LOME, Togo—Corruption allegations and political unrest in Africa have too often prompted halfhearted concessions or constitutional tweaking by strongmen bent on staying in power. But the past week’s two notable counterpoints are only the latest in a string of surprising developments around the continent. Deeply unpopular President Jacob Zuma of South Africa, plagued by years of corruption scandals, complied with ruling party orders to step down on Wednesday, February 14. The next day, embattled Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn unexpectedly resigned, citing a desire to allow “reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy.” Not long before this particularly eventful week, José Eduardo dos Santos of Angola and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, two longstanding dictators, left office—the latter in a military coup.
But while the continent’s bright spots consolidate democratic gains and embark on apparent reform efforts, a sliver of a country wedged between Ghana and Benin on the Gulf of Guinea—where corruption reigns and protests rage—manages to skirt around the transition issue.
Togo is the only West African country that has yet to experience a democratic handover. But several leaders within the Togolese opposition are quick to emphasize that it’s not for lack of effort. “There was Tunisia; there was Egypt, Libya, Burkina [Faso]; these countries copied us,” National Alliance for Change (ANC) Party youth leader Jean Eklou told me in a recent interview. “Since 1963, the Togolese have fought for change.” People’s Health Party President Georges-William Kuessan said, “They were lucky to succeed before Togo. But that gives us hope that one day we will also succeed.”
While the world’s attention is largely focused elsewhere on the continent, a mediated dialogue between Togo’s Union for the Republic (UNIR)-led government and an opposition coalition began quietly yesterday in the capital city of Lomé, following six months of mass protests. The opposition seeks the restoration of term limits and a two-round voting system—two features of Togo’s symbolic democratization in 1992, conveniently dropped in 2002 to enable then-President Eyadéma Gnassingbé to run again. At the heart of the opposition agenda is a simple demand: third-term President Faure Gnassingbé, Eyadéma’s son, must go.
UNIR, for its part, opposes any retroactive application of electoral reform that would jeopardize President Gnassingbé’s candidacy in 2020 and 2025. The ruling party has had its way since 1967 when the elder Gnassingbé came to power after West Africa’s first coup. Past Togolese dialogues score high on frequency and low on implementation. Most gallingly, the current government failed to act on recommendations of the 2006 Global Political Agreement (APG), which called for deep security sector and electoral reforms. But nearly everyone I spoke to this past month, from neutral civil society leaders to labor union representatives to members of the opposition—with the unfortunate exception of government officials—believe there are good reasons to believe change is inevitable this time around.
They pointed to the fact that nothing short of Gnassingbé’s departure seems able to stop the street protests and worker strikes that have persisted since mid-August. The region’s democratically elected leaders are unlikely to pity the last autocrat standing among them. They also recently proved their willingness to intervene when they singlehandedly forced former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh to step aside after 22 years in power. And Gnassingbé seems anxious to portray himself as an open-minded reformer to the wider international community.
But perhaps most promising is the rise of a strong, 14-party opposition coalition and associated citizens’ movement willing to set aside differences to declare unequivocally that #FaureMustGo. Interviewees reiterated to me that the simple desire for a new name in the nation’s highest office has visibly replaced single-party loyalty in recent months. The coalition has finally found a way, it thinks, to thwart the ruling party’s strategy of setting opposition groups against one another during talks. High-level unity now trickles down to the streets, where the color of one’s protest shirt—ANC orange or PNP red—simply doesn’t matter anymore.
The party largely responsible for this shift away from intra-opposition disputes, the Pan African National Party (PNP), drew attention when it staged a multi-city protest in August after failing to secure official authorization. Two protesters were killed after reported violence on both sides. The government then banned further protests in the northern cities of Sokodé, Mango, and Bafilo—places where protest was once rare. The people’s curiosity was piqued: here was a party that the government genuinely seemed to fear.
Perhaps it was the PNP’s alarming ability to drum up support in UNIR’s northern strongholds, historically out of reach to opposition heavyweights, or its ability to catalyze simultaneous protests in the diaspora. Party leader Tikpi Atchadam had certainly laid the groundwork for success since 2014 by training youth and raising money. His most constructive act, though, was one of humility: approaching Jean-Pierre Fabre, leader of the long-dominant ANC, to propose a partnership. An extraordinary coalition of 14 key parties, including the PNP and ANC, was cemented in October.
“Togo Debout,” or “Togo Rising,” is the opposition’s rallying cry, drawn from the national anthem: “Even if tyrants shall come, thy heart yearns towards freedom. Togo, arise! Let us struggle without faltering.” But Dr. David Ekoué Dosseh, spokesperson of a movement of the same name, stresses that recent mobilization is about much more than politics. “It’s the people, all people, who want to change the system; until now, it was only political parties speaking in the name of the people,” he said. André Kangni Afanou of the Documentation and Training Center on Human Rights agreed, “The population is controlling [the coalition] now.” Public opinion is taken seriously, he said.
Gnassingbé’s government—rightly or wrongly—is now held responsible for just about every problem in Togo, from rising customs fees at the port and a personnel shortage in public hospitals to rampant corruption and impunity for past crimes. But political polarization is high, and these critiques do not resonate universally. It is hard to blame father and son when the system itself is corrupted, said Pastor Edoh Komi, president of Togo’s Martin Luther King Movement (MMLK). Freedom of expression and freedom of association have apparently improved in recent years. The roads have reportedly gotten better, too.
But opposition party leaders I met last week emphasized that they speak with one voice. Indeed, their core demands resonated nearly word-for-word, from one meeting to the next. Notably absent from their simple platform, however, are pushes for deeper reforms characteristic of past talks. Securing Faure’s departure also hinges on whether mediators allow spoiler “opposition” groups to join this seemingly unshakable coalition of major parties. And despite unity now, opposition infighting down the road is not inconceivable—or unprecedented, given the failures of past talks. Moreover, an army loyal to the president could thwart any transition in the absence of external enforcement. And regional enforcement could be thwarted by an apparent conflict of interest: current president of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Marcel Alain de Souza is married to Gnassingbe’s sister.
Afanou eschews modern examples of political change for a biblical one—albeit on the same continent. Decades of back-and-forth in his country remind him of Ancient Egypt’s pharaoh during the time of Moses: “You know, in the Bible, God told Pharaoh in Egypt, ‘Let my people go. My people have been suffering for so long. Now, it’s time for my people to be free.’ Pharaoh accepted, and he refused; he accepted, and he refused; he accepted, and he refused.” Afanou, recalling the story’s end, thinks the 50-year dynasty’s time has finally come: “Whether Faure Gnassingbé wants it or not, he is going out.”
Ann Toews, a U.S. Army veteran, is the inaugural Lt. Gen. Bernard E. Trainor USMC Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.