Togo leader Gnassingbe follows father’s political playbookFri, 26 Apr 2024 05:41:02 GMT

When Togo’s lawmakers passed a new constitution this month, opposition leaders quickly rejected the reform as another ploy by President Faure Gnassingbe to extend his family’s more than five-decade grip on power.The amended constitution creates a new role of president of the council of ministers, a position critics say is tailor-made for Gnassingbe to avoid presidential term limits and stay in office.After several delays, Togolese go to the polls on Monday to elect new lawmakers, who opposition parties say will, under the new magna carta, almost certainly maintain the Gnassingbe political dynasty. Gnassingbe was put in power by the military in 2005 when his father Gnassingbe Eyadema suddenly died after ruling for nearly four decades.He was seen as a malleable 38-year-old but quickly consolidated himself at the helm of the small West African nation, sandwiched between Benin and Ghana.He has since been re-elected four times.    The taciturn business graduate, now 57, who studied in France and the United States, previously forced through other constitutional changes that allowed him to stand again.Under the previous constitution, the leader known to foes as “Baby Gnass” — a reference to the younger man following his father — could remain in office as president only until 2030.The new constitution makes the presidency a largely ceremonial role, elected by lawmakers for a four-year term.Power now shifts to the president of the council of ministers, a post that will be automatically assumed by the head of the majority party in parliament.His foes expect that Gnassingbe, as chief of the ruling Union for the Republic party or UNIR, will take up the newly created post.UNIR loyalists say the reform will strengthen democracy with more representation.  Gnassingbe brushes aside criticism as “exaggerated”, telling AFP in 2020 that he does not “feel like a dictator”.- Father to son -Gnassingbe was just months old when his father seized power in a military coup in 1967.The colonel-turned-president stamped his total authority over the country through repression and a cult of personality that enabled him to hold on to power for 38 years. When Eyadema died suddenly in 2005, the military men around him moved with lightning speed to install Faure — one of dozens of children he reportedly fathered — in the presidency. The manoeuvre was condemned as a coup and led to a wave of domestic and international anger. Gnassingbe stepped down but was then promptly voted back into office with the support of the ruling party.  That election was hotly disputed, leading to violent protests in which up to 800 people are believed to have been killed.After the initial victory, Gnassingbe sought to improve Togo’s tarnished image abroad and distance himself from his father’s iron-fisted methods.  He smoothed ties with foreign donors as he sought to portray Togo as a dependable partner in an often-volatile region. – Old man’s tactics -But Gnassingbe has also displayed streaks of ruthlessness. In 2009, he had his half-brother and former defence minister Kpatcha Gnassingbe arrested over an alleged coup plot.The presidential sibling was sentenced to 20 years in jail. With similar steely determination, he weathered a major outburst of opposition in 2017 and 2018 when huge crowds took to the streets for almost weekly protests against his rule. The authorities used live bullets, tear gas and internet blackouts to crack down on demonstrators calling for term limits to be imposed retroactively.The harsh treatment and opposition squabbling saw the rallies eventually fade away. Togo’s parliament agreed constitutional changes in May 2019 that cleared the way for Gnassingbe to remain in office for another decade. In recent years, he has pushed a flagship programme to bring electricity to rural areas.He has also made securing the country against the jihadist threat spilling over the northern border from the Sahel a key priority.Togo’s poverty levels dropped from 61 percent in 2006 to 42 percent in 2023, according to the World Bank. But Gnassingbe has also often been more vocal on foreign affairs than on the domestic agenda. He has sought to position himself as a regional mediator in several West African disputes. The Togolese leader has not publicly commented on the divisive constitutional reform. But during one of his rare speeches at his party’s Congress in February, he asked his supporters for “peaceful” and “violent-free” elections to “contribute further to the anchoring of democracy in our country”.