Rising Voices for Democracy in Togo
AFRICA SERIES : PART 4
“Having a free society devoid of political intimidation, full glory of media freedom, participatory democracy, rule of law, and equality is a decade long dream of many in the Republic of Togo.”
These were words expressed by GilChrist Olympio Emmanuel (not related to founder of Union of Forces for Change (UFC), a political science student at the University of Lome in Togo.
He said the people of Togo are ready to intensify a campaign for freedom and democracy: they’re planning demonstrations, petitions, and position papers. “We don’t have enough support from the media,” Emmanuel said. “There’s no free press so citizens can’t fully support our campaign because the government always clamps down on them. But, we will do more to attract foreign interventions.”
In Togo, media freedom and free expression are severely curtailed. The government recently banned phone-in radio and TV programmes and shut down some privately-owned radio and TV stations because people dared speak against the government on them. The government argued that phone-in programs were inciting people to violence.
Like Emmanuel, many Togolese still harbour a dream that one day they will be able to effectively participate in their own governance, contribute to the development of Togo and help to improve the political and social life of the country. More people than ever before dare speak out in Togo today: they want democracy, rule of law, freedom of expression and participatory local politics.
For more than five decades, since becoming an independent state in 1960, Togo has been governed by one political party, Rally of the Togolese People (RPT). The party was formed in 1969 by the former president Gnassigbe Eyadema. Until 1991, when a multiparty system was adopted, RPT ruled for 22 years as a single political party in Togo. It has enjoyed popular support but did not avoid criticism regarding human rights abuses, political intimidation, harassment, arbitrary arrest and detention by both international organisations and opposition parties within and outside the country.
“Life here is difficult,” Emmanuel says. “Nobody thinks about development. We only think about sustaining our livelihoods. We live under a difficult system that does not allow us to exercise our rights as citizens as enshrined in the nation’s constitution.”
Emmanuel is planning to engage in acts of civil disobedience initiated by a group of young Togolese called “Let’s Save Togo.” The group was formed by opposition parties with the aim to force the government to provide the Togolese with opportunities to effectively participate in governance and make peace with the opposition parties. The group is also pressing for changes in electoral processes to avoid rigged elections and violence which characterised the country’s last elections.
Earlier in August, the spokesperson for Togo’s coalition of opposition parties Bode Tchakoura confirmed that young people have decided to engage in what he called “civil disobedience“ in parts of the capital to force the government to liberalise and improve on the governance system that allows for more popular participation.
“We have decided that since our government is not willing to respect our constitution, our decision is to engage in civil disobedience against our government until further notice,” he said.
“The government of Togo is always the same. They are not telling the truth. We have to make it very clear that the majority of Togolese are fed up with the government. But they don’t want to tell the truth,” Tchakoura said.
According to a source who withheld their name for fear of reprisal, people in Togo don’t trust its justice system at all. “Our justice system is corrupt,” the source said. “People, have lost trust in the justice system in Togo, some will not even pursue a case in court because justice is socially inclined towards the powerful and the rich.”
Political intimidation and security brutality are also still common in Togo, said a political activist who didn’t want to be named. He said that Togo needs true democracy badly to provide freedom to the people. “Let me tell you, members of the so-called opposition parties are part of the problem,” he said. “They are not united.”
Nestor, a political leader in Tseve, describes how Togo will need international pressure to bow to the wishes of its people. “We need to rise up against injustice that is going on in the country but we cannot do that without the support from the international community,” he said.
Nestor graduated from Lome University four years ago with a BA in administration but he is yet to secure a job. “There are no jobs, unemployment rate is increasing and poverty is worsening” he said. “We need to rise up against injustice in the country and fight for true democracy.”
Nestor says most Togolese still support the ruling party because of fears of political tormenting and harassment. “The security forces’ brutality against civilians is unimaginable. They killed thousands of peaceful protesters and dispersed demonstrations with ‘shoot to kill’ tactics. We are treated like foreigners in our own country. Something must be done soon before we are all finished,” Nestor says.
It is also his plea amongst the rising voices for democracy in Togo.