood is spilled today, this dynasty is history,” one activist says.
At least two protesters are killed after security forces opened fire to break up the masses. Thirteen people are injured. In the following days, the Togolese military arrest several demonstration organizers. Meanwhile, Togo’s opposition parties call for a joint press conference on August 22. They have one demand—that Faure Gnassingbé resign. If he doesn’t, they will continue the protests.
Three months earlier
I am in Togo to gain an understanding of the political turmoil in the tiny West African country and to do an interview with Issifou Seidou, a political prisoner who is also a naturalized Swedish citizen. Togo, also known as the Togolese Republic, has been in the hands of one ruling family since 1967: the Gnassingbés. While economic growth and democratic development are happening around them, Togo stands still.
The sounds of a police siren pierce the walls of my hotel room. I pull the green curtain aside and look down into the parking lot. Two blue police trucks with protective caging over their windows and truck beds roll in. “Gendarmerie” is printed in white on their blue hoods.
A young police officer sits in one front seat. I can see how he switches the siren on and off, as if he was checking his cell phone. A group of restless officers are piled into the back of the pickup.
Their riot gear lay in a big, messy pile on next to them: Shields, nightsticks, helmets. They know it’s just a matter of time before it’s time to gear up again.
During the spring of 2017, pictures of students throwing rocks against the police in central Lomé bounce out on the World Wide Web, and in February the Army was called in. They shot at the students. I have followed the developments in Togo for a while, but now I am finally here to see it with my own eyes. But how deep do I have to dig to find some answers? And, where do I start?
My taxi driver weaves through the busy streets of Lomé toward the University of Lomé . I lean back in the baking hot car. For most of my career and in my many visits to conflict zones and troubled nations, resistance movements usually start amongst students. Togo is no exception.
It’s May and the rainy season, but still very hot. Big black clouds hang heavy over the horizon. The Atlantic Ocean is flat and glassy. A rusted remnant of a steel pier, built by the Nazis during World War II, makes a sharp line across the water. Large freightliners sit anchored, further out.
The taxi driver navigates us by military training grounds, assault courses, shooting ranges, all hidden behind large concrete walls. Walls that are built against the Togolese people, not a foreign enemy.
Along the streets are billboards and posters for cell phone carriers and politics. Many of the boards relay the ruling party’s messages. We share the road with young men on motorcycles weighed down with goods, and children who run between the lanes trying to sell windshield wipers. Well-waxed Jeeps honk when they pass us. Of the storied protest movements, there is no trace.
They say that students are the last ones to give up. They tend not to be the types to bury themselves into a life in exile. Instead they dig in their heels and fight for change.
It is the spring of 2017. University buildings have been torched and the security forces that met the protesters with teargas and rubber bullets have been accused of brutality. On the surface, everything seems calm.
The buzz of discussion among hundreds of students in their large outdoor classrooms fills the campus. The entrance is lined with new solar-powered streetlights. Some buildings have new roofs and a brand new swimming pool will open soon. Leaning against a concrete wall is one of the leaders of the radical student organization, MEET (Mouvement pour l’épanouissement de l’étudiant). Let’s call him “Francois”.
Three times he’s been staring at the inside of a prison cell due to his work for student rights. The fourth time they tried to arrest him, he ran for his life and got away.
“I am afraid every time I come here. We have eyes on us. Every time we plan a protest now, someone tips off the police, and we get captured or they forbid us to demonstrate,” Francois says, walking away.
I watch how he hesitates and turns around to make sure he’s not being followed. Guards are stationed around campus, several of them in civilian garb, hinting at the underlying tension. According to a report from the U.S. Department of Foreign Affairs, the Togolese security police has informants in university classrooms who report daily on students’ activities.
That’s also why Francois, the spokesperson for MEET, doesn’t want to be mentioned by name.
“Yes, there change is on the horizon, but the big question for us students is money,” he tells me. “The living situation, food and tuition cost money and that makes it hard for many.”
Various departments are barbecuing and selling beer to raise money under green tarps on the outskirts of campus. Francois tells me that student activities were more political in the past, with lectures and debates.
“Today is more about the party, few are interested in politics,” he says.
He is greatly disappointed that the student body hasn’t managed to push for more change.
“Compared to some of our neighboring countries, it’s like time is standing still,” he says. “It feels like a deep sleep, but people can be woken up.”
Francois doesn’t come across as angry or frustrated. He appears mostly tired after having lived under major emotional stress for a long time. The student organization has fought for change over nearly four decades. After graduation, one of the founders of MEET was bought by the very regime he had once fought against.
“We never quite recovered after that,” another activist says.
The situation is emblamatic of how hard it is, in a poor country, to stand up against a regime that has money to pay off their critics.
“This system we are fighting against, it is a dangerous enemy because they buy you, one by one,” the other activist says. “And people let themselves be bought because, well, we all have to eat.”
