Togolese activists try to topple Africa’s longest-ruling family



An interview with Farida Nabourema, an activist and blogger

AN OBSCURE little country wedged between Ghana and Benin, Togo has been ruled for the past 50 years by the Eyadéma family, Africa’s most enduring political dynasty. Nearly 95% of Togolese have spent their entire lives ruled by members of one family.

It is widely believed that Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who ruled Togo until his death in 2005, personally assassinated Sylvanus Olympio, the country’s first president after independence, in 1963. He seized power in a military coup four years later and remained in office until he died aboard his presidential plane on the way to seek medical treatment abroad. (Togo’s hospitals are in such a wretched state that, even today, doctors have to perform brain surgery by the light on their mobile phones in the capital city.)



Before his death, the elder Gnassingbé pushed a constitutional change lowering the age limit for the presidency, enabling his son Faure Gnassingbé (pictured below, centre) to succeed him. By law, the speaker of parliament ought to have been made interim president, but he was then out of the country. The army barred him from returning and staged a coup to propel the son to the presidency. International pressure forced elections, which Mr Gnassingbé junior won—though their fairness was disputed. His security forces violently suppressed demonstrations. A United Nations investigation found that “2,500 soldiers, dressed in civilian clothes and armed with knives, machetes and clubs, had helped militants of the ruling party to suppress opposition rallies.” At least 400 people died.

Farida Nabourema was then 13 years old. Even before she was born, her family had endured all sorts of tribulations. Her father, a member of the opposition, was repeatedly arrested and tortured—his back whipped, ribs and legs broken. Such barbarity continues today. A recent report from the Los Angeles Times documents shocking details of torture by Togo’s secret police, which beat and waterboarded prisoners and forced some to get on their knees and neigh like horses.
I went from the idea of leading a civil revolution to the idea of bringing down a government.

None of this has deterred Ms Nabourema from becoming an activist. She first established herself as a gadfly to the regime in 2014, after the parliament batted down a proposal to reinstate presidential term limits. She posted the phone numbers of MPs online and encouraged her readers to call their representatives in person and ask about their motives. MPs had to endure several sleepless nights before changing their numbers. Ms Nabourema continues to encourage criticism of the government with a constant stream of tweeting, blogging and texting (she has become known as the “WhatsApp girl”). In response, she has received a wave of threats, including images of decapitated bodies as warnings that this is the fate awaiting her and her family. “Whenever I do something, I measure my success by their response. When they get angry, I know that I did a good job,” she says.


After the threats, which started in 2014, Ms Nabourema’s resolve stiffened. “I went from the idea of leading a civil revolution to the idea of bringing down a government. And that one will naturally get you into trouble,” she says. In Togo, Ms Nabourema is now wanted on charges of terrorism, treason and intent to destabilise the nation. She currently lives at an undisclosed location. She still insists that anything short of Mr Gnassingbé leaving power will not do. “For us, it’s very simple. You kill our countrymen—500 of them—to seize power. You’re going. Even if God comes down and says ‘Guys, forgive him’, he still must go,” says Ms Nabourema. Though she is sceptical that change will come through the ballot box—“they control the press, they control the Supreme Court, they control the legislative branch, they control the police, they control the electoral commission”—she worries that Togolese frustrations could boil over into protracted armed struggle, as happened in nearby Ivory Coast. “It is not something I want, because there is no way we can beat them at the gun game,” she says. “We will just replace a small group of people having all the power with another small group of people having all the power.”

Toppling repressive regimes, and replacing them with viable democracies, is difficult. Two essential ingredients, especially for a frequently forgotten place like Togo, are mass, non-violent protests and international pressure. Because France, a previous colonial ruler, remains exceptionally close to the ruling government, international attention has been harder to garner. “The funny thing is that all French presidents, whether they are from the right, the left, or, as right now, the centre, they have always been very tolerant of the regime,” says Ms Nabourema.

To limit the protests, often organised using Facebook or WhatsApp, the government has cut the entire country off from the internet.

But mass protests have proved successful. Ms Nabourema has distilled her activism into a three-word anthem, “Faure Must Go”, which has been used as a popular slogan in demonstrations and an internet hashtag. In the past year, month-long strikes, among teachers, doctors and businesspeople, have spread from Sokodé, Togo’s second city, to Lomé, the capital. To limit the protests, often organised using Facebook or encrypted messaging services like WhatsApp, the government has cut the entire country off from the internet. Official estimates say 100,000 people have come to protest openly against Mr Gnasssingbé’s rule. Unverified reports suggest that 1m protesters may have come out onto the streets—or roughly one-eighth of the population.

To dispel the protests in February 2018, Mr Gnassingbé started negotiating with opposition parties about a possible power-sharing agreement. A two-term presidential limit—which would not apply retroactively, and would allow him to run for two new five-year appointments—is being discussed, but opponents are sceptical. A similar restriction existed for Mr Eyadéma, but he simply had parliament rewrite the constitution when his power approached its expiry date.


Economist