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Hasty constitutional reforms deepen tensions in Togo

Togo’s successive crises have been driven by conflicts relating to presidential term limits and democratic power transfers.

Togo’s recently revised Constitution, adopted by Parliament on 19 April, changes the system of government from presidential to parliamentary. Leading ruling party figures say it strengthens democracy and institutional stability, and fits the country’s current socio-political realities.

However, some opposition and civil society members call the reforms a constitutional coup d’état aimed at circumventing presidential term limits.

The new Constitution reduces the powers of the president, who will now be elected by Parliament for a four-year term, renewable once. The Constitution also creates the position of President of the Council of Ministers. That post will be held by current President Faure Gnassingbé, leader of the majority Union pour la République (UNIR) party in the National Assembly, giving him most of the executive powers for an unlimited six-year term – as long as his party wins legislative elections.

Opponents also criticise the timing of the revision, its legality, and the lack of transparency and consultation before its adoption. Of particular significance is that the mandate of the Parliament that adopted the revision expired in December 2023, the month originally set for legislative elections. Attempts to protest against the reforms were banned. Opposition and civil society appeals were also unsuccessful, including a 22 April referral to the Constitutional Court to rule on the reforms’ legality.

Beyond these debates, the real question is about presidential term limits and democratic power transfer in Togo, which has been ruled for 57 years by the Gnassingbé family. These issues have been at the heart of all Togo’s political crises since independence.

Some have called the reforms a constitutional coup aimed at circumventing presidential term limits

Presidential term limits were removed from the Constitution in 2002 to allow the current president’s father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, to stand for re-election in 2003. The term limit was reintroduced in 2019 without retroactive effect following the 2017 political crisis and 2018 inter-Togolese dialogue.

The latest constitutional amendment was adopted less than a year before presidential elections scheduled for February 2025 – and aim to formalise the current president’s fifth consecutive term in office, should he be re-elected.

The timing of the revisions, hurriedly passed just a month before the 29 April legislative and regional elections, was perhaps calculated to give the polls the appearance of a ‘referendum’ on constitutional reform.

The ruling UNIR won an absolute majority of seats in Parliament – 108 out of 113. The opposition, whose main parties boycotted the 2018 legislative polls, won just five seats: two for the Alliance of Democrats for Integral Development, and one each for the l’Alliance Nationale pour le Changement (ANC), Dynamique pour la majorité du peuple (DMP) and Forces démocratiques pour la République (FDR).

Since its creation in 2012, the UNIR has held a majority in the National Assembly. If this trend continues, the opposition probably won’t gain access to executive power in Togo – especially since it is weakened by internal rivalries and conflicts over succession. This renders alliances in the opposition ineffective and prevents it from shifting the balance of power in its favour.

The mandate of the Parliament that adopted the constitutional revision expired in December 2023

The opposition alleged election irregularities and fraud during the 29 April elections, some of which were confirmed by national observers. The ANC and FDR boycotted the installation of the new Parliament on 21 May.

In November 2023, opposition parties including the ANC and DMP, raised concerns about the voter registration process, and said the electoral boundaries favoured the ruling party. They unsuccessfully demanded a new census and revised boundaries. Some also claim that the Independent National Electoral Commission and Constitutional Court have become politicised.

The electoral commission acknowledged some difficulties on polling day but didn’t consider them serious enough to affect the elections’ credibility. Furthermore, the Constitutional Court rejected all appeals lodged by the opposition after the legislative results were announced. And on 30 April, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), African Union and Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie jointly commended the peaceful elections.

As dissatisfaction with political developments deepens, all stakeholders in Togo should draw lessons to prevent another crisis in West Africa, a region already facing numerous governance challenges.

The ruling party should learn from the failure of the various dialogues organised since the Comprehensive Political Agreement was signed in August 2006. It should pursue more inclusive governance to reach consensual institutional and constitutional reforms. These reforms must address the nation’s challenges and meet the needs of Togolese – many of whom are disillusioned by the successive dialogues. Given the terror threats facing the north of the country, all efforts must be made to avoid creating additional political frustrations.

The controversy could discredit Gnassingbé’s role as mediator between ECOWAS and the Alliance of Sahel States

The opposition should rethink its strategy to access power. Even within its own ranks, this approach is currently considered counterproductive.

The Group of Five (European Union, France, Germany, United Nations Development Programme and United States) and regional organisations, notably ECOWAS, should reflect on their responses to developments in Togo. Public perceptions are that they have been lenient towards the government in their crisis management roles.

Civil society organisations and analysts in Togo and regionally have slated ECOWAS for backpedalling. In its 15 April communiqué, the bloc criticised the constitutional reforms and said it would deploy an exploratory mission to the country. A day later, it withdrew this communiqué, toned down its statement and announced the deployment of a fact-finding mission to Togo.

This reinforces public perceptions of an organisation beholden to heads of state and employing double standards by turning a blind eye when some leaders undermine democracy, while cracking down on countries after military coups.

Togo’s controversial constitutional reforms also risk further tarnishing ECOWAS’ reputation and discrediting Gnassingbé’s role as mediator between ECOWAS and the Alliance of Sahel States (made up of recent coup countries Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso). The three gave notice in January of their withdrawal from ECOWAS.

ECOWAS, in coordination with the Group of Five, must maintain an open dialogue within and between the political actors and civil society in Togo to recreate a climate of trust. Although previous dialogues haven’t addressed the conflict’s root causes, they have helped ease tensions.

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