Thousands of Togolese protesters dressed in red opposition colors have been flooding the streets of the capital city of Lomé over the past month, shouting slogans that have gone unheard for 50 years. Hashtags denouncing dictator Faure Gnassingbé continue to circulate across West African social media. Activists young and old, male and female, are still fighting online and offline. Everyone is waiting to see what will happen next, including the regime, which wants Togo to remain the only West African country to have never experienced a democratic transition.
The beginnings of a 50-year dynasty
Shortly after Togo’s 1960 independence, Étienne Eyadéma staged a coup and ousted the country’s first elected president, Nicolas Grunitzky. He immediately suspended all constitutional processes and banned all political parties. Five years later, a referendum was held and Eyadéma ran unopposed, thereby confirming his rule as president and extending his military reign another seven years — until partial civilian governance was allowed in 1979.
Following his self-declaration of power, Eyadéma successfully thwarted several coup attempts. In one instance, in 1986, a group of more than 70 armed Togolese dissidents crossed into Lomé from Ghana with the intent to overthrow his regime, but state forces thwarted the insurgence. In 1990, riots were sparked by students distributing anti-regime literature. This led to a few months of violent clashes between anti-government activists and security forces, resulting in very little gain for the activists. Three years later, an attempt to assassinate Eyadéma was also squelched by Togo’s military.
Eyadéma’s ultimate downfall was a heart attack, dying in February 2005 en route to France for medical treatment. Given the more than 15,000 people he killed during his dictatorship, Eyadéma’s death was hardly a sad event in the history of Togo. What’s more, it led to the ascendance of his son — Faure Gnassingbé — as president.
Since 2005, Gnassingbé’s government has been characterized by incompetency and the severe repression of dissidents. The health sector has been particularly neglected, with Togo’s best hospital still lacking running water. Electoral processes have been fraudulent, at best. Protesters are frequently arrested and tortured. Already, during these September protests, at least two people have been killed by the state and no less than 15 have been jailed. One sign at a recent demonstration read: “Faure, how many more deaths to your credit?”
Dictators often consolidate their reign with divide-and-rule tactics. Fractured oppositions present little threat to authoritarians. That’s why Panafrican National Party head Tikpi Atchadam built an alliance with the more popular National Alliance for Change. Together, both parties organized united inter-partisan protests against the Eyadéma dynasty.
Constituents supporting these two parties, as well as nonpartisan allies, flooded the streets with chants like, “Fifty years is too long.” Other slogans and hashtags surfaced, including “#FaureMustGo” and “Liberate Togo.”
In response to the turnout on the first day of the general strike and demonstrations, Atchadam said, “You’ve always demanded a united opposition. It’s here from the youngest to the oldest; it’s here.”
While Togolese were rising up and making their demands clear, Gnassingbé was plotting to stop them. But rather than merely employ the typical brutal crackdown on his opponents, Gnassingbé had Prime Minister Selorm Klassou organize a pro-government rally. Few showed up, and Togolese activists mocked the state’s turnout at their own protests, which brought out over one million of the country’s seven million people. The state has continually attempted to censor Togo’s ongoing revolution. Internet slow-downs and blackouts have prohibited organizers from publicizing their successes and calling for the support of the Togolese diaspora, as well as the international community at large.
While the government disseminates its own propaganda to create the illusion that all is at peace in Lomé, groups like Faure Must Go! are claiming credit for the hacking and closing of government websites.
Togo’s opposition is not without regional support. Gambian allies who recently ousted their own dictator have been advising their Togolese comrades on how to force Gnassingbé to step down. Meanwhile, Ghanaian supporters at Togo’s borders are smuggling photos and videos from Togolose activists to the international media.
Women at the forefront
While the opposition party leadership is dominated by men, the inter-partisan revolution has been largely spearheaded by women.
After spending the past year traveling through The Gambia and Burkina Faso – both home to recent successful national liberation movements – activist and blogger Farida Nabourema returned home to help plan and build the Togolese resistance.
“What people outside Togo haven’t understood is that this isn’t just a street festival, it is a revolution,” Nabourema told the Washington Post. “Sometimes we’re on the offensive, sometimes we need to fall back. The police are going door-to-door and beating people and tear gassing their homes. We are going about this carefully.”
Older women are also saying enough is enough. Some have engaged in naked protests, thrusting their private parts at state agents. The resulting images received explosive coverage by West African media, particularly since such obscenities — in much of Africa — are considered bad omens for those on the receiving end.
For those living outside the country — and perhaps under other authoritarian contexts around the world — Togo’s revolution is not only worth following, but may provide inspiration, as well as lessons on resisting amidst persistent internet blackouts. In the words of Nabourema, “[Gnassingbé] has the power to decide how we communicate, but in Africa, we have an oral tradition. We don’t need the internet to organize.”