At least three mass anti-government demonstrations have taken place in Lomé since mid-November, underscoring growing anger over the absence of constitutional reforms. Opposition groups are demanding the introduction of term limits amid suspicions President Faure Gnassingbe is planning to stand for re-election. Should he do so, there is a significant risk of violence, though the loyalty of the security forces to the Gnassingbe family means this would be unlikely to force a change in government.
The latest anti-government demonstration took place on 5 December, when thousands of opposition supporters marched through Lomé demanding two-term presidential limits, which would require Gnassingbe to step down in 2015. Although the demonstrators had been granted permission to march in the capital, they deviated from their intended route and moved towards parliament, where they were blocked by police. The protesters threw rocks at security forces, erected barricades and set fire to tyres, prompting police to fire tear gas to disperse the crowds. At least two protesters were injured in the clashes.
The protest comes amid an increasing number of anti-government demonstrations over the absence of presidential term limits in the constitution. On 21 and 28 November, several thousand members of the Fight for the Peaceful Alternative and Let’s Save Togo movements gathered in the centre of Lomé, marching towards the Togolese parliament to demand reforms. The 21 November protest occurred on the same day that around 5,000 pro-government protesters launched a demonstration in opposition to constitutional reforms in the same area. Both opposition demonstrations resulted in clashes with security personnel – with unconfirmed reports that the government sent armoured vehicles to disperse demonstrators – as well as significant disruption to movement in the capital.
Further violent protests are likely ahead of the Togolese election in March 2015. The Let’s Save Togo coalition has said it plans to continue its demonstrations until its demands are met, while the government has refused to consider introducing constitutional changes. Parliament, which is largely made up of supporters of Gnassingbe, voted against constitutional reforms in June, and it is extremely unlikely any changes will be initiated before the election. Additionally, talks to avert further protests between the ruling Union for the Republic (UNIR) party and the leading opposition party National Alliance for Change (ANC) broke down on 22 November after the groups failed to find common ground.
Future protests will likely be concentrated in Lomé, with opposition groups yet to demonstrate the capacity to launch demonstrations outside of the capital. The Bè Kpehenou neighbourhood has previously been targeted, and this is likely to be a flashpoint of future rallies, as well as areas surrounding government buildings in central Lomé. Avenue de la Liberation, Boulevard Circulaire and Avenue du 24 Janvier, which all lead to downtown Lomé, are likely to be subject to disruption during further protests. The violence of previous protests, and the propensity for pro-government demonstrations to occur simultaneously, highlight the strong risk of violence during anti-government protests.
The risk of violence will be especially elevated if Gnassingbe declares his intention to stand for re-election. As yet the president has merely reiterated calls for the constitution to be upheld but has not said he will run in the polls, though an announcement of this sort is widely anticipated in the first quarter of 2015. Should he announce his plans to stand, there are likely to be widespread pro- and anti-government protests in response in the capital.
The unrest may also take on an ethnic dimension, with violence during the 2005 election pitting members of Gnassingbe’s Kabre ethnic group from the northern region against various other communities, particularly the Ewe in the south. Although ethnic violence on that scale has not been witnessed since 2005, if Gnassingbe were to seek re-election this would further compound resentment of the Kabre group, elevating ethnic tensions and resulting in additional episodes of violence outside the capital. Signs of protests and clashes taking on ethnic overtones will be crucial to monitor in the months ahead.
Although the rising number of anti-government demonstrations has prompted some Togolese opposition figures to compare the situation to Burkina Faso’s recent uprising against President Blaise Compaore’s attempts to remain in power, this remains an unlikely outcome. Previous instances of anti-government protests such as those witnessed during 2010 elections in Togo, demonstrated a lack of unity within the opposition and an inability to mount a sustained campaign against the government. Large-scale anti-government demonstrations died down shortly after the 2010 elections were concluded. Moreover, unlike in Burkina Faso, Gnassingbe enjoys the loyalty of the armed forces, which brought him to power in 2005, and there are few signs of discontent among the rank-and-file. As such, while there is a strong likelihood of increasingly violent anti-government demonstrations in the capital, the possibility of an overthrow of the president over the next six months remains minimal.