Togo's Constitutional Conflict

On 4 April 2024 Togo postponed its parliamentary and regional elections to 29 April after an initial one-week extension for the polls originally set for 13 April. This postponement follows a trend in the region, albeit the first instance in a civilian-led state. The situation is particularly fraught because of tensions emanating from a set of proposed constitutional changes that, when promulgated, could increase long-term President Gnassingbé Eyadema’s term in office, remove the power to directly elect the president from citizens and strongly empower the parliament. Notably, the new constitution, which received final approval from all 87 pro-regime parliamentarians, shifts the country from a presidential democracy to a parliamentary one. Protests are expected to follow this process, mostly because it was not subjected to a referendum to gain national approval and is now being rushed through the constitutional amendment process. Already political opposition, as well as civil society in Togo, have rejected the adoption of the new constitution on the grounds that the terms of the lawmakers expired on 31 December 2023 and, therefore, they lack the constitutional authority to implement such a fundamental change. Eyadema asked the parliament to hold another vote, after condemnation followed the initial decision on 25 March, but parliament resubmitted the bill on 19 April, which returns the buck to the president and could provide clues about the likely path forward for Togolese politics after decades of rule by the Eyadema family. 


A New Order
In short, the President of Togo will no longer be directly elected by the people.

Recently, several African states have received international attention because of the increased proliferation of coups on the continent. But, almost as much, long-term leaders have also found ways of utilising constitutional provisions to skirt term limits. Guinea's Alpha Conde and Côte d’Ivoire's Alassane Ouattara notably got constitutional amendments passed enabling them to run for third terms. Similarly, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda have, in recent years embarked on amendments to change powers. These examples join many other presidents across the continent that have succeeded in getting term lengths or term limits changed in order to extend their stay in power. Togo had already carried out changes in the past to allow Gnassingbe  to serve two terms. But there are few instances where an amendment has had a seemingly different impact, such as with Togo’s where the presidency appears to be weakened. 

In short, the President of Togo will no longer be directly elected by the people. S/he will rather be elected by the parliamentarians—deputies and senators—who will serve in the Parliament. The President will hold a single six-year term during which s/he will be divested of nearly all powers, which will instead be transferred to the president of the council of ministers, also designated by the parliamentarians, either as the leader of the ruling party or the head of the majority coalition following legislative elections. This individual will consolidate all executive powers and function akin to a super-prime minister. The Togolese opposition, civil society, and Catholic Church are opposed to these extensive powers. They believe that the Togolese president, under the current constitution, and the president of the council of ministers under the new constitution, are two different terminologies that denote the same democratic shortcoming which the country has experienced since the adoption of plural electoral democracy in the 1990s. This is because, essentially, the future “strongman” of Togo will have the opportunity to remain in office for as long as their party or coalition maintains a parliamentary majority.

This adds a new dynamic to the forthcoming legislative elections in Togo, whenever they are held, especially since it is expected that the winning party in this contest will likely produce the next president in 2025. Eyadema will hope to maintain a control of the legislature – his Union for the Republic (UNIR) party currently controls 59 of the 91 seats in parliament. 

Alongside the changes for the presidency, the parliament has also introduced a new role for the leader of the majority party in parliament:  president of the council of ministers. The title confers powers to the holder making them a de facto prime minister, with powers to oversee the government. Togo currently has a prime minister, like several francophone African countries, whose powers are dependent on the president and can be easily dismissed. This current disposition will change and result in a weakened president and more powerful leader of parliament – who will also be responsible for appointments to political and military roles, granting them control over the army. This desire for a more influential legislature might have informed the mass support for the move within parliament – 89 of the 91 legislators voted in favour of the bill.

One of the least covered, but still important aspects of the referendum, involves the amendment of the highest seat in the judiciary. The supreme court will be replaced by a court of cassation, a fairly common system in Europe, which largely focuses on interpretation of the law rather than reviewing new evidence. This is likely to further concentrate influence in the hands of the parliament that will be responsible for reviewing and establishing the law. The amendment also establishes a citizen prosecutor to try administrative abuses.



A different model for governance
If the president is now elected by parliament, how can the executive be expected to hold the legislature to account if its mandate can easily be withdrawn?

In promoting the amendment, politicians in favour highlighted the possibility of more inclusive politics and stronger checks and balances. In theory, this is correct. Most presidents appropriate more power. This new constitution is a rare example of a politician ceding more control to the legislature. It also means that a president is unlikely to easily dismiss the leader of the largest party in parliament. This should also lead to keenly contested parliamentary elections owing to the increased relevance that these representatives will now have – not just in setting laws but also in deciding the president. There is also the case that the appointment of a citizen prosecutor to try administrative abuses will ensure an ‘ombudsman’ role is empowered to seek sanctions for complaints.  This should lead to stronger transparency and increased accountability. These measures are usually actively sought after and it is rare for a long-term leader to acquiesce to such demands. Furthermore, there is nothing that precludes a government from changing its form of government if it feels that a different mode enables it better represent and serve its people.

