Togo – two years after Eyadema

On Feb. 5, 2005, the Republic of Togo was thrown into turmoil when its ruler of 38 years, Gnassingbé Eyadema, unexpectedly died from a heart attack at age 68. His military quickly installed Eyadema’s son, Faure Gnassingbé as the successor of the “old man” – a move quickly denounced by most of the international community. After internal and external pressure, elections were held in April of 2005. Due to substantial intimidation and outright violence and fraud, the ruling RPT claimed victory for its “candidate” Faure. Thus it came to pass that Faure inherited the “family business” from his dad.

Now, two years after these dramatic and rather violent events, Togo appears to have changed quite a bit. Under Eyadema’s régime, fear and intimidation were the modus operandus of the public discourse. People who dared to speak out were harassed and often disappeared. Togolese commenting on the situation two years ago in blogs and forums often used pseudonyms and stayed anonymous, for fear of reprisals against their friends and family back home. In Togo, when discussing politics, great care was taken to avoid being overheard easily.

Today, that chill appears to have lifted somewhat. More people are willing to speak out and speak their mind in public. Yet, critics point out(fr) that many of the old power dynamics are still in place, and that much of the perceived liberalization is just window dressing. Interestingly, the official RPT-run government news website touts quite prominently the changes over the last two years, like the de-throning of Rock Gnassinbé from his cushy post as head of the Togolese Football Federation and the installation of prominent opposition figure Yawovi Agboyibo as Prime Minister. Agboybo ran for president twice, and he spent eight months in jail for defaming a former prime minister.

Despite the reformist rhetoric and the new website design, the website has hardly become a beacon of free speech and independent political analysis. Rather it is the same RPT rag, just under new management. The mouthpiece of a “kinder, gentler” RPT? Or maybe the RPT just abandoned its hard line approach to further the same basic end: power.

Presenting Faure as a new, pragmatic leader who promises both continuity and a more inclusive leadership is very much in the interest of all the real power brokers in Togo. Clearly, one of the key goals of this maneuvering is to restore economic aid from the European Union. This can only be accomplished with some reforms and acceptable elections. Another key goal for the RPT is to guarantee continuity to the foreign economic interests in Togo (China, France) and to reassure them that their investments are safest with Faure. Finally, France has a vital interest in re-establishing Togo as a pillar of its hegemony in West Africa. That can only be accomplished by maneuvering Togo back into the mainstream of West African politics. France has no interest in Togo as an isolated pariah in West Africa. And the Togolese military has no interest in France loosing interest in buying them new guns.

So is Togo truly changing? Is the RPT turning into a kinder, gentler dictatorship? In some ways it is – and therein does lie a chance for democratization in Togo. Faure is not the old man, he does not command the fear and authority Eyadema did. The RPT is loosening its grip on Togo. Probably for strategic reasons, to present Togo as a new, more enlightened country, in order to get economic aid restored. And finally, Chirac is a lame duck and until a new administration settles in in Paris, the influence of France on West Africa may also be somewhat diminished.

So the election this summer might just represent an opportunity to wrest power from the RPT. That is not a prediction – to be clear – I am not at all sure that the fractured, self-absorbed opposition in Togo has the wherewithall to pull that off. But I do think there may be an opportunity. Theat opportunity is not to legitimize the RPT and the Eyadema clan’s grip on power. It is the opportunity to wrest power from them and to give the Togolese people control over their destiny.

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