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Examining Togo’s Implausible Election Results

Despite opposition counts showing they won 61 percent of the vote, Faure Gnassingbé was declared the winner of Togo’s presidential election, advancing his bid to continue his family’s 53-year rule.

A meeting at Togo's National Electoral Commission (CENI).

A meeting at the National Electoral Commission (CENI) in Lomé, Togo. (Photo: ceni-tg.org)

The Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) has declared incumbent Faure Gnassingbé the winner in the first round of Togo’s February 22 presidential elections. The outcome is a setback for Togo’s long-delayed aspiration to move toward democracy, in line with the rest of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). It also risks undermining democratic standards for the rest of the region. The following is a review of deficiencies in the process that challenge the credibility of the announced tally.

Faure Gnassingbé, in Power since 2005, Is Deeply Unpopular

More than 70 percent of Togolese told Afrobarometer in 2017 both that a two-term limit should be reinstated in the Constitution and that Gnassingbé should not run again in 2020 after having already served three terms. Moreover, almost 80 percent of Togolese say they disapprove of the government’s handling of the economy. Indeed, despite annual economic growth of 5 percent, inequality is entrenched. More than 55 percent of Togolese still live below the poverty line, including 69 percent of rural households.

“More than 80 percent of Togolese say the presidency, Parliament, police, and judges are corrupt.”

The government, ruled by the Gnassingbé family for 53 years, also suffers from a severe trust deficit. More than 80 percent of Togolese say the presidency, Parliament, police, and judges are corrupt, revealing deep levels of mistrust in government institutions. Similarly, more than 70 percent of the population does not see CENI as a nonpartisan, technical institution. Given these realities and the fact that, in 2015, Gnassingbé was declared to have won just over 58 percent of the vote, it strains credulity that his vote tally would have improved to 72 percent as CENI has claimed.

Term Limit Fight

From August 2017 to early 2019, Togolese took to the streets to demand the reinstatement of term limits. At times, protesters numbered in the tens of thousands, showing the popular desire for the Gnassingbé family rule to come to an end. Togolese were ultimately successful in obtaining the constitutional change. However, the ruling party–dominated Parliament deemed that the amendment does not apply to the incumbent, which allowed Faure Gnassingbé to run in this year’s election and possibly again in 2025.

Strong Political Opposition

In 2015, opposition parties received more than 40 percent of the vote in the presidential elections, according to official results. Since that time, the opposition has grown stronger, having organized sustained protests against the elimination of term limits over the previous 2 years. Therefore, even though the opposition fielded six candidates, it was reasonable to expect they would collectively win a majority during the first round in 2020, particularly given Gnassingbé’s lack of popularity.

The provisional results announced by CENI indicated that Gnassingbé received 71 percent of the vote. Opposition candidate Agbéyomé Kodjo of the Mouvement patriotique pour la démocratie et le développement (Patriotic Movement for Democracy and Development or MPDD) came in a distant second with 19 percent, and Jean-Pierre Fabre of the Alliance nationale pour le changement (National Alliance for Change or ANC) picked up only 5 percent. These figures are hard to rationalize since Fabre received 35 percent of the vote when he ran against Gnassingbé in 2015. Kodjo’s opposition alliance (involving five parties) had also been endorsed by the highly respected Archbishop Emeritus of Lomé, Philippe Kpodro, and could also have expected to garner far more votes. Indeed, Kodjo claims he received between 57 and 61 percent of the vote.

“Social media posts showing results by precinct reveal that in some cases, participation was higher than the number of registered voters.”

Social media posts showing results by precinct reveal that in some cases, participation was higher than the number of registered voters and that Gnassingbé received the vast majority of those votes. CENI further reported that participation had also increased from 61 percent in 2015 to more than 76 percent in 2020. Given the level of popular protests over the past 2 years, these figures, again, strain credulity. Any increase in electoral participation could reasonably be expected to have resulted in a higher opposition vote total.

Absence of Meaningful Monitoring of the Vote

Electoral observation missions were limited, with the African Union and ECOWAS each sending just a few dozen observers. Requests from the Catholic Church and civil society organizations to also deploy observers were denied, suggesting that the government was intent on conducting an opaque electoral process. During the vote, members of the opposition who were supposed to be allowed to monitor the vote were denied access to some precincts.

CENI, moreover, refused to publish actual results by polling precinct, a violation of electoral best practices, choosing instead to tally them centrally and announce the results accordingly. The lack of transparency makes abuse easier and was seemingly intended to prevent a second round. Until there is more transparency in the vote-counting, the credibility of the results will continue to be questioned.

On February 25, opposition candidate Kodjo filed a suit in the Constitutional Court to request it recuse what he called the “false results” published by CENI. On March 3, the Court rejected the suit, citing the absence of sufficient proof. Kodjo and Archbishop Emeritus Kpodro called on Togolese to protest on February 28. However, the Ministry of Territorial Administration declared that such a protest would be illegal. Security forces surrounded both men’s homes early that day and limited access to key roads in Lomé, preventing the protest from being held.

An Uneven Playing Field

As widely reported prior to the elections, Gnassingbé benefited from an uneven playing field as a result of ruling party loyalists leading key government institutions, including CENI, the Constitutional Court, the security sector, and relevant ministries. Moreover, the role of civil society was deliberately diminished with the denial of permits to hold rallies or observe the vote.

International Reactions

“Lacking verification by a significant number of independent observers, a consistent international response takes on greater importance.”

Lacking verification by a significant number of independent observers, a consistent international response takes on greater importance in according credibility on the results—and setting a standard for other elections in the region. The U.S. embassy in Lomé has called for the release of precinct-level results, arguing that such transparency would increase the legitimacy of the results. Concerns from other international actors, however, have been muffled. France has yet to issue a statement on the vote. ECOWAS has taken a passive stand on the Togo elections thus far, contrary to its legacy of upholding democratic norms in the region. The statement it issued after its small team observed the elections was limited to calling on all parties to use the judiciary to resolve any differences. Despite its own Democracy Charter, the AU’s statement following the election was similarly muted.

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