Togo election expected to extend ruling dynasty's hold

Emile Kouton and Celia Lebur
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Support: President Faure Gnassingbe seems on track for victory in Saturday's elections in Togo -- his family has ruled the country since 1967

Support: President Faure Gnassingbe seems on track for victory in Saturday's elections in Togo -- his family has ruled the country since 1967 (AFP Photo/PIUS UTOMI EKPEI)

Lome (AFP) - Togo's president, Faure Gnassingbe, looks set to claim a fourth term at the polls on Saturday and extend his family's half-century domination of the West African nation.

After weathering protests in 2017 and 2018, Gnassingbe pushed through constitutional changes last year enabling him to run again -- and potentially remain in power for another decade.

The weekly demonstrations calling for Gnassingbe to go were the biggest challenge in years to the dynastic rule that saw him take over after the death of his strongman father in 2005.

But a combination of government repression and squabbling between the opposition saw the protests fizzle out.

Gnassingbe, 53, now looks set to swat aside the other contenders.

"The opposition was able to build a popular movement to worry the regime but then was not able to capitalise on it," opposition politician Nathaniel Olympio, who is not running in the election, told AFP.

"It shot itself in the foot."

- Jihadist threat -

The president's family has been at the helm of the country of eight million since his father Gnassingbe Eyadema took control in 1967.

He ran Togo with an iron fist for 38 years before the military men around him installed his son to take over.

The current president improved the regime's image but it still maintains a stranglehold over the country and its financial resources.

The authorities have banned a major civil society group and the Catholic Church from monitoring Saturday's elections and critics insist it will not be free and fair.

Gnassingbe has made security central to his message as the nation nervously eyes the jihadist violence rocking its neighbour Burkina Faso to the north.

Togo's Israeli-trained army and intelligence service are among the most effective in the region and so far the country has not suffered any terror attacks.

The president points to the problems in Burkina Faso since Blaise Compaore's ouster in 2014 as proof that his continued rule is vital for maintaining stability and stopping the jihadist spread.

"The threat is real and the pressure is very strong," Gnassingbe told AFP as he campaigned close to the border.

He has also made a major play of a flagship programme that aims to provide the entire population with power by 2030 and is pledging to create 500,000 jobs for the youth.

But after 53 years of his family's rule the country still remains deeply impoverished.

The World Bank says that around half of the population live on under $1.90 (1.76 euros) per day and the authorities are widely criticised over the health system.

- 'Don't ask for much' -

Even so, the six challengers lining up against Gnassingbe face a mammoth task to persuade the 3.6 million registered voters to oust Gnassingbe.

Veteran candidate Jean-Pierre Fabre came second at the last two elections but the 67-year old former human rights activist has failed to keep the opposition united.

Agbeyome Kodjo, who served as prime minister under Gnassingbe's father, is seen as a potential dark horse after winning the backing of an influential Catholic archbishop.

One name not on the ballot is Tikpi Atchadam, a politician from second city Sokode who shot to prominence in 2017 at the head of anti-government protests.

He fled Togo for Ghana in the face of a crackdown by the authorities on his supporters and has seen his influence dwindle.

Turnout could be a key factor if opposition supporters decide to stay away from the polls and the president's supporters have been chanting for him to win a "knockout blow" with a resounding victory in the first round.

Celestin, a driver in the northern town of Mango, echoed widespread indifference as he said he would not bother going to vote.

"The Togolese really don't ask for much -- development, a little work and a bit of help to build their businesses," he said, refusing to give his surname.

"The opposition has let us down, they are sidelined and we don't believe in them."