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Togo promises development, not democracy

“Ddemocracy is this President Joe Biden declared at a summit of African leaders last December that “it is the best tool we have to address the broad challenges we all face, and Africans and Americans share that belief.” Some guests may It’s hard to keep a straight face. Among those in attendance were strongmen such as Paul Kagame, who ruled Rwanda for nearly 30 years, and Faure Gnassingbé (pictured), who ran Togo for 56 years. While happy to trade platitudes for aid in Washington, both presidents at home are pushing a different model to their people: authoritarian rule in exchange for development promises.

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It is a social contract that is increasingly popular with African leaders. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which released its annual governance index this week, found that more than 60 percent of Africans live in countries where democracy has declined over the past decade. But over the same period, health care and economic development measures have improved across much of the continent.

Both sides of the deal are evident in Lome, an eerily sleepy West African capital. Here, a modern port and the occasional luxury hotel or bank stand out from the unpaved streets that make up much of the city. “It’s too much for the same family to be in power for half a century,” confided a Togolese man who feared the government might punish him for talking to reporters. “They don’t like it when you tell the truth,” he said.

Not that the truth is a secret. Togo has been a dynastic autocracy since former army sergeant Gnassingbé Eyadéma took power in a coup in 1967. After Mr. Eyadema’s death in 2005, power passed to his son, who has held on as security forces killed and tortured his opponents and spied on citizens. It is “a state of surveillance and punishment,” said Expédit Ologou of the Institute for Future Citizens of Africa think tank in Benin.

The Togolese government and its supporters don’t quite put things in those terms. The powerful talk of emulating Singapore or Dubai, suggesting places where curbs on political freedom have brought stability and prosperity. Part of Togo’s strategy is to flex enough technocratic leg to woo Western governments keen to back a stable and seemingly capable regime in an unstable region. In this regard, Togo seems to be following not Singapore but Rwanda, a bad dictatorship that combines some progress in economic development with brutal security services.

Mr Gnassingbe has also followed in Mr Kagame’s footsteps, trying to build a reputation as a development visionary. He has invested heavily in upgrading the port of Lome, which has increased container throughput by about five-fold in a decade and has become a major hub for the region, albeit from a low base. All the talk these days is “digital transformation” and buzzwords like that. Harvard graduate Cina Lawson, minister of the “digital economy,” is working to bring down the cost of high-speed internet to attract start-ups. “Digital transformation presents us with a unique opportunity,” she said. There is some action to accompany the talk. When covid-19 hit, the government quickly put in place a plan to send vulnerable Togolese about $20 a month by mobile phone.

However, most Togolese reject the government’s development over a democratic agreement. According to pollster Afrobarometer, more people think the country is headed in the wrong direction than in the right direction. A full 82% of Togolese think the constitution should limit the presidential term to two terms, and 68% think democracy is the best form of government. Only 17 percent support what Togo actually has: one-party rule.

Even those who subscribe to the dubious notion that political repression and development go hand-in-hand have difficulty casting Togo as a model. After half a century of family rule, it is much poorer than neighboring democracies such as Ghana and Senegal. “At least in Rwanda, the economy has improved,” said Aimé Gogué, the leader of the opposition party. “In Togo, people continue to suffer.”

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