LOME, Togo (AP) — Pierre Warga is among the majority of Togo’s 6 million citizens who have spent their entire lives ruled by the Gnassingbe family.
Eyadema Gnassingbe was in power for 38 years before dying of a heart attack in 2005. His son Faure Gnassingbe was then installed by the military before winning a highly flawed and violent election later that year, and a re-election in 2010.
The small West African country goes to the polls Thursday for legislative elections that will test whether recent signs of discontent might legitimately threaten Gnassingbe’s hold on power. Some experts say there may be, for the first time, vulnerabilities in a country that has seen an increasingly daring public outcry against entrenched poverty, high youth unemployment and controversial crackdowns by the security forces.
“The regime is still strong but the president is not as strong as his father,” said Lydie Boka, a Togo expert and manager of the France-based risk analysis firm Strategico. “The population is younger, they are interested in information technology and they are following what’s going on in the world. It’s going to be harder for the regime to win outright.”
Development has lagged under Gnassingbe. Despite new campaign promises for better education and more jobs, the literacy rate remains stubbornly low at 57 percent, according to this year’s United Nations Human Development Report. The African Development Bank has voiced concern about youth unemployment and underemployment, which it says together affect nearly 30 percent of Togo’s young workers.
“How can I have any confidence when the government makes these promises?” asked Warga, a 27-year-old communications student. “They haven’t been able to accomplish these things for the last 40 years.”
In this year’s U.N. Development Program survey of “life satisfaction” in 159 countries worldwide, Togo placed dead last.
Togo’s citizens are increasingly acting on their frustrations. In December 2011, students in the northern city of Kara staged massive demonstrations over a decision to cut financial assistance. The protests grew more violent after the movement’s leader was arrested, prompting the police to respond with beatings and tear gas.
The Open Society Institute for West Africa, in an analysis published last year, called the incident a “landmark” event because it occurred outside the context of elections and because it was in the north, an area that has traditionally been a bastion of support for the Gnassingbes, who hail from there.
More demonstrations erupted last year over controversial changes to the country’s election law ahead of the legislative vote, which was originally scheduled for last October. Prime Minister Gilbert Fossoun Hounbgo stepped down in July, but issues over the election — including the role of the opposition in the electoral commission — remained unresolved. The following month, female activists announced a weeklong sex strike to call for the president’s resignation.
This year, tension has been exacerbated by mysterious fires in January at major markets in Lome and Kara. The opposition has accused the government of using the fires as a pretext to arrest its activists, some of whom remain behind bars.
Marcel Magloire Kuakuvi, a political philosophy professor at the University of Lome, said the timing is ripe for opposition gains, but that those leaders will need to overcome the ruling party’s financial advantage as well as the support it enjoys from the military.
The opposition landscape is in flux, however. The leader of the opposition party with the most seats in parliament, Gilchrist Olympio, agreed to join a unity government three years ago. Two main opposition coalitions failed to coordinate going into talks about how Thursday’s vote would be run, and did not secure major concessions on the composition of the electoral commission and other outstanding issues.
More broadly, some voters say there is little excitement around opposition leaders who have been on the scene for decades and whose careers are defined by their relationship to the Gnassingbes.
Gerry Taama, however, has started the New Togolese Engagement party and is considered one of the few independent candidates to have a following outside his home district. Taama often speaks of the need for a “renewal of the Togolese political class” while blasting more established opposition leaders for their infighting. He also has a strong social media presence.
Marc Bidabi, 32, began volunteering for the New Togolese Engagement party.
“This is an opportunity that I could not have with the government or the traditional opposition,” said Bidabi, who now runs political affairs for the party. “Both sides have a prehistoric conception of politics, which means they are giving no chance for the youth to emerge.”
As voters become more vocal in their opposition to Gnassingbe, the ruling party may revert to old tactics like offering voters rice for three to four times below market price, said Kuakuvi, the University of Lome professor.
“But I don’t know if they will be able to convince reasonable people that a 25-kilogram bag of rice can feed them for the next five years,” he said.
Rosa Noamessi, 55, said she would only vote for the ruling party if she got something in return.
“Some people have received money from the ruling party during the campaign, but I have received nothing even though I’m living just across from the headquarters,” she said sitting outside her house, using a rock to crush palm nuts, which she plans to sell.
“They cannot expect me to vote for them as long as I am hungry. I have not eaten this morning. If nobody gives me money, I know I will vote for the opposition,” she said.
Corey-Boulet reported from Dakar, Senegal