Roots of Revolution: Student Inspired by Arab Spring

Ashley Dejean

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Inspired by the recent uprisings in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, Farida Nabourema, a junior in SIS, decided to take action for the people in her home country of Togo. For over a year, the opposition has held protests every Saturday, claiming the 2010 election was fraudulent.

Seeing a way to potentially unite and mobilize all the Togolese people standing in opposition to the government, a message that reaches beyond a single political party, Nabourema decided to take action. “If they recognize the victory’s only going to profit that group, it’s not going to change anything,” she said. “That’s why we launched the group ‘Faure Must Go! Togo Libre.’ We said that this is a national cause, it’s not a political party cause, it’s a national cause of all the Togolese who feel that government is wrong [and] that the president shouldn’t be our president in the first place.”

Despite being abroad at AU for her education, Nabourema has played a substantial role in this movement. She created a Facebook group on Feb 24, 2011, which has grown quickly, gaining over 2,000 supporters in one month. Two days after its launch, Nabourema posted a letter she wrote with a friend, Woali Ahlijah, demanding President Faure Gnassingbe step down by April 26, one day before the 51st anniversary of Togo’s independence.

“I think we have the right to dismiss him,” she said. “We have the power to dismiss him if we don’t want his rule anymore. We can join our forces and ask him to go.”

Nabourema’s letter was initially approved by 11 Togoloese activists in the US. The dismissal has since been approved and adopted by the ANC (the main opposition party), FRAC (the opposition coalition), PSR, ADDI and Sursaut Togo with the support of the workers’ union, according to Togolese opposition newspaper L’ALTERNATIVE. Nabourema said more groups have signed on since. This declaration dismissing Gnassingbe was read during the March 12 protest and approved by the 7,000 protesters in attendance. According to Nabourema, 5,000 people signed the letter that day to dismiss the president.

The opposition decided to make the letter a petition to democratically legitimize the dismissal to the rest of the world. The head of the workers’ party, Claude Ameganvi, is currently heading this effort and hopes to get between 500,000 and one million signatures.

Since publicizing the statement of dismissal, Nabourema has received attention from the Togolese government. She said that the Prime Minister of Togo, Gilbert Fossoun Houngbo, asked her to attend a meeting with him while she visited France over spring break. She refused, saying that the government might destroy her image by photographing the meeting and creating the perception that she had been bought off. Shortly after, the meeting was cancelled.

***

According to Nabourema, Togo is the oldest dictatorship in the world. Officially, though, Togo is recognized by the international community as a republic. In 2010, the presidential election was deemed fair for the first time in over 40 years. Despite this, the Togolese opposition coalition — called the Republican Front for Change — has protested this election every Saturday since its occurrence, claiming fraud and demanding that the government recognize the victory of their candidate, Jean-Pierre Fabre.

“[The elections] were significant in that for the first time, the opposition rallied around one leader, whereas before they really split their vote because the opposition didn’t come together,” said Dorina Bokoe, a research associate for the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention. “I think that there was a feeling that they would fare a lot better than they did.”

The State Department’s profile on Togo suggests that division between the opposition parties played a major role in the loss by putting forth seven candidates. However, less than six percent of the vote went to other opposition candidates — not a negligible number, but not quite the 17 percent Fabre needed to win. While the international community deemed the election fair, it conceded irregularities like the government having “clear control” over the electoral commission. Bokoe explained that some of the opposition actually withdrew their membership from the commission because they felt the government had too much control of the process.

Fabre explained in a video interview with the BBC that the military raided the party’s headquarters, taking all of their equipment as they were going through the election results to prove fraud. According to the BBC report, the spokesperson for the special election commando unit said the raid was a response to an opposition march that went ahead despite a government ban, not an attempt to destroy evidence.

Nabourema believes the results of the election shattered the Tologese people’s hope for change, and the betrayal that followed devastated many. Gilchrist Olympio, who was once a leader in the opposition movement, joined the government just after the election, justifying it as an effort to move Togo forward.

Nabourema’s disillusionment with Olympio, a venerated figure in Togo, was a turning point for her.

“I just realized, why are we waiting for a messiah to come and deliver us, awaiting a leader to come out and help us?” she said. “Why can’t we be our own leaders? And that’s how I started to see that I could be a leader myself.”

Nabourema may not be a messiah, but her unwaivering commitment to spreading freedom in her home country reveals an uncommon courage.

***

Recently, the Togolese government proposed legislation that would require permission from the government to hold demonstrations. Many have speculated the inspiration for the proposal came from the recent uprisings in other countries.

“I think a lot of governments are looking at how they might — especially governments that might not be particularly popular or have a long history of repression as the Togolese government has — be able to prevent this kind of large, popular uprising,” said Bokoe, who works for the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention.

CNN reported that Togolese Interior Minister Pascal Bodjona denied that the proposed legislation intends to suppress uprisings, commenting that a piece of paper would not stop a revolution.

The restrictions on protests may reach beyond just requiring government authorization, though. Nabourema said the government wants the power to send an informant to planning meetings for protests.

