Today
Sat 17 April 2021

Natasha Livingstone explains how a combination of state support and repression during the COVID crisis has bolstered Togo’s 54-year dynasty

In 1967, protests were erupting against the Vietnam War and Elvis Presley got married to Priscilla. Labour’s Harold Wilson was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

It was also the year that Eyadema Gnassingbé seized power of the west African country of Togo in a January coup. Today, the country is governed by Faure Gnassingbé, Eyadema’s son, who won re-election a year ago – despite accusations of fraud. He presides over the continent’s longest-running dynasty, and could remain President until at least 2030.

Authoritarian governments across the globe have used the COVID-19 pandemic as both a distraction and a reason to tighten their grip on power. China’s draconian National Security Law has quashed democracy in Hong Kong, while from Belarus to Uganda, strongmen have “won” elections against opponents silenced by security services. The military has seized control in Myanmar and Russia has sent its main opposition leader to a Siberian prison camp. 

Faure Gnassingbé appears, however, to have been among the most successful in using the pandemic to his dictatorial advantage, both to curb dissent and bolster his own popularity. 

One month after the novel Coronavirus was identified by Chinese authorities, the Togolese leader was in the throes of a controversial election. Opposition leader Agbéyomé Kodjo accused the authorities of ballot stuffing as troops surrounded his home. Yet, on 24 February, Gnassingbé was declared the winner and, with the international community turning a blind eye to allegations of fraud, his Government called for an international arrest warrant on Kodjo, who remains in hiding. 

Togolese have not previously taken Gnassingbé’s autocracy lying down. There were riots when he was installed by the military after the death of his father in 2005, and again in 2017/18, when he pushed for constitutional changes to seek re-election. This time, their protests were silenced before they could even begin.

“Under ‘normal’ conditions, the outcome of the presidential elections would have triggered large demonstrations,” said Dirk Kohnert, an Africa specialist at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies. “But because of the restrictions introduced to limit the spread of the virus and the control of social media and the security forces, the old and new opposition lacked the means to put its protests into practice.”

Gnassingbé differed from populists like Donald Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, in that has did not downplay the threat to life from COVID-19 – instead introducing curfews, border restrictions and face mask rules. “We cannot be complacent,” he wrote in an article for the Financial Times last April. Neither did he entirely ignore the economic impact, forming a $22 million social safety net scheme for workers in the informal economy. 

All this proved popular. “The majority of the Togolese population and the international donor community believe Gnassingbé has handled the pandemic effectively. His popularity has increased and he has consolidated his power even more,” Kohnert says.  

For Fabrice*, a 55-year-old teacher in Lomé, the capital, these measures put Gnassingbé in a new light. “He’s a little more popular now compared with last year, after the election. The Togolese people liked his restrictions to tackle the Coronavirus … and people are still benefiting from the financial aid he introduced.”

This popularity has helped the President, who has extended his rule by decree until March 2021, giving him new powers that could be exploited in the future. 

“Togo is a really good example of someone exploiting the pandemic to furnish themselves with extraordinary powers without the institutional mechanisms being there to reverse those in the future,” according to Benedict Craven, who authored the Africa section of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index, in which Togo was ranked as having suffered the continent’s second-worst slide into autocracy.

Though Gnassingbé may be “deep down, a moderniser,” in contrast with the Tanzanian President John Magufuli, who recently declared that God had eliminated COVID-19 from the country, he does have a “Messiah complex”, Craven added. “He’s got a mission to modernise Togo, and the people aren’t going to get in the way of that.”

Yet Gnassingbé has not been alone in eroding the power of the people. The Democracy Index’s global average hit an all-time low this year, with particular regressions in Mali, El Salvador, Algeria, Burkina Faso and even France and Portugal, which were relegated from “full democracies” to “flawed” ones. 

Togolese mostly escaped the state violence meted out elsewhere. In April, Amnesty reported that Zambian police had adopted a strategy to “hit” and “detain” anyone found on the streets, promising: “We hammer you, we hit you, then we do detention. If you escape, you are lucky.” 

Craven added: “You have instances of police having killed more people than Coronavirus. That famously happened in Nigeria. There were also a lot of instances of police brutality in Kenya and South Africa.”


Democratic Resurgence?

But strict social distancing restrictions mean that Gnassingbé has not so far had to deploy this brutality, in contrast to past riots. “We can’t protest at all, about any cause,” Fabrice says. “If people organise, the police will disperse them. To make matters worse, the Government is free to do whatever it wants because there is no real opposition in parliament.”

Craven is pessimistic about a resurgence of democracy after the pandemic. “I think if governments are able to either supersede parliament or they have a rubber-stamp parliament, and they’re able to keep extraordinary legislation active, they’ll see a much, much slower progression back to where they were before Coronavirus, or perhaps they could be worse for it,” he says. 

Bending rules for personal power would not be out of place for Gnassingbé or the wider region. Rumours remain that his father was the one to physically fire the shot that killed his predecessor. The dynasty’s longevity is unrivalled in Africa but the leaders of Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, Eswatini and Uganda have all been in place for decades. 

For Fabrice, there remains some hope. In September last year, Togo appointed its first female Prime Minister, Victoire Tomegah-Dogbé. “She gives me hope for change,” he said. 

Craven, too, is not totally without optimism. “Both in Togo and across the world, you have populations that are much more tech-savvy, with social media users much more politically engaged than they were before,” he said. “That creates grassroots conditions for greater democracy in the future.”

As with many poorer countries, confusion reigns over when Togo can expect to start mass vaccination – so the route out of the pandemic is unclear. And yet, Faure Gnassingbé’s progressive approach to fighting the virus and his repressive approach to his citizens’ political freedom means there is little doubt about who will be in charge if and when it does. 

*Not his real name 

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