Can the sparrowhawk take flight?
With presidential elections set for this July, François Sennesael looks at the current president, the opposition’s forces, and the birth of the so-called UPO’s (Unidentified Political Objects) in Togo.
Togo is undoubtedly one of the most underestimated and unknown countries on the African continent. And rightly so: stuck between Ghana and Benin with barely six million inhabitants, the country is considered a failed state, showing the worst development indicators of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), according to the last report on the UN-Millennium Goals (2011).
Unlike Congo or Kenya, Togo does not have a great international impact. Nevertheless, Togo is far from being uninteresting, and is a perfect example of an LDC (Least Developed Countries) which is unable to escape from poverty.
A republican monarchy
If you enjoy following real political campaigns, or feeling the adrenalin as the results are drawing nearer, you are going to be very disappointed with Togo’s elections. In July, current president, Faure Gnassingbé, is expected to win easily although the noose is tightening.
His expected victory will see him start his third successive term in office. Because of this some state that Togo is a monarchy and that the word “republic” is only pretence. They may be right if we consider that Faure Gnassingbé’s predecessor was Eyadéma Gnassingbé, his father, and he was in office for the 38 years Togo had been independent until his son took over. That earned the current president the funny, as well as sarcastic, nickname of “Baby Gnass”.
As cute as it may seem, Gnassingbé is not the type to be soft and complacent. His brother has been rotting in jail for years, charged with having set up a coup. More worrying, Etienne Yakanou, member of the ANC (Alliance Nationale pour le Changement or the National Union for Change), the main opposition party, died two weeks ago in jail. Officially, the government announced he died of a heart attack. However, the ANC affirms it is the result of bad treatment, or at least of intentional negligence. In a nutshell, a single fact can draw the portrait of Faure Gnassingbé: in 2008, while Faure was negotiating with the DG ECHO (European Commission) in order to receive funds to reduce absolute poverty, he bought a new presidential car, a Maybach… for $2m.
Which sections of the population can face up to the well-established president?
Firstly, not the minor officials, who have a (more) comfortable position notably thanks to corruption, and even less the senior civil servants who are too privileged and close to the president. From the top to the bottom, the Togolese administration contains more than 50,000 employees.
Secondly, not the soldiers, who are all too happy to gain a very small slice of the cake. Even though it represents crumbs, it is already better than what the majority of the population has. Moreover, the army has always been pro-Gnassingbé, and is likely to stay that way.
Third, the chieftaincy also plays a role. The chiefs, in the countryside, enjoy a certain political autonomy with the intern organization of the villages. So they’re not inclined to ask for change since they can keep this comfortable position.
Last but not least, not all the Togolese have a voter’s card, or even an ID. Some people are not integrated in the electoral process, or even into society. However, this number has been declining over the last decade.
An apathetic society?
Do not think, however, that in such African illiberal regimes that the civil society is apathetic and fatalist, suffers from a lack of organization, and is simply waiting for money from the Occident to survive. This is far from the truth. We too often see those countries with their shortcomings (e.g. lack of democratic institutions), but thanks to the term “UPO” made up by Denis-Constant Martin (1989), we can observe some unusual ways of conceiving politics, with concepts which do not belong to the Western standards. After having accepted that politics is not all about State and Institutions, we can see a real self-organization of the civil society in response to the ineffectiveness of the core functions of the State. In Togo, the number of local NGO’s is the highest of SSA. Moreover, the population is taking care of itself. Some initiatives have taken place to create a kind of social security completely independent from the state. In this context, the population has learned to live without the State, and understood it has to live on its own a long time ago.
Yet the Togolese are not completely disinterested in politics. Even though they are not unified enough, the opposition political parties exist and have clear and realistic demands. Jean-Pierre Favre (ANC) is one of the most influential opposition leaders. His main fight is to denounce corruption and clientelism. Lots of movements are taking part in the coming elections, more for protesting and showing their existence than for winning, since they are not fooled by promised electoral reform.
Misery as background
How can Gnassingbé stay in office with the existence of this highly active society and these opposition forces? There are some riots, more than ever, but the president seems immovable. As we mentioned earlier, not all the population has interests in changing the president, or even care about it. We can also invoke electoral corruption and paternalism, which is strongly entrenched in the country.
But the most believable explanation is misery. Togo is one of the poorest countries in the world. This being said, people want to keep the even tiniest advantage they can find, as described above. In an ocean of poverty, getting a job, even underpaid and really tough, can be called an advantage. And this so-called “better situation” can disappear if the regime lacks stability. Moreover, with a new president, their situations can be even worse. In other words, as long as the people are trying to survive, there is no time to think about revolutionary ideas, or even about long-term projects.
The sparrowhawk is the symbol of Togo. Since the independence it hasn’t seemed to be able to take flight. On the contrary, it seems more stationary than ever. Does it even want to unfold its wings? As long as Gnassingbé stays in office, change is unlikely to happen. Even though the EU has recently broken the embargo, how will aid be used? Can the opposition gather together? July 21st can be a new start for Togo…or not.