Political and Financial Conundrums in Post-Colonial Togo

The scandal hit Lomé at the end of July, this year. According to the NGO Global Financial Integrity, Togo is the African country most affected by the ‘Panama Papers’ affair concerning tax evasion and the questionable financial operations of off-shore jurisdictions and companies. The dangerous liaisons of businessmen and public authorities regarding the exploitation of Togolese natural resources has been uncovered by newspapers Le Monde (France) and L’Alternative (Togo), following the revelation by a Washington-based network of journalists (ICIJ) of documents belonging to the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca. The leak, involving the alleged participation as shareholders of the Prime Minister Selom Komi Klassou and other officials, is a harsh blow to a system and Government pressured increasingly by the opposition alliance to accept the commitments of the past ten years for the necessary reforms that could lead the country towards a more pluralist system.

Not unlike other African countries, the modern history of Togo is troubled with ambivalent efforts to overcome the remnants of colonialism and build an inclusive nation along the lines of a global liberal political culture sustained by great powers and international organisations alike. For centuries, the European presence was limited to the trading and trafficking activities on the coast. Then, in 1884, the German explorer Gustav Nachtigal signed a protectorate agreement with a local chief and, as an outcome of the Conference of Berlin (1885), the country saw its colonial rights to that area recognised. Togoland became thus a German colony until WWI, at the end of which Britain and France divided it and had their political control authorised by the League of Nations in the form of newly created mandates. Present day Togo attained independence in 1960 and was built along the borders of the French mandate, while British Togo joined the Golden Coast to form the new independent state of Ghana. After two coup d’états (1963 and 1967) and the killing of the first elected president (1963), Togo entered the era of dictatorship under Eyadéma Gnassingbé that lasted until his death, in 2005.

Like in other parts of the developing world, the financial difficulties of the 1980s and the need to get financial assistance from financial organisations, led to a first opening up of the Gnassingbé regime that eventually had to recognise the opposition and move away from the one-party system. After two months of violence, the regime accepted a national conference (1991) with limited powers to negotiate the transition but it was not ready to share power with its political opponents. Supported by the army, Gnassingbé was able to undermine the conference and even cancel it one day before its official conclusion. With a new constitution approved (1993) by referendum and his powers virtually untouched, Gnassingbé provided the international community with the semblance of democracy it had asked for and thus granted the lasting support of France.

The political troubles of the last ten years in Togo started with Gnassingbé’s death and replacement in 2005. In an act of indefectible support, the chief of the Togolese army Zakary Nandja pronounced his son Faure Gnassingbé as the new president of Togo even if, due to internal and international contestation, he had to step down and take part in presidential elections that same year. Faure Gnassingbé won officially the elections with 60% of the votes, but the whole process was marked by violence in Lomé opposing the supporters of the opposition to the police (about 800 dead), while thousands fled to Ghana and Benin. The aftermath showed some political will to negotiate a new way forward, as the new president understood he had to consolidate his power on a reconstructed legitimacy. A national dialogue was initiated that led to the signing, on 20 August 2006, of a global political agreement (APG) under the mediation of the president Campaoré of Burkina Faso. After ten years though, this agreement is still at the centre of political struggle between the Gnassingbé regime and the opposition, as the latter assert nothing has been done in terms of political, electoral and institutional reforms due to the regime’s lack of political will to move forward. While at the National Assembly the president uses the majority party UNIR to block the opposition’s initiatives and delay the reform programme, a new institution HCCRUN has been launched recently to revamp the process. To the opposition leaders nonetheless, this is but one more dilatory move made by the regime to boycott the reform cycle by bringing again to the negotiation table what was already negotiated and decided at the 2006 APG.

At a political meeting organised by the opposition platform ‘CAP 2015’ on 20 August 2016 to mark the tenth anniversary of the APG, the opposition leader Jean-Pierre Fabre stated that the current stalemate brings a lot of frustration to the Togolese people and could only lead to social explosion. Under banners that stressed ‘Enough is Enough’ and ‘Ten Years On: Nothing’s Done’, opposition leaders rallied to demand more transparency in the judicial and electoral systems, as well as a clarification regarding the ‘Panama Papers’ affair. Therefore, a sense of deprivation and economic injustice could add up to political frustration following the licking of this affair. Like in other developing countries, natural resources are at the centre of a lucrative business linking nationals at privileged official positions and foreign-owned companies, the whole thing boiling down to fiscal evasion and the defence of corporate interests at the expense of the general interest. The story can be told briefly. At the centre of the scandal there is Wacem, a cement company owned by two Indian nationals, owning also Togo-Rail and Amexfield Togo Steel, and who have just been exposed as holders of shell companies in tax heavens for dubious purposes such as tax evasion. The Wacem affair is particularly troubling because limestone has been massively exploited in the last 10 years, ending up outdoing phosphate today as the top extractive industry in Togo. Moreover, Wacem profits from a tax free status and as a result of that, limestone extraction activities, both mechanical and financial, have been under poor scrutiny to say the least. Connected to the deprivation of the national treasury though is the fact that local communities have not secured any sustainable advantage from this extractive massive activity; on the contrary, they have seen their natural resources drained on behalf of foreign corporate interests.

After 55 years of political independence then, Post-colonial Togo is a country still struggling hard with the vicissitudes of development. Partly, the constraints have to do with an international system producing and distributing inequality among its members. However, the political game set up in post-colonial Togo, linking private and corporate interests as in most developing countries, has added an extra layer of deprivation and inequality working to the people’s disadvantage. One can argue the regime has opened up since Eyadéma Gnassingbé’s death and that his son acts more like a technocratic and developmentalist leader than a dictator. However, the still highly opaque nature of the regime, as well as the weakness of civil society, are at the same time a shelter to corporate interests feeding abusively on the state as well as tough obstacles to redirect public investment to where it is most needed, viz. public policies such as education, health, water and sanitation, job creation, the habitat and environmental sustainability.

Marcos Farias Ferreira


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