Editor’s Note: The below is an expansion of a piece published in the current issue of National Review.
Like a family farm, a dictatorship is sometimes passed from father to son. These dictatorships can enjoy cruelly long lives. In Syria, Hafez Assad seized power in 1970. His son Bashar is still on the throne, 48 years later, killing as many as necessary to keep the family business going. Bashar’s firstborn son, Hafez II, is already touted as Dictator No. 3.
In Haiti, the Duvaliers ruled for 29 years: 1957 to 1986. Papa Doc ruled for 14, Baby Doc for 15. Baby Doc’s son, Nicolas, a.k.a. Grandbaby Doc, will likely not be dictator, but he has worked in government. The Kims in North Korea have ruled for a full 70 years. Kim Il-sung started in 1948, with Jong-il taking over in 1994, and Jong-un in 2011.
Africa has two dictatorships of the father-son variety that have been going for 51 years — since 1967. One is in Gabon (Omar and Ali Bongo) and the other is in Togo. A leading campaigner against the Togolese dictatorship is Farida Nabourema, a daughter of that country. She is an exceptionally brave and imaginative young woman. She points out that Togo is barely known in the big broad world. “We are a small, French-speaking country in West Africa, of little interest to the Western powers. We don’t get attention.”
Why don’t we give them some? But first, some basic information, starting with geography.
Togo is a sliver between Ghana and Benin. The population is about 7.5 million. Togo was first colonized by the Germans, who wanted it to be a Musterkolonie, i.e., a model colony. Then it was divided between the French and the British. The country gained independence in 1960, and its first president was Sylvanus Olympio.
In 1963, a group of soldiers staged a coup d’état against Olympio, killing him as he sought refuge in the U.S. embassy. Later, Gnassingbé Eyadéma claimed to have pulled the trigger. It could have been merely a boast. In any case, the coup plotters installed a civilian, Nicolas Grunitzky, who was himself overthrown in 1967. This time, Eyadéma took power all for himself. He would rule for 38 years, until he died in 2005, bequeathing power to his son Faure.
The old man was a classic dictator in sunglasses. His cult of personality was gaudier than most. Farida Nabourema remembers the convoy and the clapping. This was a ritual that few other countries have known.
Every day, citizens of Togo had to line the route between the presidential palace and the presidential office. They had to clap for Eyadéma and his convoy four times a day: in the morning, when he left the palace for the office; at noon, when he returned to the palace for lunch; at 2, when he went back to the office; and in the evening, when he returned home for good. If you were caught not clapping, or if you stopped clapping too soon, you could be arrested and worse (killed).
Was it not like this under Stalin?
Students and civil servants had to dance for Eyadéma, and there were competitions, to see who could dance best for him, and praise him, and glorify him. “He was a narcissistic person,” says Nabourema, and “basically, he positioned himself as a savior and a god, in an attempt to force people to fear and obey him.”
People did indeed fear him (and with good reason). You did not dare even to mention his name — not on the street and not even in your own home. Farida Nabourema brought up the fearful name a few times. She got a terrible look from her mother.
I’m reminded of Fidel Castro, whose subjects were often too afraid to mention his name. With their hand, they indicated a beard, when meaning to refer to Castro. People in Belarus do this too, but they indicate a mustache. Their dictator, Lukashenko, has a prominent one.
In schools — even in universities — Togolese students were taught that Eyadéma’s ethnic group, the Kabye, was descended from heaven. Amazingly, it was the only one so descended, of the country’s dozens of ethnic groups. The dictator had spies everywhere, including in classrooms. Utterance of the word “democracy” could get a teacher disappeared.
In the evening, there was a curfew: 7 p.m. Only the militaires were allowed out on the street. This was known as “La Patrouille,” the patrol. If you violated the curfew and were caught, it was very bad for you. Indeed, you were lucky to survive. “Many of my family members were killed this way,” says Nabourema.
Why? Why did Eyadéma not want anyone to go out at night? Because he did not want to give people a chance to conspire and organize.
And, as always in dictatorship, there was torture — the same old repertoire, which never changes, from continent to continent: electric shocks on genitals, etc., etc. Nabourema’s father, Bemba, a dissident, survived such torture; many of his friends did not.
Bemba Nabourema screamed when they tortured his genitals, until he finally lost his voice. Could he no longer feel pain? That’s what the soldiers wondered. They proceeded to break 13 of his ribs and nine of his toes. It took Nabourema six months to learn to walk again. But he considered himself very lucky: Again, so many of his friends were tortured to death.
Like many another dictator, Gnassingbé Eyadéma had lots of children — scores of them. (Kim Il-sung probably had hundreds of them.) He chose one to succeed him as dictator, Faure. This young man earned degrees at the Sorbonne in Paris and George Washington University in Washington, D.C. — or so they said. (Often, these things are made up in dictatorships.) The old man made Faure a cabinet minister — the minister of telecommunications, mines, and equipment.
