Mass demonstrations for democratic rights have swept across Togo in recent weeks. They are demanding an end to president Faure Gnassingbe’s regime.
He and his father have ruled the West African country for half a century.
Chanting “50 years is too long”, thousands of people protested in the capital Lome and other towns on Saturday 19 August. The initial protests were called by the newly-formed Panafrican National Party (PNP).
Farida Nabourema, a democracy activist who was on the protests, spoke to Socialist Worker. “I think this is a turning point for Togo,” she said. “For all the years that I’ve been an activist, I’ve never seen people so determined and fearless.
“We’ve had protests before, but this time we can see the government feeling the pressure.
“The government had to organise its own protest to show it has support, this is something we haven’t seen before.”
Protesters’ main demand is to bring back the 1992 constitution, which guarantees some democratic rights and imposes a two term limit on the president. Farida said, “This is the only constitution that’s been voted on by the people.
“The president managed to change it because he wants to pave the way to rule for life.”
The regime’s security forces brutally cracked down on the demonstrations. In Sokode in the north of the country cops opened fire on protesters, killed two people and rounded up and arrested at least 66 more.
Fifteen of the 27 people put on trial for “rebellion” received 15 month prison sentences.
Farida said, “The idea that Togo is a democracy is a joke and a nonsense. Whenever there are protests the government used lethal force—and it’s not just the police we have to worry about but the military too.
“They shot and killed 10 year olds when there were protests by school students around three years ago.”
She added, “There is no freedom of expression or freedom of the press.
“Not a single year goes by when the government doesn’t shut down the media and imprison a journalist.”
After the crackdown, the CAP 2015, a coalition of five opposition parties, the Group of Six parties and the PNP called for a further demonstrations on Thursday and Friday. In a joint statement the liberal opposition groups said they had “agreed to join forces to bring about the liberation struggle of Togo”.
Faure Gnassingbe has ruled Togo since 2005 when the military installed him as president after his father Gnassingbe Eyadema's death. Eyadema deposed Togo’s first president in a military coup in 1963—then installed himself as president in 1967.
A veteran of the French Army and its wars against Algerian and Vietnamese independence, Eyadema was a loyal servant of French imperialism. Togo was central to the French state’s policy of “Franceafrique”—dominating its former African colonies.
Eyadema suppressed the left and trade unions and sold the country to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As the ruling group, particularly the military, stuffed its pockets, people were left impoverished.
These social factors also feed into the resentment that people in Togo feel towards the regime.
Teachers’ struck for higher wages in March, and there were public sector strikes in the run up to the rigged presidential election in 2015.
The opposition has called demonstrations on Wednesday and Thursday next week. Farida said, “It’s going to be one of the biggest demonstrations.
“It’s usually just the big cities, but we’ve got 20 cities saying they’re going to join it.”
Despite the severe repression, there have been protests against the regime in Togo before. A mass movement forced Eyadema to agree to democratic changes in name—but the regime consolidated its power.
But to tear down the regime—and not just replace it with another corrupt one—ordinary people will have to keep mobilised.
Farida said, “In the past the opposition parties have been weakened, the government has promised them some reforms and called off the protests.
“People are looking to the opposition parties because they’re saying that they will fight to the end—we’re not looking for reforms.”