YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Catholic bishops in Togo are calling on “indispensable reforms” to the electoral system before polls scheduled to take place next year.

Since 2017, Togo has been going through a political crisis as opposition leaders have been calling President Faure Gnassingbé to step down in the build-up to the 2020 election.

Gnassingbé has been in office since 2005, following the death of his father, Gnassingbé Eyadema. Eyadema had ruled Togo for 38 years, ever since he overthrew the country’s second president, Nicolas Grunitzky, in a coup d’état in 1967.

In September 2017, Togo’s 14-party opposition coalition rejected a government bill to restore a two-term presidency that would not be retroactive – allowing Gnassingbé to run again in 2020 and 2025.

The opposition boycotted December 2018 elections for the nation’s parliament, which the bishops had asked to be postponed.

In a November 18, 2019 message to the nation, the bishops’ conference said the presidential election could result in violence if significant political reforms are not made.

“We once more exhort the government to carry out indispensable reforms to sanitize the electoral system before the presidential election, in the interest of the nation,” the bishops said.

They called for a review of the composition of the country’s Independent Electoral Commission and the Constitutional Court “to put them above all suspicions of dependence.”

The bishops also called for a revision of the electoral code and the establishment of a credible voters roll. They said these reforms are critical to avoid the violence that usually characterizes elections in the West African country.

“Once again, the hearts of the Togolese people are not joyful as should be at the approach of end-of-year festive periods,” the statement said.

“Instead of sparking pride and the enthusiasm to be able to freely choose their future president of the republic, the perspective of the forthcoming presidential elections revives in our compatriot’s bitter memories of scenes of violence and horror, which unfortunately, have always characterized these types of elections in our country,” the bishops continued. “The same causes produce the same effects; Togolese are worried; they fear a re-enactment of the scenarios that usually characterize elections in our country: Elections tainted by irregularities, followed by post electoral disputes, popular manifestations, bloody crackdowns, dialogue and accords that are never respected.”

In the face of such a prospect, the nation’s bishops said they cannot stay silent anymore.

“Faithful to its mission of being the light and hope for those who have lost hope, the Church cannot remain indifferent to the suffering of the people who are exploited, enslaved and traumatized by those who should ensure their well-being. This fight is motivated by the conviction that faith is first of all a commitment to those who suffer and who take their sufferings to the Lord who always listens to the calls of those who suffer,” their message said.

Togo – a former French possession that gained independence in 1960 – is nearly 50 percent Christian, with just over half of the Christians being Catholic. The bishops’ conference is one of the most respected voices in the nation.

As the countdown to the next presidential election narrows, the bishops are accusing the government of “lacking the political will to carry out reforms,” but have also blasted the opposition for lacking vision.

“In effect, the objectives around which seasonal, sporadic and circumstantial alliances are formed by opposition political parties have always become the causes of their implosion,” they said.

“We see the same scenario on the horizon, given that immediately after the date of the next election was announced, an avalanche of declaration of candidatures followed, and these candidates are apparently more preoccupied by personal interest and not the real will to exercise power for the good of the nation,” the bishops continued.

“The people thus find themselves torn between those who aren’t prepared to leave power and those who dream to conquer power. The two opposing camps have one thing in common: The lack of love and respect for their motherland and its children. They have a voracious appetite for easy wealth on the backs of the miserable taxpayers who cannot even meet their basic needs.”

Noting that many in Togo were giving in to despair, the bishops called on them to keep fighting for democracy.

“Democracy and the state of law are not gifts that one gets from a magnanimous well-wisher on a platter of gold,” the bishops said, saying the people must “struggle” to attain their rights.

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