Yet these amendments mask different loopholes that could be exploited to anti-democratic effect. For starters, in a democracy, the strongest form of accountability should be the ability for citizens to remove leaders perceived to have erred. The constitution change means the president is no longer elected by universal suffrage, ensuring that a president is no longer accountable to the people but to the constituency that actually elected them – parliament. This will likely lead to choices acceptable to the political elite and not voices representative of the masses.

This leads to the second issue – the weakening of checks and balances. If the president is now elected by parliament, how can the executive be expected to hold the legislature to account if its mandate can easily be withdrawn? Or how can a judiciary, made up of appointees approved by the legislature, be expected to act independently when its role is now confined to solely interpret laws? The constitution creates a very powerful legislature, but ultimately solidifies a structure where political leaders are largely to belong to the same school of thought and removes the possibility of ideas being sufficiently challenged.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there was no constitutional referendum to ensure citizens endorsed or rejected the proposals. This gives the impression of politicians deciding on changes without submitting the ideas to the people ultimately responsible for their mandate. In an amendment that already removes the ability of the citizenry to determine the president, it is also dangerous that political leaders did not subject themselves to the process of convincing the electorate of the merits of the amendment. If this precedence has already been set with in the passing of the amendment, there should be no expectation for active citizen engagement in governance once these powers are removed. Expectedly opposition groups have denounced the new constitution, with many calling for a review of the process and it remains to be seen if the government will listen.

The merits of this amendment depend on regular free, fair and credible elections, but Eyadema has failed to guarantee that. His UNIR party has maintained a strong grip in parliament and is likely to do so in elections that have been plagued with irregularities. In 2020, there were military forces around the home of the leading opposition candidate when he was reportedly leading the vote and there were reports of internet shutdowns across major cities during the elections. Furthermore, according to the 2022 Togo report by Freedom House, observation permits for domestic civil society were denied or revoked and representatives of the US-based National Democratic Institute were expelled before the election. As a result, opposition parties have repeatedly boycotted previous polls, a likelihood that will continue if electoral reforms clamoured for are ignored. If the election report is anything to go by, it is unlikely that opposition parties will be able to break through an even more rigid system.


Not all coups are military
The big question pertains to the enduring hegemony of the Eyadema dynasty.

A coup, an attempt to either remove incumbent leadership or stay in power through illegal means, is a coup whether it is carried out in military fatigues or flowing political garments. When presidents abuse the constitutional process to stay in power, they create precedence that other leaders can similarly abuse. The fact remains that an amendment with the capacity to completely change the democracy citizens enjoy should have been subjected to an endorsement by citizens – and this action does not help address concerns that the government exists only to serve the elite. 

A strong check on any overreaching actions would be other democratic institutions but, in most cases, they are not strong or independent enough to withstand the pressure of the president, a situation that was helpful in addressing the recent crisis in Senegal. This is another area where regional organisations need to be more active in using their convening powers to force a conversation. Many African states have signed the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, but despite the charter including the use of any amendment or revision of the constitution or legal instruments, which is an infringement on the principles of democratic change of government’  as an illegal means, it does not cover when these processes are not accompanied by efforts to strengthen other parts of the democratic process. Efforts need to be made to ensure that member states that abuse the process are sanctioned and deterrents need to be put in place to discourage leaders from pursuing this avenue.

The big question pertains to the enduring hegemony of the Eyadema dynasty. It is unlikely that a fairly influential president, with a firm grip over his party, would agree to stay as a strictly ceremonial president after the next term. Opposition groups have already expressed fears that Eyadema will then use his control over the party to seek this role, which notably does not include a term-limit. It remains to be seen if Eyadema will seek this arrangement, although he would have to find a loyal ally to assume the presidency and work hard to ensure the presidency doesn’t become a convenient rival power base. Similarly, Eyadema could ensure a loyal ally leads parliament to allay fears before switching roles. In any case, he will likely work to maintain a grip on appointments through his control of the party and continue to maintain influence.


Eyadema will do well to remember that another famed family, that was in power for a long time, was recently removed in Gabon’s 2023 coup. Togo itself already appears on some analysis of ‘coup-able’ states, which will be watched if protests against the now passed constitution increase. If Togolese politicians seek to truly address concerns, there is time for a clear national debate ahead of a referendum for citizens to make their voices heard. This could, and should, help to ensure any decision receives key legitimacy. Sadly, there is the cynical likelihood that despite the attention and protests, this will all get changed in the near future – with yet another constitutional amendment.


Afolabi Adekaiyaoja is a research analyst at the Centre for Democracy and Development

We use cookies to improve your experience. By continuing to visit this page, you accept our use of cookies.