On 19th August 2017, protests spread across Togo as people came out onto the streets calling for the end of the Gnassingbé family dynasty. The president – Faure Gnassingbé – has been in power since 2005, following the death of his father – Gnassingbé Eyadéma – who had seized power in a coup in 1967. Thousands took to the streets across the country chanting “50 years is too long!” and calling for Gnassingbé to stand down as president. Organisers have claimed that 800,000 people attended the demonstrations, which, given Togo’s population size, raises serious concerns about the longevity of the Gnassingbé regime. Although the protests were relatively peaceful, the security forces’ attempt to break up the demonstration in Lomé, lead to the deaths of at least two protesters and left dozens more injured. Given the violent suppression of protest movements previously adopted by both the current president and his father, it is unlikely that protests will remain peaceful if they continue.
In reaction to the August demonstrations, and smaller demonstrations in early September, the government announced a constitutional amendment, which would introduce a presidential term limit. Although this could be seen as a victory for the opposition, which played an important role in organising the August demonstrations, the term limit would not be applied retrospectively, which would enable Gnassingbé to serve as president until 2030. Consequently, the opposition boycotted a parliamentary vote on the amendment on 19th September. This meant that it failed to win parliamentary approval and will be put to the public in a referendum, which will similarly be boycotted by opposition parties. Although the date of the referendum has not yet been announced, opposition parties have made it clear that they plan to disrupt it through protests. As one opposition party official stated, “we’ll set the streets against their referendum”. This indicates that the government’s attempt to reconcile with the opposition has failed and it seems that there is very little room for negotiation. Opposition parties, emboldened by the protests in August, are insisting that Gnassingbé cannot compete in the 2020 election and will not accept anything less than this.
Togo’s opposition parties, which have long been divided and largely ineffective, have benefitted from the growing protest movement in the country, which appears to be coalescing around the figure of Tikpi Atchadam. Atchadam, the former leader of the Togolese Student Union, left the country after his party – Parti pour la Démocratie et le Renouveau – joined the presidential majority in 2005 and only returned to Togo in 2014. After returning, he formed the Parti National Panafricain (PNP) and has been a vocal critic of Gnassingbé. Atchadam is considered a charismatic orator, who has been able to draw widespread support from across the country. Significantly, unlike other opposition leaders, he originates from the north of the country, which has long been a Gnassingbé stronghold, and has a large support base in this region. Despite being accused by the government of having links with radical Islamists in Togo’s majority-Muslim north, Atchadam has joined forces with opposition groups in the majority-Christian south and appears to be a unifying figure, who could pose a serious challenge to Gnassingbé’s rule. Since August, Atchadam has apparently been in hiding but, as more protests are planned, it seems likely that he will re-emerge as the opposition seek to force Gnassingbé to stand down.
With further protests planned, and currently happening, the Gnassingbé dynasty is under threat. An emboldened opposition has made it clear that there is no longer any room for negotiation and that it will use public demonstrations to force the government to meet its demands. Unlike previously, the government must contend with an opposition leader who has been able to draw support from both the north and south, which raises the prospect of country-wide demonstrations. Consequently, social unrest will increase, especially around the referendum, and, if Gnassingbé tries to hold on to power, it is likely that protests will become increasingly violent.