Togo’s new constitution: a new way to undermine democracy?

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Togo’s political landscape has undergone a significant shift with the adoption of a new constitution on March 25, 2024. This revision marks a fundamental change, transitioning the nation from a presidential system to a parliamentary one. The adoption has sparked controversy, with both potential benefits and serious concerns being raised. Given Togo’s history of simmering political and social tensions, coupled with the growing terrorist threat in the north, this change ushers in a period of uncertainty for a nation striving for peace and a strengthened democracy.

A New Constitution to Remain in Power?

Lawmakers from the ruling Union for the Republic (UNIR) party overwhelmingly approved the proposed constitutional change in the national assembly. With only two dissenting votes, the measure passed with near-complete support. This is because the opposition, which boycotted the 2018 elections due to alleged irregularities, has minimal representation in the current assembly. The new constitution embodies key changes. First, it removes the direct election of the president by the people. Instead, the National Assembly, the country’s legislative body, would be responsible for electing the president. Additionally, the president’s term would increase from five to six years, for a single six-year term.

Moreover, the new constitution establishes a new powerful executive position: the president of the Council of Ministers. Elected by the National Assembly, this individual will be responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations of the government and will be held accountable for its performance.

The president of the Council of Ministers will come from the party with the most seats in parliament or lead a coalition of parties if there is no single-party majority. The term of office will be six years.

Tchitchao Tchalim, Chairman of the National Assembly’s Committee on Constitutional Laws, Legislation, and General Administration stated, “The head of state is practically divested of his powers in favor of the president of the Council of Ministers, who becomes the person who represents the Togolese Republic abroad and effectively leads the country in its day-to-day management.”

This is radically different from the recent amendment of the constitution that occurred in 2019, which stipulated that the president of the republic is elected by universal suffrage for a term of five years, renewable once, and made the presidential election a two-round race.

“This is the umpteenth preparation of a constitutional coup by a monarchical regime that has held the country’s destiny hostage for almost sixty years,” one of Togo’s opposition parties, the Democratic Forces of the Republic, said while the new constitution was still being debated.

Beyond legal concerns, many opponents view the proposal as a self-serving maneuver by the ruling party, UNIR. The timing, just weeks before legislative elections due on April 20, raises concerns. Critics, particularly opposition parties like the National Alliance for Change, suspect the UNIR is attempting to exploit the outgoing parliament’s single-party majority to solidify its grip on power.

Eric Dupuy, a spokesman for the opposition National Alliance for Change party states, “We know that the struggle will be long and hard, but together with the Togolese people, we will do everything we can to prevent this constitutional coup d’état.” He added, “We’re calling on the population to reject this, to oppose it massively.”

Togo’s ruling party, in power since 1967 under the Gnassingbé family, could hold onto power until at least 2031 thanks to the new constitution. Critics call this a “constitutional coup d’état,” alleging it unfairly extends the Gnassingbé family’s long rule.

ECOWAS and Democracies Look the Other Way

Many crises in West Africa were the result of unilateral constitutional changes, postponing of elections, or succession crises like in Guinea and Togo. The recent unrest in Senegal remains an interesting example. The deafening silence of regional organizations like Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regarding the constitutional change in Togo is appalling for many Togolese and West Africans, but not genuinely surprising. ECOWAS’s Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance stipulates in its Article 2.1, “No substantial modification shall be made to the electoral laws in the last six months before the elections, except with the consent of a majority of Political actors.”

Despite the existence of arguments for and against related to this article about Togo’s case, the ECOWAS silence on the matter could be interpreted as tacit acceptance. Additionally, the absolute silence from those who usually champion civilian rule, condemn military takeovers, and call for sanctions against non-democratic changes in Africa—including several Western organizations and vocal nations like France—is further proof of the double standards they have been accused of.

President Faure Gnassingbé’s future participation in the US-Africa Business Summit fuels a growing sentiment among the majority of Togolese. Many observers perceive this as indicative of a broader issue: a lack of genuine commitment from Western organizations and countries to uphold democratic values on the continent. Critics argue that these external actors prioritize their interests, even when it necessitates supporting questionable and authoritarian regimes. Such regimes, exemplified by those in Cameroon and Congo, are seen as threats to democratic freedoms, exemplified by the suppression of free speech, imprisonment of journalists, and the manipulation of elections to retain power. In these cases, the West and its experts may lack the credibility to impart lessons on democracy to others.

This perceived hypocrisy—particularly from ECOWAS, the Mike Tyson of democracy in the region, which, recently, was prepared to deploy troops to defend democracy in Niger—undoubtedly might lead to two consequences. Firstly, ECOWAS’s inaction on Togo undermines its credibility as a champion of regional stability and development. The perception that the organization prioritizes incumbent leadership over genuine democratic processes could lead West African nations to view alternative regional bodies, such as the Alliance of Sahel States, as more promising avenues for achieving development and self-determination.

Secondly, ECOWAS’s silence risks creating an environment conducive to military interventions as a response to perceived authoritarian rule. This, coupled with a growing rejection of Western influence, could open doors for Russia to expand its presence in the region, potentially destabilizing the fragile security landscape.

The United States, as a key partner in West Africa, should consider a calibrated response that condemns unilateral constitutional changes and reaffirms its commitment to supporting democratic processes. This will be crucial in maintaining its image as a champion of democracy among African nations.

Promulgating the New Constitution Might Lead to Instability

The West African nation of Togo, commended for its pro-business environment and regional peace initiatives, is at a critical juncture. Togo became a permanent member of the growing number of African countries that have undertaken constitutional or legal reforms to extend presidential term limits, including the Central African Republic, Rwanda, and Côte d’Ivoire. Even though the Catholic bishops of Togo on Tuesday, March 26 urged “the head of state to postpone the promulgation of the new constitutional law,” the recent constitutional change raises legitimate concerns about democratic backsliding and the true nature of the regime in power. While the proposed parliamentary system features a collaborative executive and legislature, with a symbolic head of state and a prime minister leading national policy, the timing and Togo’s political history raise legitimate concerns.

A successful and legitimate transition to a parliamentary system necessitates inclusive public discourse, broad-based popular support, and the active participation of all political stakeholders. This ensures a process driven by the will of the people, rather than by opaque maneuvers within the political elite.

By removing the public’s right to elect the president and giving that power to lawmakers which mostly come from the ruling party, the regime reveals its fear of universal suffrage and potential defeat in the upcoming elections, especially the presidential election due in 2025. Furthermore, the swift timing of the adoption of the new constitution before the upcoming legislative elections in weeks, in which the opposition plans to participate, suggests a potential strategy by the ruling party to maintain its grasp on the small West African nation. This umpteenth undemocratic move of the ruling party risks escalating domestic tensions, further jeopardizing Togo’s fragile social unity.

In response to widespread criticism from citizens, political parties, and religious leaders, Gnassingbé has requested a second reading of both the newly adopted law and constitution from the president of the National Assembly. Despite the ruling party’s insistence on a second reading, it is clearly determined to maintain the core principles of the constitution in some form. The adoption of the new constitution appears to be a calculated move by those in power to gauge the reactions of national and international opinions. While there may be minor amendments resulting from a re-reading, they are unlikely to significantly impact the core desire of the regime, which is to hold on to power for as long as possible.

Should Gnassingbé promulgate this new constitution after the second or third review without a referendum, it is likely to erode confidence in Togo’s current leaders. This could lead some citizens to seek alternative, potentially undemocratic solutions for ending the Gnassingbé era. Such actions would risk instability and plunge the country into chaos. Hopefully, reason will win over ego.

The significant hardships faced by the Togolese people make it imperative to prioritize their well-being over political or personal agendas. Throughout history, attempts to manipulate the lives of millions for such reasons have resulted in instability. The promulgation of a new constitution, coupled with the rise of terrorist groups in northern Togo and existing societal tensions, casts a dark cloud over Togo’s future stability.

Komlan Avoulete is a Sahel researcher, geopolitical analyst, and freelance writer.

This article first appeared on the Foreign Policy Research Institute website. Click here to read it there.

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