On March 28, 2019, François Boko, a former interior minister of Togo who has been in exile in France since 2005, was prevented from boarding an Air France flight headed for Togo’s capital city, Lomé. The Togolese Ministry of Immigration argued that Boko did not have a Togolese passport or a foreign passport with a visa. Meanwhile, Boko claims he had his French passport and his Togolese civil status certificate. Typically, those with dual nationalities are exempt from visa requirements if the individual can provide documentation of their membership in Togo. In a statement to the Agence French Presse, François Boko made his interpretation of the incident clear, claiming that “Air France yielded to pressure and intimidation and refused to allow [him] on board because the Togolese authorities reportedly threatened to prevent the plane from landing.” Naturally, a spokesman for the Togolese authorities denied knowledge of his planned entrance or his possible candidacy. The blocked entry of a political opponent is a blatant violation of a central component democracy. As many scholars note, competitive elections are central to the strength of a democracy, and their degradation is one of the factors that can lead to worsening authoritarianism (Huq and Ginsberg 2018).
A History of Oppression
The event on Air France is not uncharacteristic of the Togolese government. For over 50 years, the Gnassingbé family has ruled with an iron fist in the small West African country. In 1963, a military coup that ended in the assassination of Prime Minister Olympio was led by Gnassingbé Eyadéma, the father of current leader Fuare Gnassingbé. Gnassingbé Eyadéma declared himself the sole leader of Togo in 1967. In 1969 he formed the Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais, which served as the only party in Togo until 1991. For decades, political dissent was silenced through intimidation and violence. Increased political upheaval in the beginning of the 1990’s lead to the formation of The National Conference Party. In the chaos of 1991, this party claimed power through a civilian coup, rather than popular elections. Despite the efforts of Prime Minister Koffigoh, the military never left the side of Gnassingbé Eyadéma, and the popular takeover never truly came to fruition (Ellis 1993). Gnassingbè Eyadéma stayed in control until his death in 2005. Following his death, son Fuare Gnassingbé claimed power. Following massive protests and pressure from outside forces, a likely uncompetitive, unfair election was held. The result was a democratically elected President, Fuare Gnsassingbé.
Since Fuare Gnassingbé came to power, the Togolese government has continued its suppression of political rivals. Recent protests have often turned deadly, and the stories of political prisoners depict a deeper humanitarian crisis. One major demand of the opposition is a retroactively effective return to the 1992 constitution, which contained a two-term limit for presidents. This would prevent Gnassingbé from running in 2020.
As of 2019, Togo has received a forty-three out of one hundred from democracy watchdog Freedom House, giving them the distinction of “partly free.” In comparison, France received a ninety out of one hundred, and Russia received a score of twenty. As the Togolese people struggle towards the end of a dynasty and the beginning of a legitimate democracy, the move to prevent the entrance of possible electoral contender François Boko foreshadows the difficulties to come.
An Indication of the Future
Despite the growth of opposition coalitions, recent massive and violent anti-government protests, and outside pressures, François Boko’s denied entrance to Lomé indicates that the the Gnassingbè regime has no intentions of giving up power, let alone facilitating competitive elections. Keeping Boko in France is a blatant attack on the competitiveness of the 2020 elections, and this has real consequences for the prospects of democracy in Togo.
Looking forward, one of the central ways in which the anti-democratic actions of Gnassingbé can be combatted is through pressure from other countries and NGO’s. The development of democracy is often severely impeded by unbalanced party systems, such as the one in Togo. As rival parties gain more influence, there is a greater incentive for the government to undermine democracy (Lust 2015). Therefore, in order to create incentives for Gnassingbé to yield to, among other things, calls for free, fair, and competitive elections, there has to be a greater potential cost associated with suppressing the opposition (Linz 1948). Other democratic governments, African coalitions, and NGO’s, must play a role in influencing the cost-benefit analysis for the Gnassingbé regime. Otherwise, possible presidential candidate François Boko, along with hopes of a free and democratic Togo, may be grounded for awhile.