Toward a Democratic Transition in Togo

This is a summary of the public conference I gave on April 27, 2006 in Washington DC, at the end of my fellowship at the International Forum for democratic studies of the National Endowment for Democacy (NED). About 13 years later, the situation has not changed.

Toward a Democratic Transition in Togo

Summary of a public presentation at the National Endowment for Democracy by

Dany Komla Ayida

Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow

with comments by

Mohamed Dansoko

National Democratic Institute for International Affairs


Christopher Wyrod

National Endowment for Democracy

Thursday, April 27, 2006

On April 27, 2006, Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow Dany Komla Ayida gave a public presentation at the National Endowment for Democracy on the political situation in Togo, focusing on the role that the international community can play in supporting Togolese democrats as they seek to promote meaningful democratic reform in their country. The following is a summary of the speaker’s remarks.

I would like to draw your attention to the events leading up to the current political stalemate in Togo and the issues at stake in preparing the way for a democratic transition. In particular, I will focus on the political imbroglio in Togo, the death of the dictator Eyadéma and its aftermath, and the hopes and goals of Togolese democrats as they struggle for political change.

On January 13th 1963, Togo became the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to experience a military coup following independence. President Sylvanus Olympio, who took office when Togo gained independence in 1960, was overthrown by Togolese veterans of the French army. He was killed the next day; shot by Sgt. Étienne Eyadéma. Olympio’s brother-in-law, Nicolas Grunitzky returned from exile and was put in power, but he too was deposed in January 1967 by then Lt Colonel (later General) Étienne Eyadéma, who became president.  This began the long reign of Gnassingbés, which continues to this day.

For 38 years, the Togolese people lived under a regime of tropical dictatorship. In the early 1990s, the international community began putting pressure on Eyadéma to democratize the country. Pro-democracy activists in Togo were met with armed troops, who killed scores of protesters in several clashes. Encouraged by transitions in Eastern Europe and in other parts of Africa, the energy for change and democracy was strong.

Eyadéma gave in after dozens of demonstrators were mowed down by his army. He allowed for the holding of a national conference and a transition to democracy. But concessions made by Eyadéma were only a façade. Transition was undermined and unsettled by numerous interventions by the army against the country’s institutions. As the massive and uninterrupted violations of human rights continued, the international community was forced to intensify its pressure. The European Union suspended co-operation with Togo in 1993. France, Germany and the United States also put pressure on Eyadéma’s government. But France reneged on its decision some months later, renewing its military and economic support of the dictatorship.

It is necessary to note that since the opening of multi-party politics, political parties have been born by the dozens in Togo. They replaced citizens’ organizations, which had launched the popular claims for democracy in 1990. These parties had several negotiations with the regime, but these failed. From 1993 till 2003, there were three presidential elections and three parliamentary elections. All gave occasion to fraud and manipulations which allowed the victory of Eyadéma’s party.

The death of Eyadéma 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 Eyadéma’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 Gnassingbé, 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. That is where we are today…

The Togolese dictatorship perpetuates itself through propaganda and disinformation. Not only is the mass media in the country manipulated by the clan in power, but the flow of information from the outside world is either blocked, or controlled.

Certain geo-strategic factors explain Togo’s isolation from the rest of the world. France, for example, supports the dictatorship in Togo in order to maintain control over certain West African countries, such as Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali. For the leaders of Burkina Faso, Benin and Ghana, the Eyadéma regime is both a threat and a valve of security; a threat because Eyadéma had real power to destabilize these neighbors; and security because change in Togo seems possible only through violent protest or armed conflict. Such a situation could negatively impact these countries, whose political infrastructures are still fragile.

The key political players in Togo are the autocratic regime, supported by a tribal army, and a weak opposition, which enjoys the overwhelming support of the people. Civil society organizations and social movements are new actors that are trying, in different ways, to intervene and to position themselves as alternative forces to promote democracy and compensate for weaknesses of the corrupt and ineffectual regime.

After 40 years of monolithic government, depredation and massive violations of human rights, Togo has one of the biggest African diasporas, relative to the country’s population. This community is also trying to get organized in order to pressure the regime for democratic change. The groups that continue to fight for change, and with which I have been working for some years are: the National Congress of the Civil Society of Togo and the Togolese Diaspora for Democracy and Development. In February 2005, these two organizations established the Council of the Democratic Resistance of Togo, which brings together activists within Togo and members of the Togolese diaspora.

In Togo, the conflict between autocratic power and partisan opposition is unequal. Opposition is divided, manipulated and lacks real capacity for action. Moreover, the parties themselves are not particularly democratic. Since their creation 16 years ago, none of the five biggest opposition parties have changed their leader. As for the RPT, its leaders are often also the leaders of the State and appointed to high positions in the government.

Forty years of dictatorship has led to the exile of dozens of thousands of Togolese. For political or economic reasons, they leave the country and live in other countries. Some of them are activists of the opposition parties and the most are free thinkers who believe that power must change hands in the country.

