Family Dynasty Hatches Plan to Indefinitely Rule Togo After Vote

(Bloomberg) -- Togo President Faure Gnassingbé is set to secure power for life if his party retains a majority in parliamentary elections, cementing a West African dynasty as the region tilts away from democracy.

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Monday’s vote comes after lawmakers backed a recent controversial constitutional change that opponents say paves the way for Gnassingbé to extend his family’s 57-year-rule.

That amendment makes the president of the republic a largely ceremonial post and transfers real power to the president of a council of ministers. The role will be filled by the leader of the largest party in a new National Assembly. It will have a six-year mandate and won’t be subjected to term limits.

Read More: Togo Limits Presidential Power But Could Extend Incumbent’s Rule

Gnassingbé’s ruling Union for the Republic party currently controls the 91-seat chamber, which will be expanded to 113 seats after Monday’s vote. The UNIR, as the party is known by its French acronym, is widely expected to retain its majority, which would enable him to be appointed to the new council president role. Ballots are expected to take a week to tally.

The amendment follows democratic backsliding elsewhere in the region, which has seen six coups in four years and a shift away from the West toward Russia. Togo has also deepened ties with the Kremlin.

The US State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs said via X it was “deeply concerned” the parliament approved changes to the constitution without making the draft law public, and urged the government to respect the right to “peaceful assembly.”

The amendment looks like a “deliberate move by the ruling camp to sidestep the next presidential election and give Gnassingbé a new lease of life as president,” said Vincent Rouget, a director at consultancy Control Risks. “The president of the council appears to have been given the most significant executive powers and is also not constrained by term limits.”

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Gnassingbé, 57, has ruled Togo since the 2005 death in office of his father Gnassingbé Eyadema, who seized power in a coup in 1967.

His focus on building the country as a logistics hub is yielding results, with its landlocked neighbors finding it cheaper to ship cargo through Togo’s port instead of next-door Ghana.

The country won a $390 million, 42-month program from the International Monetary Fund in March to help ease risks of debt distress. Gross domestic product is forecast to grow 5.3% this year, up from 5.4% in 2023. Despite healthy economic growth, most of Togo’s 9.3 million people live in poverty, according to the World Bank.

More than four million people were registered to vote on Monday, with 19 political parties and dozens of independent candidates vying for power, according to the National Independent Electoral Commission.

The main opposition party, which boycotted the vote in 2018 but is participating now, has called for a massive turnout in an attempt to turn the ballot into a referendum against the amendment. Opposition groups’ protests in the lead up to changing the law were poorly attended due to fears of a crackdown by security forces.

The new parliamentary system will hamper any opposition effort to rally behind a single candidate to challenge Gnassingbé in future elections, said Alioune Tine, director of Dakar-based think tank Afrikajom Center. “The regime maintains its grip on power through electoral fraud, manipulation of the constitution and through repression of dissent,” Tine said by phone.

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