The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The same family has ruled Togo for 50 years. Will widespread protests change that?

Protesters call for reforms during an anti-government rally Sept. 6 in Lome, Togo. Hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters have protested across Togo calling for constitutional reform. (Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images)
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Tens of thousands of Togolese citizens flooded the streets of Togo in recent weeks to protest the rule of President Faure Gnassingbé. At least four people have died in clashes with security forces, with dozens more injured.

Faure (as he’s known in the West African country) has ruled Togo since 2005, installed by the military after his father’s death in office. Together, Faure and his father, Eyadéma Gnassingbé, have ruled Togo for 50 years.

Many Togolese citizens have had enough. But are Faure’s days numbered? Research by Erica Frantz and Andrea Kendall-Taylor suggests that autocrats are increasingly leaving power via popular protest. Among their findings: “The percentage of autocrats ousted amid revolt has tripled from 4 percent to 12 percent since the end of the Cold War.”

Will Faure be the next to go? Yes — this is likely. But not right away.

When ailing dictators die in office, what happens next?

The battle over term limits

Here’s what Togo’s protesters want: the reinstatement of presidential term limits, which Faure’s father removed from the country’s constitution in 2002. The ouster of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh earlier this year left Togo the only country in West Africa without constitutional term limits for its head of state.

Various opposition parties have pushed for term limits in Togo for over 10 years in hopes of maneuvering Faure out of office. But the unprecedented level of protests is now pushing Faure’s hand.

Bending to pressure, Faure’s ruling Union for the Republic (UNIR) party proposed in mid-September a provisional term-limit bill in the National Assembly. But the opposition walked out of the negotiations on the measure after UNIR refused to include any amendments the opposition proposed, including one stipulating that term limits be retroactive.

As written, the term-limit clock would start in 2020, allowing Faure, who is currently in his third term, the chance to remain in power until 2030 if he won the 2020 and 2025 elections (which is likely). After the bill failed to pass, UNIR announced that the question would be decided in a referendum in October (a date is not yet set).

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The opposition is against the referendum and continues to protest. Will their efforts finally lead to political change in Togo? Four possible scenarios are likely to play out in coming weeks.

Didn’t we just see a similar scenario in Burkina Faso?

In 2014, President Blaise Compaoré of neighboring Burkina Faso was ousted after 27 years in power. When he tried to extend his term, demonstrators stormed parliament and other government buildings and set them ablaze.

That’s not likely to happen in Togo, however. Pressure for the resignation of Compaoré came from civil society and from the country’s youth. Although Togo’s factionalized opposition has recently begun to work together more closely, civil society in Togo remains relatively weak. The military in Togo is also unlikely to side with the people in the streets, as occurred in Burkina Faso.

Will there be a military coup?

Despite Faure’s efforts to reform the Togolese military since 2005, the army is largely composed of officers from the north of the country — where Faure is from. Protest movement leader Tikpi Atchadam also hails from the north. This is a new dynamic for Togo, which historically has been divided politically between the north (which largely backs the Gnassingbé family) and south of the country (an opposition stronghold).

Despite Atchadam’s northern roots, which theoretically could appeal to military officers from the north, top military brass and the presidential guard remain loyal to Faure, making a military coup (especially a successful one) unlikely.

Even if term limits pass, Faure could remain in power for another decade.

Faure and UNIR have the upper hand when it comes to elections in Togo, which have been among the most violent in all of sub-Saharan Africa. In 2005, more than 500 people were killed. Although the opposition consistently claims fraud and protests the election outcomes, Faure and his ruling party have won every poll since 2005, at both the presidential and legislative level.

According to Afrobarometer data, over 80 percent of Togolese support presidential term limits. This support, coupled with the ruling party’s past ballot success, will make it difficult for the opposition to pull off a “No” vote in the upcoming referendum (the opposition is against the referendum because they want term limits to apply retroactively). While many in the opposition and in the streets want Faure gone now, the broader population may be more likely to settle for a return to term limits.

If the referendum goes forward, it will probably pass. This means that Faure would be likely to serve at least two more terms in office — unless he changes the law again, which appears to be a growing trend in sub-Saharan Africa.

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A compromise may emerge.

But the referendum might not even take place. While conditions remain fluid on the ground, here’s the most likely scenario in Togo: a compromise whereby Faure accepts term limits immediately but is allowed to stay in power until 2020 (when his current term ends) or until after he runs for election one more time.

The Economic Community of West African States, which Faure currently chairs, has largely remained silent on the situation in Togo. But the United Nations sent an envoy to Togo, and last week U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called on both sides to engage in “constructive dialogue.” France, Togo’s former colonizer, retains significant influence in the country and would probably play a key role in securing any such agreement.

To voluntarily step aside in future elections, Faure would probably want assurances that he and his military backers would not be prosecuted for past political violence. Other measures allowing Faure to save face may also be necessary. Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo hinted that Faure should consider going the route of former president José Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, who in August stepped down ahead of elections after nearly four decades in power — but remains the head of the ruling party.

In the meantime, protests continue, with the next set of demonstrations planned for next week.

Joel Amegboh is a PhD candidate at George Mason University. Alexander Noyes is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexHNoyes.