||Election day, a chance to partake in that fundamental democratic institution, voting, had arrived in Togo, a small, little-known country in West Africa. It was April 24th sometime near 7am. Voting centers had been duly set up; personnel at the centers were awaiting the arrival of throngs of Togolese people hoping to make their political voices heard; and a delegation from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was supposedly dispersed throughout the country overseeing the vote to ensure that it was certifiably “free and fair.” As the day went on, the ballots were cast, and overwhelmingly in favor of one of the two main candidates, a retired engineer named Emanuel Akitani Bob.
Bizarrely though, two days later the other candidate, Faure Gnassingbe, the son of the recently deceased long-ruling president of Togo, would be declared the winner by both the Togolese National Electoral Commission and the ECOWAS delegation; ECOWAS would deem the vote and vote count compliant with “generally accepted international election standards”; the European and African Unions and the UN would largely remain mute about it; President Chirac of France (Togo’s former colonizer) would actually congratulate Mr. Gnassingbe on his “victory”; and the few news organizations that had been covering the events would brand the situation an ethnic conflict between, evidently, people from north and those from south; Mr. Gnassingbe, against a backdrop of violent protests and allegations of election fraud, would be officially confirmed as president eight days later; and the Togolese people would become thoroughly dispirited, doubtful of the prospect of real democracy ever reaching their country, and deeply mistrustful of organizations whose avowed purposes are the promotion and protection of democracy. What went so wrong in this small developing nation’s recent democratic exercise?
The answer will require us to rewind a bit further back in time. On February 8th General Gnassingbe Eyadema, Togo’s official president (who by other accounts was in reality a brutal dictator) died. This came as a considerable shock to a population that had begun to lose sense of the mortality of its immovable ruler of 38 years. According to the national constitution, created by Eyadema’s own party, the Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais (RPT), in such an event, the speaker of the national assembly was supposed to act as interim president during the organization of a presidential election to be held within two months of the death of the former president.
Well before these procedures could be executed, however, the Togolese military intervened. It closed the national borders, which prevented the parliamentary speaker from returning Togo on a flight from Paris, and declared that Faure Gnassignbe would be president and that he would finish out the years remaining of his father’s term. The move appeared to many to be a coup d’état and was accordingly denounced by various organization and countries, and notably by ECOWAS, which then sanctioned Togo. Soon after, Faure Ganssingbe stepped down as president under the pressure of sanctions. However, he and the military refused to reinstate the speaker of the house. Eventually ECOWAS relented and permitted this violation of the constitution so long as elections took place.
This concession by ECOWAS and the failure of any country or any regulatory body to criticize it was not thought very significant then (except by a few activist groups in France and Togo who received limited media coverage). But to more astute observers, it crucially revealed that the organizations and countries observing and helping to manage affairs in Togo were less interested in democracy than in the passable semblance of it. In other words, they seemed so eager to legitimize the election fraud that perhaps the certification of democracy was what they were after all along, and not democracy itself. Perhaps this eagerness stemmed from a desire to avoid the long, arduous, and potentially combustible process that would be necessary in overhauling an erstwhile dictatorship. And perhaps some were engaged in their own questionable dealings with the RPT.
But speculating as to the reasons for the failure of any democratic regulatory body to protect Togo’s democracy is beside the point for millions of Togolese people and for foreigners in the country who paid more critical attention to what happened. For them Togo’s elections were entrusted to a brutal regime which had rigged elections in the past and would undoubtedly do so again if no exterior force intervened to stop it. This was, of course, the case, and in fact this case would be considered worse than those of prior years because the Togolese Government has yet to face sanctions for its misdeeds during this election.
Journalists did not seem to be focused on what was really happening either. Two news organizations that actually sent reporters into Togo to cover the election were Radio France International (RFI) and the BBC. (American media were absent, opting to rely on secondhand accounts of events when deciding to print or cover anything at all.) Both RFI and BBC aimed for a sort of judicious coverage of both perspectives of the election. Instead of taking time to investigate carefully claims and evidence of fraud, the journalists seemed convinced that the most accurate picture of the election would result from interviews with the respective campaign staffs and candidates. But as any two opposing parties would do in an election, these two simply contradicted one another.
