VOTERS go to the polls in Togo this weekend, with President Faure Gnassingbe seeking a third term of office to extend his family’s grip on power into a second half-century.
The low-profile Gnassingbe, who won in 2005 and 2010, is the favourite in Saturday’s election but is facing a challenge from main opposition leader Jean-Pierre Fabre.
Polls open at 0700 GMT for the 3.5 million registered voters, although the police and military—9,000 of whom will provide security on election day—have already cast their ballots.
Complaints about irregularities in the electoral register, including ghost voters, forced a 10-day postponement to the election.
Concerns about possible electoral fraud persist after massive vote rigging five years ago and in 2005, which also saw up to 500 people killed in political violence.
Paul Amegakpo, head of civil society group the National Consultation of Civil Society (CNSC) said the police and military were not registered on the electoral roll.
“They could therefore turn up as civilians to vote again on the 25th,” he told AFP.
Amegakpo also expressed fears about the safety of the ballot boxes used on Wednesday, as they would not be delivered to the electoral commission until Saturday.
Such mistrust has deep roots in Togo, where Gnassingbe’s father, Gnassingbe Eyadema, seized power in a military coup in 1967 and was kept in office largely with the help of the army.
For the last 48 years of rule by father and son, both have locked in the power of the army largely by enrolling soldiers from their home region in the north of the country to ensure loyalty. With victory all but assured, if Gnassingbe finishes the next term, it would make for the longest unbroken father-son combined rule in an African country that is not a hereditary absolute monarchy like Swaziland, spanning the pre-digital age, to the social media era.
“The army is the preserve of the people of the north,” said political analyst David Ihou. Ninety percent of officers—many of them trained at elite schools abroad—were northerners.
“It’s a military elite, a state within a state… We are afraid that if someone from the south (such as Fabre) wins the presidential elections, the army will not accept it,” he added.
Amnesty International on Wednesday accused the army of using live bullets on student protesters at the end of last month and called on it to guarantee freedom of assembly and expression.
Fabre, who heads a five-party coalition called Combat for Political Change (CAP), won 33.93% of the vote in 2010 while Faure Gnassingbe took 60.88%.
He said the key issue for the opposition was regime change, eyeing the recent victory for Muhammadu Buhari in Nigeria and president Blaise Compaore’s ouster in neighbouring Burkina Faso last year.
But the opposition is divided, in part over 63-year-old Fabre’s uncomprising style, while the vote could be split between him and three other candidates from smaller parties.
A fourth opposition party has called for a boycott of the polls because of the failure to implement political and constitutional changes such as limiting the presidential mandate to two terms.
Much could depend on whether stay-at-home voters come out for Fabre, after just over a third abstained five years ago.
But after nearly 50 years of rule by the same family, “people are tired and resigned when it comes to politics”, union leader Gilbert Tsolenyanou said.
Togo, a former French colony repeatedly sanctioned during Gnassingbe Eyadema’s regime for its “democratic deficit”, has grown at nearly 6% in recent years.
But few have felt the benefit.
Unemployment in the country of seven million people is 29%, said Kako Nubukpo, Togo’s minister of long-term strategy, adding that years of sanctions had hit business and education.
Many university graduates, for example, eke out a living as motorcycle taxi drivers, earning as little as 1.50 euros ($1.60) a day after fuel and repayments for the machine are factored in.
On the campaign trail, Gnassingbe, 48, has vaunted his introduction of free primary school and infrastructure projects such as new roads.
“It’s a sprint between the speed at which our society modernises and its capacity to include young people,” said Nubukpo.
“We must give some hope to young people otherwise we run the risk of a social explosion.”