The ANC called for a protest of the proposed legislation on Thursday, March 17, a risky decision since after the 2010 election, protests were restricted to weekends. The military used tear gas and rubber bullets on the protesters. No reports mention any deaths, but Nabourema says a close friend of hers was killed.

Since then, the government has suppressed several other weekday protests in support of the movement to dismiss the president. Nabourema believes it is important not to give the government legitimacy by abiding by their restrictions.

“As soon as people come out, they fire on them or they beat them or they arrest them to kill it from the beginning,” Nabourema said. She later explained that the military was arresting people in their homes who were not protesting, for no other reason than living in neighborhoods known for having anti-government sentiments.

Attempts to reach Togolese government officials for comment were unsuccessful.

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Nabourema became interested in politics after seeing her father arrested for the first time. As a political activist, he had been arrested previously and even tortured, but not since Nabourema was born.

“The military came into our house and they broke everything, pretending to be looking for guns,” she said. “They said that my father is a rebel and they searched our home. They had no arrest certificate to show [or] the legal document to search [our] house. They just came in.”

The experience shocked her. “I knew he’s not a delinquent or somebody who stole or things like that,” she said. “I was shocked to see my father being arrested.”

When her father returned a few days later due to pressure for his release from the US and German embassies, she started asking him questions about what he did and why he was arrested, which sparked her interest in politics.

“He talked to me about everything: why we are so oppressed, what is going on, and he told me stories that were so awful. I never knew things like that were going on in the country since I was a child,” she said. “I wanted to fight with him. I wanted to enter his political party and he said ‘No, you are too young. You cannot be a member of my political party at age 13.’”

While Nabourema’s father refused to let her openly participate in political activism, he encouraged her interest. One by one, he gave her illegal books and opposition newspapers to read before hiding them away again.

***

Nabourema hopes the popular revolts of the Arab Spring will come to her home of Togo. The widespread support of the Saturday opposition protests suggests the Togolese people crave change, according to Farouk Banna, one of the 11 Togolese living in America who approved Nabourema’s declaration. He is the spokesman for the Committee for Motivation and Action for Freedom in Togo, which he described as an association fighting for peaceful change.

Some question whether the revolutions will translate to the rest of Africa. “I’m not convinced that this is the right way of thinking about it, but you see a lot of arguments [saying] African politics are too fractured — especially fractured along ethnic lines — to have a broad-based support,” said AU Professor Niklas Hultin, a political and legal anthropologist specializing in West Africa.

Togo consists of 20 to 30 different ethnic groups. Nabourema explained that there are ethnic issues in Togo, but sees them as minor in comparison to Gnassingbe’s dictatorial rule.
Hultin also explained that a lack of a strong civil society may make a successful revolution more difficult. One element of a civil society is a free press, which according to the Freedom House’s 2010 report, Togo lacks.

Perhaps the largest barrier, though, is the threat of violence.

“The only factor that is holding the change is the brutality of the army, which has never hesitated to pull the trigger on the people protesting peacefully for change,” Banna said. “However, with recent events in the Middle East, there is hope that the international community will finally step up and ask Gnassingbe to step down as they have done in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.”

Without much media attention, international intervention may not materialize in the low-profile country of Togo. “I don’t think Togo is alone in crying out for greater attention from the international media,” said Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. “I think it is more likely that countries that are francophone, even though the protests have been ongoing and sustained, don’t have the same type of exposure to the Western media as other countries.”

Another barrier to intervention may be looming on the horizon. Current oil speculation in Togo could potentially raise the stakes of political instability and quiet lingering questions of the government’s legitimacy. Several oil companies recently discovered oil off the coast of Ghana, making Togo’s shores a promising prospect for reserves. Oil notoriously accompanies corruption, and how the government chooses to use the oil revenue — for itself or its citizens — could have a significant impact on the country. “I think we cannot underplay the role that oil and oil interests play in determining the political economy and, overall, the progression of events,” Woods said.

***

From the beginning, Nabourema knew that fighting for her people would have serious consequences, but she is ready to risk everything to bring democracy and freedom to Togo.

“My father told me before I started this, ‘You are going to lose friends, you are going to lose family members, but you just have to know what you want,’” she said. “‘Are you ready to sacrifice everything for this?’”

In mid-March, Nabourema got her first taste of this reality when a friend was killed during a protest.

“What we told ourselves before fighting was that if one of us falls, it means we have to double our energy, we have to be more strong for two reasons,” she said. “The first reason is because we don’t want any of our friends to die for nothing. You have to make their death worth it. The second reason is that because they’re no longer with us, it means they have one less person on board and we need to strengthen our group.”

Nabourema stays strong, holding back her pain.

“This is a revolution,” Nabourema said. “This is what it’s supposed to be. Some people have to fall for others to lead.”

She hopes to return to Togo soon to show her people she cares for them and wants to take a more active role in the movement.

“I will go back,” she said. “And I know if I go back I might not come back for many reasons. I might not come back alive, I might be thrown in jail, I might not come back because things have changed. I will risk my life to go because I know it’s worth it.”

Mike Lally contributed reporting to this story.

Photo by Ashley Dejean.