Under one of the green tarps, about 100 students squeeze in, waiting for the only ATM machine to start working.
Several of them nod toward Francois when we walk by. Others pretend not to see him, and hurry off with their schoolbooks tightly clenched in their arms. Our conversation turns to the upcoming election campaign. Nobody believes the sitting president would accept a loss, while few people believe any of the opposition candidates can give him a real run for the presidency.
“We could use something new and fresh,” one student says.
For the young generation there is another price tag in addition to prison, attached to supporting the opposition.
“If you’ve made a name as a rebellious student, your future career opportunities are pretty much null, regardless of what you study and your grades,” Francois says. “Nobody wants to hire a troublemaker.”
The sun is in zenith and we head for shade. Francois bids me farewell and leaves me with these words: “If everyone in the opposition goes into exile, who then will be left in this country?”
In the shade offered by the tree, a young female student is checking her cellphone. She’s scrolling through different Whatsapp-groups for news. Loading websites takes too long and most of the media consumption in Togo is done via text messages and different apps.
“Many young people want to leave Togo. They dream of Europe,” she says. “But I think it is possible to create a life here. A family. An income. It has to be possible. If not now, maybe in five or ten years, and if that doesn’t happen, I still think I’ll be happier here. I think it’s hard to make it up in Europe.”
The female student divides the political students on campus into two groups: Those who just want to get rid of President Gnassingbé “no matter what” and those who want to enrich themselves by securing a political power position.
“The interest in politics is very small,” she says and picks up her cellphone again.
I walk toward the campus entrance to find a taxi. Maybe I, like so many others, are looking for the wrong thing? Oppositional voices. A rebellion simmering somewhere. I realize that the real story about Togo seems to be about the silence. The lack of protests. How the opposition escapes into exile. Of censored media and closed down radio stations. And, about the fear that covers my conversations with people like a suffocating blanket. Maybe we won’t know until the surface tension is broken and some people get tired of being scared. Until then, we probably won’t get an accurate sentiment of the state of Togo.
As I wait for a taxi, the wind picks up. There’s an earthy fragrance, the smell before it rains.
After half an hour’s drive from the university, Professor Glitho greets me at her villa in the outskirts of Lomé. It’s a quiet neighborhood. The song of cicadas is the only sound. She wears a red dress with golden embroidery, and offers me a glass of chilled mango juice. I accept gratefully, and she introduces herself as an optimist.
In addition to her academic merits, Professor Glitho has fought a long battle for women’s rights to an education, getting a university degree in particular. But the political turmoil in Togo makes it hard.
“There is a small group of activists that makes politics of everything,” she says and takes a sip of the mango juice.
Professor Glitho says agrees the critics have some valid points. Things like the school bathrooms being in poor shape and the education standards low.
“But you have to keep in mind that this is a university built for 10,000 students and now we have 15,000,” she says. “That makes things difficult.”
She thinks that the constant discussions about politics among the students have caused unnecessary conflicts.
“They try to rouse all students against the regime,” she says.
In her opinion, some of the activists aren’t there to protect the student’s situation and because of that many have lost faith over the last few years.
“The students are tired of them,” she says. “They have yelled themselves hoarse.”
Professor Glitho is also tired that nothing is reported in media about the progress of the university, which is the leading educational institution in this region.
“Thousands of students graduate with degrees in law, social studies and natural sciences. They join in the work for building Togo as a nation, day by day,” she says. “Also, the number of female graduates is constantly rising and the women usually have the best grades.”
Professor Glitho believes that if Togo can just educate its population and put the right person in the right place, her country will be off to a flying future.
“The potential is great, she says. “There is both power and hope in this country.”
Outside the cicadas’ song is overpowered by thunder and lightning. The rain is coming.
“We can’t just complain and wait for society and Togo to change, we have to take that responsibility ourselves, otherwise nothing will happen,” the professor adds.
The wind rips through the palm trees.
Perhaps rain will begin this evening.
The road back to my hotel follows the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. This is also where Bé, the part of Lomé considered to be the home of the opposition, is located.
Its roots are here in the streets and alleys, where both poverty and dissent have a stronghold.
About 50 motorcycles are parked in the mud outside of one of the houses. Those who can’t fit in the house stand outside listening to the speaker through the open door. The meeting room is packed. It’s standing room only, and hardly that, as people are pressed against the wall to listen to Jean Eclou, who is one of the leading politicians in the oppositional party ANC (L’Alliance nationale pour le changement.) Eclou stands behind a dining room table and speaks from his heart. The theme of his talk is how to wake the Togolese from their Sleeping Beauty slumber.
“Why is Togo the last standing dictatorship in West Africa?” he asks. “Everything around us is changing for the better, all nations, even the ocean, but here everything remains the same.”
