Adam Valavanis is a former intern with the Africa Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. He received a master’s degree in conflict studies from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
On February 22, Togolese will head to the ballot box to vote in a presidential election. It will be the year's first national election in Africa. The incumbent, President Faure Gnassingbe, is seeking to extend his stay in office despite having already served three terms as president.
Gnassingbe will face six other candidates, including longtime rival Jean Pierre Fabre. Fabre, a human rights activist, was nominated as the leader of Togo's main opposition party, National Alliance for Change, late last year. He has come in second place in the previous two elections and now faces the herculean task of uniting the opposition. Thanks in part to the fragmented opposition, Gnassingbe is favored to win.
Faure Gnassingbe came to power in 2005 following the death of his father Gnassingbe Eyadema, who had ruled the country since 1967. He subsequently won reelection in 2010 and 2015. Together, the Gnassingbe family has led the country for more than fifty years. The family's long reign has in recent years become a point of contention. In 2017 and 2018, protestors took to the streets demanding that Gnassingbe step down. Unfortunately, these protests have fizzled out, with the opposition, nicknamed the C14, unable to capitalize on them ahead of the election.
Now Gnassingbe finds himself with more power than ever before. His grip on the country has been bolstered by the reinstatement of presidential term limits last year by parliament. Under the new law, presidents can serve up to two five-year terms. Term limits had been scrapped during Gnassingbe Eyadema's near forty-year rule. However, this new law reset Gnassingbe's term limits, permitting him to stay in office until 2030. The opposition had boycotted the 2018 legislative elections, resulting in a near unanimous decision.
Such anti-democratic moves are surprising in West Africa, home to some of the continent's most vibrant democracies. Despite its otherwise strong record of defending democracy in the region, ECOWAS has been unable to exert its influence in Togo. In early 2018, the regional body hosted mediation talks between the government and the opposition. Unfortunately, in spite of these efforts, little has changed on the ground and ECOWAS seems unable to reign in Gnassingbe's authoritarian tendencies. In response to the protests in 2017 and 2018, Gnassingbe unleashed security forces on peaceful protestors resulting in arrests, injuries, and deaths. In the run-up to Sunday's contest, opposition towns across the country have been on lockdown. Additionally, the country's national election commission issued a statement earlier this week, stripping the main independent election observer, the National Consultation of Civil Society of Togo, of its accreditation. This follows the commission's refusal to allow the Catholic Church to monitor polling places. Such moves have many worried that the vote will be neither free nor fair and another step away from democracy.