Togo at the crossroads? Personal power, term limits, and elite continuity

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Protest against Faure Gnassingbe in Belgium.
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Anja Osei traces the historical confluence of power, family and patronage in Togo. She considers how Faure Gnassingbé is using a combination of legitimation, repression, and co-optation to prolong his autocratic reign and decapitate the opposition.

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Largely neglected in political science research, Togo provides an interesting and insightful case of electoral authoritarianism in Africa. The country has been ruled by the same family for a long time: by Gnassingbé Eyadema from 1967 to 2005, and by his son Faure Gnassingbé from 2005 until today. Power is highly personalized and concentrated in the hands of a small elite tightly connected to the presidency. Although such personalist regimes are known to be rather unlikely democratizers, they are also quite vulnerable to economic crises and succession struggles.

According to contemporary research, all autocratic regimes rely on a combination of legitimation, repression, and co-optation. In this context, legitimation is understood as a strategy to convince the population of the “rightfulness” of the current regime. This end can be served by an official state ideology, by regime performance in important realms like socio-economic development or security, or – as in in the case of Togo under Gnassingbé Eyadema – by a personality cult around the leader. Although repression is often believed to be the backbone of authoritarian rule, high levels of state terror can have adverse effects for regime stability by undermining its legitimacy. Therefore, rulers will also use material incentives to buy off strategically relevant individuals and/or distribute benefits to larger segments of the population. Each regime has a unique mix of strategies that must be continuously adapted to current needs. Transitions from one ruler to the next therefore require the skillful management of change to prevent popular dissent as well as intra-elite conflicts. In this regard, Togo is an example of a successful father-son transition that provides important insides into the dynamics of change and continuity. 

Gnassingbé Eyadema came to power in a military coup in 1967. One of the narratives he relied on was that of having “saved” Togo from the ethnically imbalanced government of the nation’s first president, Sylvanus Olympio. While Olympio’s rule had favoured the southern ethnic groups, Eyadema built his major support base in the north of the country, with special privileges for his own ethnic group, the Kabyé. He presented Togo as a place of peace and economic stability, and created a bizarre personality cult around himself which borrowed from local belief systems and religious motives. Decisions were often taken directly by the president, opposition groups were banned, and formal political institutions mattered little. Thanks to a period of relative prosperity clientelistic networks stabilized this system; supporters of the ruling party RPT (Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais) received jobs, credits, and cash in exchange for their political support. Major benefits were distributed to the wider Eyadema family and closest allies of the presidents. Regime opponents, by contrast, faced the full repressive force of the security apparatus. The FAT (Forces Armées Togolaises), staffed with loyalists of mostly Kabyé origin, remained one of the most important pillars of Togolese authoritarianism. 

Although the 1990s saw a limited political opening and the formal re-introduction of multi-party politics, major power resources firmly rested in the hands of the RPT. The regime made some strategic concessions, but the weak and disunited opposition never had a real chance of winning the elections. Eyadema’s core elite remained intact. It is no surprise, therefore, that the army intervened quickly after his death to install his son Faure Gnassingbé as the next president. It is unclear whether Eyadema had really designated Faure as his successor but for most old elites he seemed to be good choice – at least compared with the danger of unrestrained succession struggles that would endanger the whole power architecture of the regime. Thus, strategically relevant RPT and FAT stalwarts did everything to guarantee a smooth father-son transition process – which was surely unconstitutional but reflected the real distribution of power in the country. Faure then won the elections of 2005, 2010, and 2015 despite opposition protest and fraud allegations.

Compared to his father, his reign of power is marked by a combination of change and continuity. Patronage and repression remain pillars of regime stability: loyalists are still rewarded with posts and positions, whereas political enemies are faced with repression. Since charisma cannot be inherited, however, Faure cannot build on the quasi-supernatural, “larger than life” personality cult of his father. The need to stand in formal elections against a legal opposition has also made some strategic adaptations in the regime architecture necessary. On the one hand, Faure is seeking to distance himself from his father by portraying himself as a modernizer and reformer. The ruling party was renamed UNIR (Union pour la République), but real changes remain limited. The National Assembly, in which UNIR holds the majority, is weak and unable to restrain the executive. This is unsurprising since one third of the UNIR deputies have been part of the political system for a long time. Moreover, 40% of them have held high administrative positions before being elected to parliament, and a third has family members who are regime insiders. By contrast, roughly 9 out of 10 opposition deputies are regime outsiders that cannot look back at similar career achievements. Although Kabyé are still over-represented in positions of high power in politics, the administrative sector, and the military, the general representation of northerners and southerners in the ruling party is more balanced than in previous times. Maintaining elite cohesion is a delicate task that must be seen in the context of Faure’s quest to build up his own network of support without sidelining crucial cadres of his father’s regime. 

Against this background, the current conflict about the introduction of presidential term limits in Togo is a crucial issue. There is wide support for term limits among the Togolese, and the opposition is mobilizing street protest around the issue. The regime seeks to avoid the implementation of term limits for obvious reasons – presidential succession is the Achilles heel of personalist systems. Faure is already in his third term and he would have to give way to a new candidate. Even if he would be willing to transfer the power to a hand-picked successor, this could shake up the existing intra-elite balance and unleash conflicts within the ruling party, or even within the extended Eyadema family. The arrest of Faure’s half-brother Kpatcha in 2009 for an alleged coup plot highlights the imminent danger of intra-elite splits and power struggles between subnetworks. Thus, it is likely that the regime will not give in to opposition demands and rather seek to silence popular protest by distributing more patronage and/or heightening the level of repression. More violence, however, goes at the cost of regime legitimacy and could theoretically also lead to an elite split into hard- and softliners.

The prospects for change in Togo thus depend on a number of factors like the level of elite cohesion and the management of patronage networks, the level of opposition unity and strength, and last but not least the influence of the military as a powerful actor. 

Anja Osei is a Senior Research Fellow and Chair of International Relations and Conflict Management at the University of Konstanz. 

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