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Can you defeat a ruler whose family has been in power for nearly 50 years? Some lessons for Togo's opposition

- July 23, 2015

A man holds a campaign poster of presidential candidate Jean-Pierre Fabre during a campaign rally on March 2, 2010, in Lome. (Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)
This week, President Obama met with Nigeria’s new president, Muhammadu Buhari — and praised the country’s commitment to democracy and the nation’s first democratic transfer of power since the end of military rule in 1999.
How did that peaceful transition come about? In part because the various opposition forces united against president Goodluck Jonathan, forming a broad coalition.
Which is why it’s so important that another West African country, Togo, must resolve the perennial disunity among its opposition. In April, Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbé won a third term in office — continuing his family’s 48-year rule of the country. Together, Faure Gnassingbé and his father, Eyadéma Gnassingbé, have ruled Togo since 1967. Togo’s April 25  elections were contested but peaceful, and  according to election observers, were free and fair. Gnassingbé took 59 percent of the vote, thereby defeating Jean-Pierre Fabre of the National Alliance for Change (ANC), Togo’s main opposition party, who gained 35 percent.
[Most Togolese support term limits. But they just re-elected their president for a third term.]
To be clear, Togo’s competitive authoritarian electoral system is tilted in favor of Gnassingbé and his Union for the Republic (UNIR) party. But the opposition’s disunity in the 2015 elections once again stifled chances for democratization in the country. In the run-up to the election, Togo’s opposition was unable to rally behind a single candidate. A total of five opposition candidates ran. Still other opposition parties boycotted the vote entirely.
This disunity appears to alienate the voters. According to the latest Afrobarometer survey, 45 percent of Togolese say that the leaders of political parties are more concerned with advancing their own political ambitions than the interest of the people.
Togo’s past elections have been some of the most violent in Africa. In 2006, after as many as 500 people were killed in election violence, Gnassingbé signed a power-sharing agreement with the opposition, which at the time was led by the Union of Forces for Change (UFC). Despite that agreement, the UFC refused to join the government of national unity.
According to interviews we conducted with political stakeholders in Lomé, the capital, in June, the UFC’s refusal to join the unity government in 2006 illustrates the deep divides in the opposition during this period, which only widened in the aftermath of future elections.
Peaceful legislative elections were held in 2007. But the 2010 presidential elections created new rifts in the opposition. Once the UFC lost the 2010 elections, Gilchrist Olympio, the UFC’s longtime leader, did join a coalition with Gnassingbé. Many UFC members objected. In protest, Jean-Pierre Fabre, secretary general of the UFC at the time, formed a breakaway party, the ANC — further splintering an already divided opposition.
In the lead-up to the 2013 legislative elections, the opposition again failed to unify behind a single party. Capitalizing on the fractured opposition, Gnassingbé and UNIR consolidated their position in the polls, winning 62 of 91 seats. Voters punished the UFC for having joined the government, and gave them only three seats, a serious drop from 27 in 2007. Two other opposition coalitions gained 19 and 6 seats, respectively. Despite his party’s loss of support at the polls, in June, Olympio told us that his party had “no other choice” but to come to an accommodation with the ruling party.
The opposition’s lack of unity and a clear agenda gave a big advantage to Gnassingbé and his party in the run-up to the 2015 election. Despite attempts to unite the two opposition camps behind one candidate, personal issues and historical rivalries got in the way.
Those we interviewed told us that some members of the opposition questioned if Fabre had a genuine commitment to political reforms such as term limits. They believed that his desire to remain the main opposition leader often came first, before any political reforms. Others said that his uncompromising stance often backfired in talks with the government and other opposition groups. When we brought up the divided opposition in an interview with Fabre, he responded by saying other party leaders were simply “lazy” and “jealous.”
Of course, even if Togo’s opposition had united, there is no guarantee that the opposition would have prevailed. Gnassingbe gets a boost from Togo’s biased electoral system, from his growing support in the south of the country (historically an opposition stronghold) and from his continued backing from the military.
And yet, the case of Nigeria, along with academic research on opposition unity in semi-authoritarian regimes in both Africa and beyond, suggests that a unified opposition would have greatly increased the chances of electoral turnover and political liberalization in Togo.
For instance, in a 2006 study, political scientists Marc Morje Howard and Philip G. Roessler find that in competitive authoritarian regimes, the opposition’s “decision to create a coalition or to jointly support a single candidate, despite significant regional, ethnic, or ideological differences and divisions — can have a tremendous effect on the electoral process and its results.” After examining global data spanning from 1990 to 2002, their main finding is that the “impact of such coalitions on political liberalization can be rapid and dramatic.”
Howard and Roessler’s study builds on previous Africa-focused research by political scientists Michael Bratton and Nicholas van de Walle, which also found that “opposition cohesion” played an important role in democratic transitions on the continent in the early 1990s. Nigeria seems to further confirm this theory. As argued by political scientist Nic Cheeseman, “the most obvious lesson from the Nigerian election is that opposition unity is critical if an established incumbent is to be defeated.”
In light of these broader findings, Togo’s opposition parties would be wise to bring together their leaders and work toward cohesion, especially as elections approach. To promote democratization in Togo (and beyond), international and regional actors should consider investing in ways to educate civil society and opposition parties about how much they have to gain by uniting against a semi-authoritarian leader.
Alexander Noyes is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford University (on Twitter at @AlexHNoyes). Ekoutiamé A. Ahlin is a data analyst and co-founder of the Center for Research and Opinion Polls (CROP) in Lomé, Togo.