The Endless Pursuit of Democracy in Togo
The death of 38-year president Gnassingbe Eyadema in February 2005 revived hopes for a democratic transition in Togo. Tragically, this glimmer of hope was swiftly and harshly extinguished by the Togolese military, which had been Eyadema’s key ally throughout his rule. After violating the constitution and then self-servingly amending it; bowing to international pressure to allow for an election and then using violent and brutal tactics to win it; Faure Gnassingbe, son of the former president, and the military from which he draws his support have come to power in Togo, crushing democratic hopes and creating what some have called a “one-party police state.” According to many credible observers, violence before, during, and after the election in April 2005 killed hundreds of Togolese civilians and forced tens of thousands to flee as refugees into neighboring countries.
Despite recent events, Togolese civil society and members of the Togolese diaspora have not given up their struggle for democratic change and respect for human rights in their country.
This dossier seeks to inform concerned members of the international community about the political situation in Togo and to provide suggestions on how the international community can align itself with Togolese civil society and the Togolese diaspora in the struggle for democratic change.
Post-Independence and the Eyadema Regime
The Togolese Republic gained its independence from France in 1960, led by the nation’s first president, Sylvanus Olympio. After Olympio’s assassination in 1963, an insecure and ineffective government led by Nicholas Grunitzky held power until 1967 when Gnassingbe Eyadema came to power in a military-led bloodless coup. Gnassingbe quickly consolidated power, banning political parties and suspending all constitutional activities. With the support of the military, his personal security brigades, a personal presidential guard, and the paramilitary gendarmerie, Eyadema maintained absolute control over political processes in Togo.
In the early 1990’s, as economic decline hit Togo and a wave of democratization swept Africa—a wave catalyzed in part by the democratic transition of Togo’s neighbor, Benin—a movement for democratic reform emerged in Togo. A National Conference was held in 1991 by members of the opposition and Joseph Kokou Koffigoh was elected Prime Minister. Eyadema and his military and security forces responded with almost three years of violence and terror. Hundreds of Togolese civilians were killed from 1991 to 1993, and 200,000 refugees fled into Ghana and Benin. During this period and throughout his rule, Eyadema’s regime systematically abused the human rights of Togolese citizens, relying on arbitrary and mass arrests, imprisonment without trial, torture and liquidation while in prison, co-optation, intimidation, extra-judicial killings, and other brutal tactics to maintain power.
Faure Gnassingbe and the 24 April 2005 Election
On 5 February 2005, the Togolese government announced the death of President Gnassingbe Eyadema. On the same day, the military nominated Eyadema’s son—Faure Gnassingbe—as his replacement, despite constitutional provisions that would have had the Speaker installed as Interim President. After international reaction to the military’s nomination, the Togolese Parliament amended the constitution, opening the door for the military to swear in Faure Gnassingbe as President on February 7.
The international community, led by the African Union, ECOWAS, WACSOF and other pro-democracy organizations, immediately condemned the appointment of Faure as a coup and demanded that elections be held in the country. ECOWAS placed sanctions against Togo and civil society organizations and pro-democracy groups held protests in Togo’s capital, Lome. Eventually, the Faure government bowed to this pressure; on February 22 the Togolese Parliament reversed its constitutional amendment and Faure announced his decision to step down, handing power to Interim President Abass Bonffoh, whose mandate was to administer Presidential elections.
The Presidential elections in Togo were held on 22 April 2005 with Faure Gnassingbe contesting as the candidate from the ruling Rally of the Togolese Persons party and Emmanuel Bob Akitani running as the candidate of the opposition coalition.
The April 22 election in Togo was plagued by countless problems and was, according to credible observers, marred by severe irregularities. Two days before the election, the Interior Minister responsible for the conduct of the elections said it would “suicidal” to hold them as scheduled. Violence and intimidation—by government and military forces as well as pro-government and opposition militias—pervaded the pre-election period and the election itself, compounding the already-difficult task of administering a free and fair election in Togo. Furthermore, the counting of votes was conducted in a highly secretive, non-transparent manner. Despite these well-documented problems, ECOWAS and other international institutions recognized the April 22 election as legitimate; failing to hold the Togolese government to the most minimal democratic standards and thus supporting the continuation of dictatorial rule in the country.
Following the election and the announcement of Faure’s electoral victory, several of Togo’s cities, including the capital, Lome, erupted into violence. Demonstrators took to the streets burning car tires and taking over major streets. Security forces came down harshly against the demonstrators using tear gar indiscriminately to disperse crowds. As the crowds began to dissipate, the military and police forces began a house-by-house campaign of violence against suspected opposition supporters, killing hundreds. Tens of thousands of Togolese civilians fled the country as refugees into neighboring countries due to violence in the post-election period.
The Human Rights Situation in Togo
The human rights situation in Togo continues to be dismal. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2005 country report on Togo, the country’s human rights situation during the past year is characterized by inability of citizens to change their government; politically motivated killings, disappearances, rape, and other abuses by security forces; violent acts committed by both pro-regime and opposition militants during the election period; government impunity; harsh prison conditions; an increase in arbitrary arrest, particularly around election time and secret arrests; prolonged pretrial detention; executive control of the judiciary; frequent infringement of citizens’ privacy rights; severe restrictions on the press, including closing media outlets; restrictions on freedom of assembly and violent dispersals of demonstrations; restrictions on freedom of movement; harassment of human rights workers; female genital mutilation (FGM), and violence against women; discrimination against women and ethnic minorities; trafficking in persons, especially children; child labor; and lack of worker’s rights in export procession zones (EPZs).
The International Community and the Struggle for Democracy in Togo
Despite the oppressive political and human rights situation in Togo, and the deep disappointment following the April 2005 elections—an election that was supposed to usher in a democratic era to the country—Togolese civil society and members of the diaspora remain committed to their quest for democratic transformation. The international community must aid in this endeavor by supporting the brave initiatives undertaken—at great personal risk—by democrats in Togo. Togolese civil society and members of the Togolese diaspora are and must be the central catalysts of change; but their efforts in challenging the current regime—which is violently propped up by the military—must be supported by the outside world.
The Togolese people have struggled for democratic change and human rights in their country; and they have continually been brutally suppressed by a government and a military, which have proven they will go to extreme measures to maintain their power. To stand by idly and allow the Togolese people to continue suffering is morally inexcusable and is a violation of our most sacred shared principles of liberty and respect for human life. International pressure on the dictatorship and its supporters must be intensified to help transform the tragedy of Togolese dictatorship into a miracle of democratic hope. All who believe in freedom and our common humanity—especially in the United States—must stand in solidarity with the Togolese people as they seek to achieve their aspirations for democratic change.
Dany Komla Ayida
Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow
National Endowment for Democracy
 West African Civil Society Forum (WACSOF), Report on the 2005 Togolese Elections