The Togolese people are known to be peaceful. Although they live under a violent and corrupt regime, attempted coups are rare in the history of the country. In fact, the majority of so-called coup attempts were cooked up by the regime in order to justify repression and consolidate their grip on power. Opponents of the regime have paid a harsh price; many have been harassed, detained, thrown into prison, or killed. The people of Togo waited for Eyadéma to die, viewing his death as the only hope for freedom, and as a new opportunity for a real democratic change.

The long-awaited death of General Eyadéma occurred on February 5th, 2005. Despite constitutional provisions that give power to an interim president, the Togolese army immediately intervened on television to declare loyalty to Faure Gnassingbé, one of Eyadéma’s sons, installing him as the head of the country. In several cities of the country, protestors demanded a return to constitutional legality.

The international community was quick to respond. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) suspended Togo from its sessions, as did the International Organization of the Francophonie. The African Union demanded that the Army leave politics and defer power to the president of the National Assembly, in accordance with the Togolese Constitution. Nigeria threatened to intervene by military means, if necessary.

But the position of France and its president Jacques Chirac was blurred. Chirac’s pressures on Nigerian president Obasanjo and on ECOWAS leaders not to interfere undermined the forces of political change. As a result, ECOWAS conducted last year’s presidential elections without any respect for democratic principles. With France’s blessing, everything was done to ensure that the Gnassingbé regime stayed in power. In effect, it was Chirac, who had been good friends with Eyadéma, who dashed all hopes for a democratic transition.

Some scholars of African politics contend that Africans are not ready for democracy. Some might be tempted to apply this false idea to the case of Togo. I strongly disagree. Togolese culture is not incompatible with human rights and democracy. Over the past fifteen years, The National Congress of the Civil Society of Togo has organized many activities, such as citizen forums, workshops, and seminars. These activities have allowed us to engage citizens from various social levels. For most of the people, democracy equals freedom. From the south to the north of Togo, people, including those who are illiterate, are aware that the autocratic regime restricts their freedom and impedes their economic and social development.

The central obstacle to democracy in Togo remains the Gnassingbé family oligarchy supported by the tribal army. The resolution of the political problem lies in facing up to these two harmful and repressive actors. This is certainly a difficult problem to solve, as Togolese democrats are generally peaceful. It should be noted that this commitment to peace has led the Togolese to be criticized in the region, as they are accused of passively accepting their fate.

When a political transition is blocked but the nation remains faithful to the ideal of democracy there is no reason to despair. But it is difficult to apply the same cures to the same problems if the conditions of the political game have changed; and the conditions in Togo have indeed changed since the election of 2005. It is these changes that have pushed several civil society organizations and members of the diaspora to take new positions. Initiatives must be taken with the aim of rejuvenating the struggle for democracy in Togo.

Democracy is inevitable in Togo. What is unknown is the process of getting to democracy. We have to rethink how to go about promoting democracy in Togo.  The strategy of democratic reconciliation with dictatorships has failed. The economic sanctions of the European Union were badly directed, as they had only harmful consequences for the people. There is an urgent need to reform the democratic movement.

To get the Togolese democratic movement out of its rut, we must involve the men and women of basic communities in the political process. Civil society and social movements remain the most credible actors to work with the citizens of Togo to mount a political resurgence.

The international actors which have so far supported the status quo must change their policies to support and encourage the Togolese democrats, and lead a diplomatic offensive against the Togolese government. The abysmal state of human rights and democracy in Togo demands such involvement on the part of the international community.

Dictators hide behind national sovereignty as they oppress their people. In the case of Togo, the international community has been cautious because national authorities demand certain legitimacy. It is, however, in the name of national sovereignty that militaries kill, violate and ransack with complete impunity. It is imperative that situation be brought to an end.

I do not think that one can build democracy in Togo by continually prescribing dialogue between the dominant minority and the opposition.  This strategy has been used before and is being used currently as well. Last week, political parties from government and the opposition started a new political dialogue. The purpose of this dialogue is to renew the European Union’s cooperation in Togo. This type of solution to political crisis is only aggravating the democratic deficit. Certainly reforms through dialogue are necessary; they can be made only in peace; but the situation in Togo requires more urgent action. We must create the conditions in which the regime is forced to accept democratic change.

  • Togolese democrats, who can represent change and enliven democratic institutions, must be supported.
  • The Togolese army must be reformed so that it is no longer dominated by a single ethnic group and in the service of the single family. We’ve proposed a UN program to professionalize and detribalize the Togo Armed Forces.
  • The Togolese population must be protected against acts of repeated violence by the adversaries of democracy.  The international community must be active in ending impunity and protecting human right in Togo.

We must open the eyes of the world to the drama unfolding in Togo today.  Will it take genocide like in Rwanda or Darfur for the world to pay attention to Togo?  For the sake of the Togolese people and West Africa as a whole, let us hope not.

Dany K. AYIDA,
Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow