Togo lawmakers approve contested political reform

Gnassingbe has been in power since 2005 after succeeding his father (PIUS UTOMI EKPEI)
Gnassingbe has been in power since 2005 after succeeding his father (PIUS UTOMI EKPEI)

Togo lawmakers on Friday gave final approval to a constitutional reform switching to a parliamentary system that opposition parties say will allow President Faure Gnassingbe to extend his grip on power.

The approval came days before April 29 legislative elections in Togo, where the opposition has criticised the reform for creating a new prime minister-style post they say will allow the Togolese leader to avoid term limits to stay in office.

Togo's parliament had already adopted the new constitution on March 25, but Gnassingbe asked lawmakers to vote again after the reform sparked opposition criticism of a "constitutional coup".

The second reading was passed with 87 lawmakers present all agreeing to the new system.

"Togo has just turned a new page on its way towards a more inclusive and participatory democracy. This is a satisfaction and a source of pride for us," Koumealo Anate, a lawmaker from Gnassingbe's ruling UNIR party, told reporters after the vote.

But opposition parties see the amendment as a way to extend the mandate of Gnassingbe, who has been in power since 2005 after succeeding his father, who himself ruled the small West African state for nearly four decades after a coup.

The current constitution would only allow the Togolese leader to run for one last term in 2025.

Under the new constitution, Togo adopts a parliamentary system, leaving lawmakers to elect the president which would become a largely ceremonial role with a four-year term.

Under the amendment, power would shift to the new post of president of the council of ministers, a kind of prime minister role, who would be the leader of the assembly's majority party. Parliament is currently dominated by Gnassingbe's UNIR party.

- Opposition mobilises for vote -

Opposition parties fear Gnassingbe will be appointed by loyalists to the new position, allowing him to stay in power indefinitely. He has not commented on the new post.

"Time has shown us that the major concern of his regime is to preserve power by any means," Nathaniel Olympio, president of the opposition party Parti des Togolais, told AFP before the vote.

"The function of President of the Council gives someone the latitude to exercise power in an unlimited manner, so logically we believe that this is the position that he will hold for himself."

The Togolese head of state had already amended the constitution in 2019 allowing him to reset the time period and run for two new additional mandates.

Togo's new deputies will be elected in a ballot on April 29, after the election date was postponed several times by the government.

Unlike the last legislative elections in 2018 which they boycotted, opposition parties have decided to try to mobilise massively this year.

Opposition parties had planned two days of protests on April 12 and 13 against the reform, but the authorities banned the demonstrations.

A mission from the regional bloc the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been on an observation mission in the capital Lome since Monday.