Protesters call for changes during an anti-government rally in Togo's capital, Lome, on Sept. 6. (Getty Images)

Barely a soul in Togo has known life under the rule of anyone but Faure Gnassingbé and his father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma.

The elder took control of the small West African nation in a 1967 coup. Ninety percent of Togo's population wasn't even born then. 

In Togo, life expectancy is still shockingly low. In 38 years of misrule, Eyadéma did not build a hospital that could treat even his own heart disease. He died of a heart attack on a plane to France, the country his countrymen once wrested independence from.

To this day, Togo's biggest hospital lacks consistent running water; patients sometimes have to bring their own. Meanwhile, the president's cronies drive luxury vehicles.

On this 50th year of father-and-son rule, Togo's streets have erupted with people saying enough is enough.

“There is no freedom in this country whatsoever — of expression, press, assembly. We are violated on a daily basis when we ask for these freedoms,” said Farida Nabourema, a Togolese activist who has participated in protests that organizers say have drawn 100,000. “We are tired. We are insulted.”


A man holds up a sign in French that reads, “Faure, how many more deaths to your credit?” during a protest in Lome, Togo, on Sept. 6, 2017, calling for the immediate resignation of President Faure Gnassingbé. (Noel Kokou Tadegnon/Reuters)

Nabourema and her fellow protesters are finding inspiration in other West African countries that have recently shaken free from corrupt and authoritarian rulers. Nabourema spent the past year traveling in Burkina Faso and Gambia.

Longtime Gambian President Yahya Jammeh refused to step down after losing rare elections in his country last year and was deposed in an uprising aided by troops from neighboring Senegal. Jammeh and Togo's president were the only two leaders at a 2015 West African summit to vote against regionwide guidelines on term limits.

Togo is the only West African country to never have had a democratic change in government, nor term limits for its leaders.

“Lots of Gambian activists are working with Togolese activists, giving advice on how to organize protests and how to gain international attention,” said Jeffrey Smith, executive director of Vanguard Africa, a human rights advocacy organization based in Washington that played a major role in Jammeh's ouster.

The protests that filled the streets of Lome, Togo's capital, last weekend were probably the biggest in the nation's history. Protesters mainly called for the restoration of the country's 1992 constitution, which imposes term limits. Chants of “Faure must go” and “Liberate Togo” filled the air.

Two people have been killed and dozens injured in clashes with security forces. A crackdown on protests in 2005, when Eyadéma passed power to his son, resulted in hundreds of deaths. Nabourema said the next big march is planned for Friday.

Togo's main opposition leader, Jean-Pierre Fabre, told Agence France-Presse that he was moved by the outpouring of dissent.

“To see the Togolese people rise up as one is a source of great satisfaction,” he said. “I'm overcome with emotion.”

The protest movement is far from a success, to be sure. Togo's government shut down Internet access across the country for six days last week in response to the protests. It also canceled an Israel-Africa summit that would have been attended by leaders from all over the continent.


Riot police patrol the streets of Lome, Togo, Sept. 8 during protests calling for the immediate resignation of President Faure Gnassingbé. (Reuters)

Gnassingbé “has the power to decide how we communicate. But in Africa, we have an oral tradition. We don't need the Internet to organize,” Nabourema said. “What people outside Togo haven't understood is that this isn't just a street festival, it is a revolution. Sometimes we are on the offensive, sometimes we need to fall back. The police are going door to door and beating people and tear-gassing their homes. We are going about this carefully.”

Gnassingbé's Internet shutdown mirrors a tactic employed over the past two years in other African countries, including Cameroon, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Congo, Uganda, Chad, Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Libya and Mali. Each shutdown has enormous economic ripple effects in countries that are already struggling to develop.

The Internet shutdowns also make it difficult for the Togolese to broadcast what is happening in their streets to the rest of the world. One of the biggest lessons Nabourema said she learned in Gambia was that nothing will change until and unless the international community starts applying pressure.

“When people see what's going on, they are surprised at first. But then they learn about what we are going through,” she said. “And then they sympathize.”

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