President Faure Gnassingbé’s country is on a course to revamp itself politically and economically, and a visit by New African in early March confirmed that the country is sowing the seeds for peace and prosperity.
If you look out to sea at night in Lomé, the capital city of Togo, you will see a long line of shipping vessels off the coast. It is an impressive (and encouraging) sight for Togo and indeed West Africa – a sign of commercial activity and trade. Togo is home to the only natural deepwater port in West Africa, and as such has always been an important hub for its landlocked neighbours to the north – Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. For an outsider, Lomé is a safe and hospitable capital. The country’s publicity-shy president, Faure Gnassingbé, who has been in office since 2005, has focused much of his energy and time on three major projects, with all of which he has achieved relative success.
His first aim, from a societal perspective, was to reconcile the country. Togo has not suffered from a civil war but the mood and mindset can best be described as one of post-conflict or reconciliation. For a little over a decade, between 1993 and 2005, the country suffered from a deep malaise when it was sharply divided politically during the reign of the former president, Gnassingbé Eyadema.
Interestingly, after his death, when he was succeeded by his son, Faure Gnassingbé, the adage “like father like son” has been turned on its head. Faure, who had his university education in the USA, has proved to be a totally modern leader in tune with the demands of modern politics. Before Togo’s last election in 2010, Faure Gnassingbé pledged to invite the opposition parties in the country to join his government if he won. He did win, and he did fulfill his pledge (see Gilchrist Olympio’s interview, pp. 32-33).
This has proved that the president is a true pragmatist, and has a genuine will to turn over a new page for the country. The other thing he has done is to renew ties with the international community. During the “lost decade” under his father, Togo had become increasingly isolated from the international community. It was important for the country to show a true commitment to reform its structures, and to re-establish strong bilateral and multilateral ties with its international partners. Or else risk falling further behind in terms of raising capital and attracting foreign investment. Without these ties, it would be impossible to achieve his third critical objective: to turn the country into a dynamic regional hub by upgrading the port of Lomé and the airport, and more importantly the road infrastructure to create a true artery and corridor. 15,000km of roads are either being built or upgraded. This would help develop the agriculture sector and also mining.
Togo used to be the world’s fifth biggest phosphate exporter, and its current minister of mines has been talking about plans to regenerate the industry as well as moving up the value chain – transforming the mineral into fertiliser and other products. The country recently reached the “completion stage” of HIPC (the Bretton Wood institutions’ Highly Indebted Poor Country programme under which beneficiary nations receive debt forgiveness after going through a series of reforms).
This has enabled Togo to successfully negotiate cancellation of most of its foreign debt and is working with a number of different actors to upgrade its port. The building of a third terminal is being done by the Bolloré group. The country’s roads are being revamped. Many of them are being funded and upgraded by the Chinese through a loan from the China Exim Bank.
It has not all been plain sailing though, and the country is by no means out of the woods yet. The government is well aware of the challenges ahead, and there was a stark reminder in January when the country suffered a setback, with two major markets set alight. Fingers were pointed at a vocal organisation which is active in the capital.
The culprits have not yet been found and the results of the investigation, which had been conducted by arson experts brought over from France, are yet to be released. As is common in most capital cities, there is a small but vocal antigovernment movement in Lomé.
Parliamentary election is due in the next few months, but the opposition may boycott it, which is either an admission that they cannot garner sufficient support to defeat the government, or they themselves are fragmented. Unfortunately, too often in Africa, there is an unhealthy practice whereby democracy is wanted as long as “we” win; as such elections will always be contentious issues, and Togo is no exception. As well as the parliamentary election, the country plans to hold local elections later in 2013, which will be the first in many decades. No date has been set for the two elections although the head of the Electoral Commission, Mrs Angele Aguigah, is confident that they will take place “in the next few months”.
One of her main challenges is voter education, and she concedes that it cannot be achieved overnight. Democracy, she says, is a social pact – one in which people need to play their part and by the book. By any yardstick, Togo can be said to be a peaceful country – and open for business. The hotels are normally full as are flights to the country. Togo has made considerable progress in the past five years – and the credit should go to both the government and the people of the country.
There is now a buzz of activity which was not there a few years ago. But people still speak about “le dialogue national”, which shows that some of the wounds from the previous era have not fully healed. Faure Gnassingbé, re-elected in 2010 in what was credited as a free and fair election by the international community, understands the importance of creating social cohesion. Togo’s main opposition party, the Union of Forces for Change, is led by Gilchrist Olympio, the son of the country’s first ruler who was killed in a coup in 1963 shortly after independence. His party now controls seven of the country’s 31 government ministries. He is confident that the upcoming legislative election will give his party more influence.
Economically, things seem to be moving in the right direction, with growth forecast at 5.7% in 2013. Speaking to ministers, it becomes obvious that they are all clear in terms of their goals and they have a cohesive and well-structured narrative. The President himself is known as an early riser who expects a strong work ethic from his executive team. There are major infrastructure projects underway, with the port being the central focus, from which will emerge a commercial and industrial hub, emulating Dubai and Singapore. Hence the investment into increasing the country’s capacity and road infrastructure.
Similar ambitions are on the cards for Lomé airport. The government wants to position it as a hub for West Africa. Following the example of Ecobank, the pan-African bank with headquarters in Lomé, Kofi Djondo, one of the founding fathers of Ecobank and a former Togolese minister for trade and industry, launched Asky Airlines a couple of years ago to serve the West African sub-region from a hub in Lomé. Through a code share and partnership agreement with Ethiopian Airlines, Asky plans to open routes to Brazil and North America in the next few months. The Lomé airport’s capacity is being increased with the construction of a new terminal that will allow it to receive 4 million passengers a year.
The country may be small in terms of land size, but its ambitions are big and bold. It has good relations with its neighbours and has often played a lead role diplomatically in the region.
One senses a real effort to move on from the acrimonious past, and efforts have been made, and continue to be made, regarding the protection of human rights and national reconciliation. The upcoming elections will be another milestone as the country sows the seeds for peace and prosperity.