Togo’s president is expected to extend his family’s more than half-century rule in elections on Saturday, retaining his grip on power in a country that has become an economic hub of west Africa.
Faure Gnassingbé has ruled the country of 8m people since 2005, following the death of his father Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who held power for 38 years after leading a coup in 1967.
In May Mr Gnassignbe pushed through changes to the constitution that will potentially allow him to hold power until 2030, and there is little doubt among observers that he will win a fourth term.
“It’s not fair or even accurate to describe the electoral exercise taking place in Togo as an election,” said Jeffrey Smith, founding director of Vanguard Africa, a Washington-based non-profit group that supports free and fair elections in Africa. “It’s a carefully stage-managed coronation — a process by which a family dynasty is seeking legitimacy that it has not earned, nor does it deserve.”
The government has said it will deploy 10,000 troops to secure the elections, a prospect that Togo political activist Farida Nabourema said amounted to intimidation.
“The people of Togo want change,” she said. “After 54 years of dictatorship, it is only normal we wish to try something else. But how do we defend our votes and ensure transparency with such a heavily armed regime who rejects transparency?”
Election monitors from the UN and the Economic Community of West African States will be in the country, whose antidemocratic leanings are an exception in west Africa, which includes some of the continent’s most vibrant democracies.
But earlier this week, the government cancelled the election observer credential for the largest independent civil society organisation, after previously prohibiting Catholic Church monitors from participating. On Thursday, the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, which has supported elections in scores of countries for decades, said that its staff members were abruptly expelled from Togo after authorities revoked their accreditation “without warning”.
Ms Nabourema said the government had blocked access to the US State Department website after a top US official for Africa said he was “dismayed” by the expulsion of NDI staff. She also said that WhatsApp had been blocked.
Mr Gnassingbé has tried to turn Togo’s capital Lome into an economic hub for west Africa, and in some ways has succeeded, capitalising on the economic stagnance and infrastructural chaos of its massive neighbour Nigeria.
In 2018, Lome overtook Lagos as the leading container port in west Africa after the government implemented “ease of doing business” reforms and poured money into infrastructure. It is also home to Asky, one of the few airlines plying intra-West Africa routes, and the pan-African Ecobank, which operates in 36 countries.
Togo’s economy grew at 4.9 per cent last year. But more than half of Togolaise still live in extreme poverty, which the World Bank defines as less than $1.90 a day. For the country’s rural majority, the proportion is 68 per cent.
It is the tenth-poorest country in the world, according to the IMF.
The military declared Mr Gnassingbé president in 2005, after the death of his father, in violation of the constitution. International outcry forced the government to hold what are widely considered to have been sham elections in 2005, in which hundreds of people were killed in a violent crackdown on protests.
A new wave of protests against his rule in 2017 and 2018 was also met with force.
Mr Gnassingbé will face opposition leader Jean-Pierre Fabre, who has come in second the past two elections, and five other candidates from the divided opposition. A two-stage electoral system was reintroduced last year. But few observers expect it to make it past a first.
“The regime . . . keeps saying that they will win [in the] first round,” said Ms Nabourema. “Since they are the ones in charge of the institutions, they have the power to proclaim victory . . . It is not anywhere close to an actual election.”