In the face of a rising tide of violent protests calling for the resignation of Togo’s President, Faure Gnassingbé, the Catholic bishops in the small West African country are calling for a return of presidential term limits, which were scrapped in 1992.
“Constitutional reforms are of particular importance, without which it is impossible to bring peace and social cohesion in our country,” said the bishops in a pastoral letter.
Thousands of people have been demonstrating in the streets of the capital Lomé, calling for term limits. On Wednesday, a ten-year-old boy was killed during a protest.
Togo’s ruling party had the day before presented legislation calling for a referendum on a new election law which does not mention the subject of term limits.
Earlier in the month, they said term limits would be part of the proposal.
Gnassingbé has been president 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.
Eyadema introduced term limits in 1992, after a series of political protests, but ended them 10 years later, with the hopes of running for re-election in 2008.
After his death in 2005, the military made sure his son succeeded him.
A coalition of opposition parties began organizing regular street demonstrations against his rule last month, which the government has often violently opposed. Two people were killed in August.
The bishops called the protests a result of pent-up frustrations, and called for them to be peaceful.
“In the phase of social tension that exists in Togo, it is necessary to seek peaceful and constructive confrontation, without degenerating into gratuitous violence,” said the bishops in a statement read by Archbishop Denis Amuzu-Dzakpah of Lomé.
The pastoral letter said the bishops have “a great deal of anxiety due to the repression of demonstrations as well as the incitement to ethnic hatred spread through social networks.”
The situation has been made more tense by a series of counter-demonstrations called by government supporters.
The bishops said pro-government and anti-government demonstrations should be held on different days, to avoid unnecessary confrontations, and drew attention to “the violence exercised by the forces of law and order.” They called on the army to adopt a “republican attitude” and not enter the political debate.
The bishops also decried the widening gap between the rich and the poor, noting that in a socially adjusted society, that gap should instead be narrowing.
Catholics make up about 25 percent of Togo’s 7.6 million people, and are the largest single religious group.
The bishops have been calling for constitutional reform for years. In 2012, they issued a statement saying, “Behind the façade of calm and quiet, Togo, our country, is sick.” At the time, the bishops called for a reform based upon the 1992 constitutional changes instituted under Eyadema.
This is also the current aim of the opposition parties in the country.
Patrick Lawson, a spokesman of the main ANC opposition party, said the country is not prepared for a free and fair referendum.
“The country’s voting list is not credible. Besides, the electoral commission and the constitutional court have allegiance to the ruling party. So we don’t approve the idea of a referendum,” Lawson told the Associated Press.
Togo and Gambia were the only two countries to reject a proposal for regional-wide term limits at a summit of ECOWAS – a group of West African nations – in 2015.
Gambia’s president of 22 years, Yahya Jammeh, lost an election the next year. When he refused to recognize the results of the poll, an ECOWAS military force evicted him from office in January 2017.
The head of the ECOWAS Commission, Marcel Alain de Souza, was in Lomé on Wednesday, and met with Gnassingbé, the opposition, and religious leaders.
“From the consultations we had, it appears that there is a will for dialogue, to undertake reforms,” de Souza said, mentioning the possibility of term limits.
There is little likelihood of a repeat of the Gambia intervention: Gnassingbé is currently the president of the conference of ECOWAS heads of state.