The day the provisional election results were announced, April 26th, Mark Doyle, a reporter for the BBC, asked Faure Gnassignbe if he thought the elections were “free and fair.” After a pause the alleged president-elect responded in the affirmative with such glittering confidence as to make the question seem irrelevant, out of touch with reality. Doyle, a bit shaken by such certainty given the tumult and controversy he himself had been witnessing, responded by pointing out widespread claims of election fraud. Gnassingbe resolutely denied the claims and insinuated that, if anything, it was the opposition that had committed the fraud. And predictably, the opposition offered a contrary account. The point is that no news was to be found there. So it was surprising to see the journalists sticking to those sources.
What’s even more unsettling, in the absence of credible sources, the journalists seemed compelled to go ahead and write their own narrative of the events—which was indeed derivative of accounts of the affairs of other countries in the region, for example, the prevailing account of affairs in Ivory Coast. The journalists suggested that the tension in Togo resulted from a deep north/south division. It is true that many people in the south harbor intense resentment toward the so-called northerners—an ambiguous category at best. But the accounts of priests, development agents, schoolteachers, and others who were at elections sites as the election results were certified give the opposition a decisive victory in two of the three regions that constitute the “north.” (The exception was Kara, the one in which General Eyadema was born.) With this in mind, the Togolese appear more like a people united, but ultimately powerless, against an oppressive political party. Having lived in Togo for the past two years, I know that this is the case.
But even if accounts like mine don’t have power to disconfirm ruling party claims, they should at least cast doubt on them. And they should suggest a more promising line of journalistic inquiry like that eventually pursued by BBC reporter Elizabeth Blunt. The day the president-elect’s victory was confirmed by the Togolese National Electoral Commission, she had finally found traces of the real story. In a city traditionally favorable to the president, Sotuboua, the officially listed voter turnout was significantly larger than the city’s population as listed in the government census. And in Lomé, the relatively populous national capital, which is traditionally an opposition stronghold, the official figures show a considerably low voter turnout. “Strange” she called it, probably as she began to recognize the possibility of a huge disparity between the ECOWAS-endorsed government account of the election and reality.
However, these more revealing accounts only begin to suggest to the world the gagging of the Togolese population by its government and the failure of democratic regulatory bodies to put an end to it. More such accounts will be necessary if the world is to begin understanding that there is no democracy in Togo and why.
Recently a friend remarked to me how sparse U.S. media coverage of the Togolese election had been, let alone interest in the real story “on the ground.” And in general U.S. policy toward Togo reveals a similar limitedness of interest. The policy, which, understandably, is almost entirely produced by the State Department staff at the U.S. Embassy in Togo, essentially consists of a few paternalistic admonitions against totalitarian tendencies. The problem with this advice is that in order to follow it, Togo is going to need help loosening the ruling party’s grip on it. And this will require tearing the vale off a series of illicit relationships that are keeping Togo under the current rule. Who is going to enable the Togolese to expose the real story and initiate processes of political transformation that the French and Togolese governments and bodies like ECOWAS claim have been duly underway. Who will reign in this brutal regime that is simply appropriating American- and European-developed democratic rhetoric to keep itself firmly in power? If the answer is no one, and it well seems to be, then the Togolese really will regret the day their government got its hands on these so-called democratic principles. For, as one Togolese teacher recently told me, “the government is using these words—democracy, voting, ballots, political freedom—to do the total opposite. What we’ve actually got to do now is convince the world that there is no democracy here whatsoever and that we’re living under a dictatorship before we can even think about getting the real thing.” I was at a loss in thinking of a force or an authority that will help the Togolese accomplish all that.
Josh Bloomberg (email@example.com) was a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo.
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