By Francois Sennesael, Lomé
I spent the last month in Togo filming a short documentary with my colleague and friend, Aymeric Lafineur. During our time in the African state we observed their presidential elections in which Faure Gnassingbe was re-elected for his third straight term in office. We uncovered how outside the capital, Lomé, the election resembled a “circus.” We also found how Faure Gnassingbe’s UNIR party gave fake voter documentation to underage voters. Despite this, the African Union and EU described the elections as “acceptable and fair”.
As I mentioned in a previous article, the elections in Togo were empty of suspense and surprises as Faure Gnassingbe, through his party UNIR, easily won his third straight presidential election. The official results released by the CENI (Independent Electoral Commission), allocated 62 out of the 90 seats to the presidential party. Opposition leader Jean-Pierre Fabre and his ANC party won 19 seats. The results means UNIR fell one seat short to gain the 4/5ths required to reform the constitution.
On July 25, we decided to go to a polling station to take the pulse of the population. Here, we witnessed our first surprise: the turnout seemed to be extremely low when compared to the 2010 elections, where the turnout was 86%. A young student explains to us that everybody knows the results in advance, so it would be silly to take part in this mockery. Our first impression was confirmed a week later when the turnout was officially announced as just 66%.
Our second surprise came when we visited a second polling station. After 15 minutes, we were allowed to enter and to check the ballot box despite not having any official documentation to do so. Fortunately, they didn’t notice I had a hidden camera on my back pack. Ten minutes later, an official suddenly emerged and yelled at everyone working in the polling station. The rules were apparently not respected, the officials more than lax, and the received formation obviously not serious enough. This lack of formation was already criticized by the EU in the previous elections and nothing seems to have changed since then. However, in Lomé we observed lots of UN and EU observers. We can therefore say that the corruption or intimidation were not, or barely present in the capital city.
Outside Lomé, however, it was a complete disaster, and we can even call it a “circus”. Everywhere in the villages we found bottles of water, T-Shirts and even rice bags with UNIR branded on them. In other words, clientelism worked a lot here. We talked at length with the population, a little surprised and chocked that such simple things are enough to get the population’s vote. But they didn’t vote for UNIR just because of water or rice, but because nobody else came to their village during the campaign. This means that the opposition forces have still a lot to learn, and need to support the forgotten places in Togo, even though they don’t have much money at their disposal.
In Akpépamé, a very small village not far from Benin, we found out how everything works. We spoke with Kofi, a 14-year-old boy we met the year before. He was proud to show the ink on his finger. This meant he had voted. We were really stunned, and asked a lot of questions, and recorded everything. Kofi explained how some people from UNIR came three months earlier to the village in order to print some voter’s cards. Kofi and his friends are only 14-years-old, born in 1999, as written on their school card. They received a new ID on which they are 18-years-old, born in 1995. Everyone was born the 31st of December 1995. UNIR had created new electors. Kofi also explained how it really worked in the polling station, during the Election Day. As soon as “teenagers” and women came into order to vote, the president of the station said voting was too complicated, and that he was going to vote for them- voting for UNIR of course. So no need to go to the polling booth, or even to touch the ballot. Every single vote went from the president directly to the ballot box.
Surprised but thrilled with this evidence, we contacted some opposition members we had met on twitter, in order to give them this video. Their reaction was far more euphoric than foreseen. In exchange, they offered us the opportunity to meet Jean-Pierre Fabre, the opposition leader. We spoke for about 30 minutes with him about the elections, the president, but also the international community. Following the decolonization, France has conserved a big influence in West Africa, as we could see in Mali, or in Ivory Coast when Gbagbo and Ouattara were claiming the victory. Togo isn’t an exception. Even though the country is not of international importance, France knows it is a factor of stability in the region. Jacques Chirac, French president between 1995 and 2007, was a close friend of Gnassingbe and closed his eyes to what was happening in Togo, as long as the country was stable. His successor, Sarkozy, president till 2012, also had quite a good relationship with his Togolese counterpart since the former let down his friend Muammar Gaddafi at the time of the Libyan crisis. Hollande, however, doesn’t seem to cultivate the same relationship, and in case of coup, is not inclined to help President Faure.
We found the opposition to be more determined than ever. More worrying, more and more people in the opposition think the only solution is to use guns and to begin a civil war. Yet the population doesn’t seem ready to begin a violent rebellion, and the gulf between the elite and the rest remains broad. The ball is in the court of the international community, which seems completely disinterested. Without more attention Togo faces yet more years of dictatorship. Faure Gnassingbe’s father stayed in power for 38 years and there is seemingly nothing stopping his son staying in power for as long.