Family dynasty in Togo tightens its grip with another election win

The Gnassingbé family has been in power since 1967 and vows to put the country on better economic footing. 

Erick Kaglan/AP
Togo President Faure Gnassingbé arrives to cast his ballot, for legislative elections in the city of Lome, Togo, Thursday, July 25, 2013. Gnassingbé has managed to retain his hold on Togo’s government after elections saw his party take a decisive majority in parliament last week.

Togo's President Faure Gnassingbé has managed to retain his hold on Togo’s government after elections saw his party take a decisive majority in parliament last week. But street protests could soon challenge what is proving to be West Africa's longest running family dynasty.

Opposition activists say that the ruling Unir party’s 62-seat majority win in legislature elections was the product of a rigged election, and that the party will use its majority to pass reforms allowing Mr. Gnassingbé to remain in office indefinitely.

“Since they are a majority, whatever they want to do, they will do,” says Sylvio Combey, a journalist and human rights activist in Togo. “They will try maybe to remove the limit or patch it in such a way that the president will remain in power as long as the former president, his father.”

For the country’s three major opposition parties, last week’s elections were an opportunity to gain control of parliament and perhaps pass reforms that would check Gnassingbé’s power.

By decrying the polls as fraudulent, the opposition has set the stage for potentially violent clashes, particularly in the capital Lomé, which is considered an opposition stronghold and has seen protests in the run-up to the election.

Unir wants to get the country’s economy back on track, says Togo’s minister for planning and development, Dédé Ahoefa Ekoué, a candidate for Unir in Lomé.

“I think [the opposition] should just learn and take stock of what happened and join the legislature and move forwards,” Ms. Ekoué, who lost her seat in the election, says. “No system is perfect in terms of electoral process. There has not been proof of any fraud.”

The Gnassingbés have ruled Togo practically uninterrupted since 1967, first with President Etienne Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who was the longest-ruling president in Africa when he died in 2005. After his father’s death, Faure Gnassingbé took power amid a violent and disputed election.

Observers from the African Union and the regional Economic Community of West African States both said the vote last Thursday was credible. But opposition supporters say it was marred by unauthorized polling stations and constituencies drawn disproportionately, giving an advantage for Unir’s supporters in the country’s north.

From the time people started lining up in the capital Lomé to vote, suspicions of vote-rigging were high. As polls closed on voting day, voters argued with polling agents about perceived irregularities and escorted boxes of marked ballots to the electoral commission headquarters in boisterous convoys, all in fear that the government would try to tamper with the results.

When police shut down the private broadcaster Radio Legende mid-way through the day, an angry crowd descended on the station, scuffling with security forces and briefly taking two police hostage before the chairman of the Togo’s Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission – formed after clashes as the current president Gnassingbé rose to power – finally intervened.

“If they want to rig the elections, we are ready to die to protect our results,” says Ashpou Hebrew, one of the thousands who gathered outside the radio station to call for its reopening.

But Mr. Combey says another bout of the type of violence that happened in 2005 would only drag the country backwards.

“Whenever there is violence there is no peace,” he says. “When there is no peace, there is no development and our country can’t move forward."

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