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In the wake of a series of coups that have jolted Africa, speculation about which nation will follow is rife. The pioneer of coups in Africa, Togo frequently emerges as a prime candidate in these conjectures. The country’s 1963 coup was the first on the continent under the leadership of Gnassingbé Eyadéma. In 1967, Eyadéma orchestrated another coup and held on to power for the next 38 years. Following his demise in 2005, Eyadéma was succeeded by his son Faure Gnassingbé, who orchestrated his own coup before subsequently holding contested elections that resulted in at least 400 deaths, according to a UN report.

Togo’s vulnerability to military coups stems from its colonial past and its long history of autocratic rule. The country also faces the same socio-political turmoil that has precipitated regime change in other African nations. One of Africa’s poorest countries, with a struggling economy, Togo is also grappling with escalating terrorism, especially in the northern region bordering coup-prone Burkina Faso.

The current semblance of stability in Togo can be attributed to its robust militarisation. While a number of African nations have transitioned peacefully to democratic governance, Togo’s regime has craftily manipulated global perception by positioning Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s non-military son, Faure, at the helm, ensuring the perpetuation of his father’s authoritarian legacy. Faure Gnassingbé’s journey to the presidency defies the archetypal dictator narrative. Educated in military schools during his formative years, he pursued higher studies in economics at the University of Paris Dauphine and an MBA from George Washington University in the US. His ascent in Togo’s political landscape has been swift, becoming Minister of Communication in 1998 under his father’s rule, then parliamentarian, Minister of Public Works, and ultimately president.

Togo has suffered decades of oppression in the iron grip of the Eyadéma dynasty. Gnassingbé Eyadéma is particularly infamous, remembered as one of the continent’s most brutal dictators. Mysteriously disappearing opponents and egregious human rights abuses led to a ten-year suspension of European Union aid between 1993 and 2003. Nevertheless, Eyadéma sustained a puzzlingly close relationship with France, the nation’s former colonial overseer that had acquired two thirds of Togo after World War I.

Recent coups in Africa have predominantly taken place in ex-French colonies. While some observers point to Russian influence, many locals accuse France of endorsing their nations’ most tyrannical leaders. Once a foot soldier in the French colonial army, Eyadéma was instrumental in the 1963 assassination of Togo’s first president, Sylvanus Olympio. Ostensibly a result of military integration disputes, the coup was deeply rooted in Olympio’s efforts to distance Togo from lingering colonial ties, including an audacious move to replace the CFA franc, a French-instituted currency, with the Togolese Franc. The unanimous passing of a bill establishing the creation of the Togolese national currency on 12 December 1962 may have precipitated his assassination just a month later.

Following Olympio’s killing, Nicolas Grunitzky assumed power despite his questionable loyalties and overt pro-French inclinations. His reign was short-lived, however. On 14 January 1967, amidst escalating public unrest and calls for new elections, the same military operatives that had ousted Olympio intervened once again. Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s meteoric rise within this framework was evident when he transitioned from a sergeant to a colonel in three years. While Klébert Dadjo was the initial choice as leader post-coup Eyadéma soon took charge, becoming president in April 1967.

During his time in office, Eyadema maintained excellent relations with France under whose contentious neocolonial strategy, Françafrique, French companies flourished, and French politicians reportedly amassed fortunes through murky deals with African dictators that included financial kickbacks, generous campaign funds, and strategic support to secure France’s position in global politics. French manipulation and exploitation in nations like Togo, Gabon, Chad, the Central African Republic, Cameroon and Côte d’Ivoire have enriched their ruling families while the majority continue to languish in poverty.

The people of Togo have shown an indomitable spirit in the face of dictatorship and repression and the 1990s saw the historic, student-led Movement du 5 Octobre (M05) culminate in a national sovereign conference and the establishment of a short-lived transitional government from 1991 to 1993. A series of massacres committed in April 1991 continue to haunt the people of Togo today.

The 1991 National Sovereign Conference was a beacon of hope for Togo’s future. With Eyadéma’s authoritarian rule showing signs of weakening, a new constitution was passed that conferred more powers on the prime minister while reducing those of the president, introduced presidential term limits and multipartism. But the political atmosphere took a severe turn in 1992 when soldiers, including one of Eyadema’s brothers, attacked the transitional Prime Minister Joseph Kokou Koffigoh’s office, killing at least a dozen people and igniting months of civil unrest as civil servants and students went on a nine-month-long strike demanding democracy and an end to military rule. The repression was so severe that thousands of Togolese people fled the country, creating the first wave of refugees from the West African nation. Despite the challenge to his rule, Eyadéma removed the presidential term limit in 2002 but maintained his dominance, securing another term in 2003.

Following Eyadéma’s death in 2005, the Eyadéma dynasty’s stranglehold on Togo has continued under Faure Gnassingbé’s rule. Living standards remain poor, and human rights abuses mirror those committed under his father’s reign. Within Togo, the Gnassingbé family seems to view political power as their birthright; Faure Gnassingbé revealed in an interview with Jeune Afrique that his father had advised him never to relinquish power. The Togolese took this revelation to heart, particularly when he sought a third term in 2015. A massive wave of protests broke out in 2017, demanding the reinstatement of term limits, a move that was met with brutal repression. The widespread protests led ECOWAS to intervene, resulting in a superficial constitutional amendment in 2019. Term limits were reinstated but with conditions that ensured that the terms that Faure Gnassingbe had already served remained unaffected. He then successfully retained power in the 2020 elections, consistent with the Gnassingbé dynasty’s undefeated electoral history.

The repression was so severe that thousands of Togolese people fled the country, creating the first wave of refugees from the West African nation.

The Gnassingbés do not just run elections; they are the elections. The Togolese were engulfed in despair when Faure Gnassingbé secured his 4th term, realising that by the next elections in 2025, the Gnassingbé family would have ruled for 59 years; a staggering 97 per cent of the country’s citizens have lived under the shadow of a single ruling dynasty – only 3 per cent of the population are over the age of 50.

The discontent isn’t confined to the masses; there is a distinct sense of unease within the corridors of power. Several Togolese military and political figures have been ousted over the past year, including Felix Kadanga, the president’s brother-in-law and former head of the Togolese Armed Forces, known for his brutal treatment of dissidents. Appointed just a year earlier, the widow of the president’s elder brother, Ernest Gnassingbé, was also relieved of her position as Defense Minister. These changes, combined with the arrests and house arrests of other military personnel, underscore the turmoil.

The Togolese people’s longing for democracy is poignant. Their quest has stretched across four generations and six decades. Exhausted by the relentless military rule, many harbour a hope inspired by successful coups in other nations. They yearn for an end to the oppressive rule of the Eyadéma dynasty, even if this means enduring continued military governance. A cocktail of factors usually precipitate coups: widespread insecurity, escalating public discontent, an absence of the rule of law, pervasive poverty, and frail state institutions. In Togo’s case, each box is emphatically ticked.

In many parts of Africa, including Togo, the perception of coups is multidimensional. While globally they are seen as a threat to democracy, coups might represent a glimmer of hope for the masses living under enduring dictatorships. In Togo, where democratic ideals like free elections and freedom of speech have been stifled, coups are sometimes seen as potential catalysts for democratic change. The desire for this perspective arises from decades of enduring media censorship, a silenced opposition, and rigged elections. The masses see coups as a possible means of uprooting deeply entrenched autocratic regimes. The fundamental question for Togo and for the other former French colonies is whether such radical shifts can indeed pave the way for true democracy.