His audience nods in agreement.
One of the few younger people present lights up when heunderstands that I am a journalist, and we walk outside and around the corner to get some privacy.
“We have assembled here to discuss what can be done about the young generation’s passivity,” he says.
His name is Donatien and he is a teacher and member of ANC. He is troubled by the fact that his students aren’t interested in politics and he has a number of ideas as to how the youth can be mobilized.
“I don’t believe that a political party can change Togo. For the kind of reforms we need I think there has to be a social uprising, a completely new type of movement,” he explains, getting nostalgic when he describes how in 2012 nearly one million people took to the streets, demanding change.
What began as a protest over the price of gasoline escalated and nearly swept away the old guard.
“We called ourselves ‘The Walls of Jericho’ and we thought the old regime would be done away with in a few days. Everything was about to tip.”
Then a fire broke out in the Lomé market and the regime blamed the protesters for it. The uprising derailed.
“Many were arrested and tortured until they admitted guilt and then they disappeared to some prison,” Donatien says quietly.
Today his party, ANC, has 16 seats in parliament but the goal, according to Donatien, is to take power at the next election.
“We have to put a stop to this dictatorship and the Gnassingbé Dynasty,” he says. “Ever since our first president was murdered, this country has been run in a way that has not been beneficial to the people.”
Donatien is referring to Sylvanus Olympio, who was elected in 1961 after Togolese Republic gained its independence from France in 1960. He was assassinated after less than three years on his post (by soldiers under the command of Eyadéma Gnassingbé.) After a four-year period of interim government and a new president, Faure Gnassingbé took power in a bloodless coup d’état.
Like all other proponents for democracy I speak to, Donatien is inspired by what has happened in Gambia.
“We read about everything that has happened in Benin, Ghana, Burkina Faso and most recently Gambia, but nothing changes in Togo, so we need to get our people to understand that the real change has to come from ourselves,” he says.
Outside the house where the meeting is held, children on bicycles head for the ocean. Donatien pulls out his cellphone and shows me a picture of a young activist who recently died in prison.
Donatien’s cellphone is full of pictures and videos of demonstrations—of people dying as the market burnt to the ground. He’s not only worried about repercussions the election could bring with it, but also that the party would loose the 16 seats they have in parliament today.
“We have lost the young generation. Few know and even fewer care, so they will vote for what is on their radar—the existing president—because that’s all they know,” he says.
Donatien isn’t the only one who’s despondent.
“When the election campaigns start, many sacrifice everything, some will even give their lives, and then…the regime wins again and it was all for nothing,” another activist standing next to us says.
So many in the opposition dream of new strategies. not to mention new key figures. At the time of his death in 2005, the former president and Faure Gnassingbé’s father was the second longest-running dictator in the world, next to Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
Meanwhile the opposition has fought, unsuccessfully, for 30 years, and so far with peaceful methods.
“If we are scared and despondent, imagine what the others feel,” he says.
The wind picks up. Leaves and empty grocery bags spin around in the air and the sky turns dark.
In September, things heat up again with the parliament’s efforts to set a time limit of how many terms a president can serve. On September 20, the oppositional parties call for people to demonstrate in several cities. The ruling party, UNIR, responds by encouraging their followers to take to the streets also, in support of the president.
The Togolese Republic’s Minister of Communication, Guy Lorenzo, warns of a coup d’état and urges the opposition to be responsible and modest.
Reports come in that the Togolese Army has fired live ammunition against protesters in the city of Bafilo; one person is dead and several are injured. According to a local journalist, the military blocked the streets so ambulances could reach the injured.
A doctor whom Blankspot reached via phone says: “There are many injured, I am urging the international community to act!”
There are also videos circulating on social media of two uniformed Togolese soldiers who were beaten bloody by the masses.
The following day, on September 21, photos generated by a government-friendly news site hit Twitter. In one of the photos there appear to be tens of thousands marching in support for President Faure Gnassingbé, until someone takes a closer look.
The same group of people appears in several places. The “massive support” is merely a bad Photoshop job. News of the fake news goes viral.
Unfortunately, many Togolese on the opposition say fake pictures and fake news are an every day occurrence in Togo.
The struggle continues on all fronts. Seidou Issifou keeps fighting for survival and his daughter, Wassila, keeps fighting for his release.
Older oppositionists are trying to engage the young, waking them from their slumber to act for change. Human rights organizations like ASSWITO and the Togolese chapter of Amnesty International continue their crusades.
The ECOWAS Court of Justice is beginning to take notice of the human right violations in Togo, all while the Gnassingbé dynasty clings to its throne, Still, Togo’s future remains unwritten.
You have read the third and last installment in a series of three long-form reportages from the Togolese Republic by Martin Schibbye of Blankspotproject.se. Click here for part one and here for part two.
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