YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – During his installation in the capital Lomé, Togo’s newest archbishop called on presidential candidates to be “servants of the people.”

Archbishop Nicodème Barrigah-Benissan was speaking just weeks before the West African nation’s Feb. 22 presidential poll. In attendance at the Jan. 11 event was President Faure Gnassingbe, who is seeking another term.

“Let he who freely and conscientiously makes the decision to present himself as candidate remember that the privileged position he wants to conquer is essentially that of the servant of the people,” Barrigah-Benissan said.

“That he considers his political adversaries not as enemies to be defeated but rather as brothers and sisters with other development visions for the country,” he added.

The archbishop said the quality of the person elected to the highest office of the land will determine the kind of socio-political and economic progress Togo will make in the next five years.

Barrigah-Benissan said politics is not only a question of using political power and managing resources and crises; it is above all a call to serve, a “lay diaconate” that promotes social friendship to foster the common good.

The prelate said such service will be predicated upon the way the next president is elected – through fair play; he called on voters to vote their consciences, and avoid selling their ballots.

Gnassingbé, in power since 2005 after his father’s death, is likely to be the sole candidate on the ballot, with many potential candidates withdrawing citing the lack of electoral reforms.

The president of the New Togolese Commitment (NET) Party, Gerry Komandega Taama said that “attempting the presidential adventure, under current conditions is very uncertain due to the lack of preparation of the other opposition parties.”

Another aspirant, Apostle Sodji Gabriel, Founder of “The Favored of God” Church, has also withdrawn from the race.

Meanwhile, the Togolese Alternative Bloc for Republican Innovation (BATIR) Party has offered its allegiance to Faure’s ruling party, UNIR.

In November, the bishops urged the government to carry out “in the best interest of the nation, the reforms necessary to consolidate the electoral framework before the presidential elections of 2020.”

The bishops said the elections could only be credible after a review of the composition of the Independent Electoral Commission, a revision of the electoral code, and the establishment of a credible electoral register.

None of these reforms have been carried out.

Opposition Protests

Experts fear the 2020 vote could also be volatile, after President Faure Gnassingbé ignored large-scale protests calling on him not to seek reelection.

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.

The president won reelection in 2010 and a third term five years later. However, the opposition claims that he stole the election from opposition leader, Jean Pierre Fabre.

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 bill also grants the president immunity for life “for acts committed during presidential terms.”

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

“Our struggle will never cease until there are acceptable reforms that can lead to alternation of power…, we will continue protests in an intensive, methodical and strategic way to put an end to this regime,” Brigitte Adjamagbo-Johnson, the coordinator of the opposition coalition told Crux.

Prof. David Dosseh warned against a “dynastic fixation of power,” and said opposition groups are pushing so “this sort of thing doesn’t continue.”

“Politically, we have a dictatorship which doesn’t respect the constitution. Economically, there is so much corruption…. For us, we must fight to make sure that the next elections are transparent, but it’s not just an electoral problem. It’s a governance problem which does not ally with the aspirations of the people,” he told Crux.

The executive secretary of Faure’s UNIR political party, Atcholi Aklesso, rejected this theory, and said Gnassingbé was not running a dynasty.

“It’s not a dynasty …President Faure presented himself before the Togolese people as a Togolese citizen. He never presented himself in the name of a family,” he said.

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