In 2002, when the dictator was getting on in years, he changed the constitution, just to be on the safe side. The eligibility age for the presidency was 40; Eyadéma lowered it to 35, as Faure was then 36. Papa Doc did the same thing in Haiti, but he had to lower the eligibility age from 40 all the way down to 18 — because his son was so young. Indeed, Baby Doc was 19 when his dad died and he took over.
Papa Doc, democratic soul that he was, had taken care to offer the people a referendum: Did they want Baby Doc to succeed him? They did, by a vote of 2,391,916 to zero.
In Togo, the old man died in 2005 (when Faure was 38). He had been the longest-ruling leader in Africa. For appearances’ sake, the new leader, Faure, staged an election — a sham, as his subsequent elections would be. When securing power, initially, Faure and his men killed a lot of people: between 400 and 500, according to U.N. estimates. Farida Nabourema points out that this is a big number for a country of what was then 5.5 million.
Repeatedly, Togo has been ranked the unhappiest country in all the world, by the U.N. body that does such rankings. Yet Faure rules on, doing what is necessary to remain in power. That includes jailing one of his half-brothers, who had been his minister of defense. Kpatcha Gnassingbé was accused of plotting the overthrow of Faure, and was arrested while seeking refuge in the U.S. embassy, perhaps on the same spot where his dad and the others killed Sylvanus Olympio. Kpatcha was sentenced to 20 years.
Farida Nabourema is a co-founder and leader of the Faure Must Go movement. She has been a guest of the Oslo Freedom Forum, which hosts an array of human-rights activists. She is a lovely woman, an obvious combination of steel and sparkle.
She was born in 1990 and turned to dissidence when she was just 13: This was when she saw her father arrested, as he had been many times before, starting in 1977. (It was in 1985 that he was tortured so severely.) Her dad was trained in philosophy and law, but he could not hold a job, owing to his dissidence — so he decided to buy land and become a farmer.
When he was arrested that time in 2003, he was detained for three days. When he got home, his daughter had questions — burning questions. He answered them. He told Farida about life in Togo under dictatorship. In fact, he dug up books and journals — literally dug them up. He had buried them in the backyard, as they were banned, and if you were caught with them, you could pay a serious price.
The death of the original dictator in 2005 brought great relief and great hope — quickly dashed, of course, by Faure and his initial rash of killings. Farida told her dad, “There’s no way we’re going to allow this guy to stay. He has to go.” She thought to herself, “If it’s the last thing I do before I die” — she was 15, remember — “I will see this man fall, because if someone has to kill hundreds of my countrymen in order to become president, he does not deserve to rule us.”
After a year of university in Togo, she went abroad — to American University in Washington (not far from the university at which Faure Gnassingbé is said to have earned a degree). The ambassador from Togo to the U.S. called American University, pushing for Farida’s expulsion. The university, in the person of the dean of students, supported her, saying that AU would do all it could to help her. “The school gave me the space to become bolder,” says Farida, “because I felt like I had protection and did not have to worry about anything.” In 2011, Faure Must Go was born.
Farida Nabourema is a virtuosic user of social media and other new technologies. Indeed, Togolese know her as “the WhatsApp Girl.” (WhatsApp, in a nutshell, is a messaging service owned by Facebook.) They also call her “the Iron Lady.” “We have a powerful gun in the social media,” says Nabourema. “When the government shoots, they reach one person at a time. When we shoot, we reach millions at a time.”
The government does not take kindly to opposition, especially from a girl, or woman. They have done everything they know to defame her: attaching her face to pornographic images, for example. They have spread stories that call her a prostitute, a terrorist, and so on. Every week, there’s some new story about her, some new smear. And yet she has grown in popularity and influence. She is a household name in Togo.
She does not live and work in Togo, however. “If I did, I’d be dead by now.” She has bounced around in exile. The regime has put great, great pressure on her family, as dictatorships do. Her father is in his 70s and stoic in the face of death. He has endured a lot already. If they kill him, they kill him. Her mother, understandably, has a different attitude. Farida has decided it is wiser to be separate from her family.
For the last two years, there have been regular and large protests by Togolese citizens. They want Faure Gnassingbé to accept term limits, among other reforms. People are losing their fear, says Nabourema, that great fear that has been instilled since the 1960s. When she started her activism, she tried to circulate a petition. People were deathly afraid to sign it (and rightly so). Things are very different now.
They chant in the streets, “Faure must go!” Why did Nabourema put the name of her movement in English, by the way? Why is her slogan and rallying cry in English, not French, the official language of the country? “I chose ‘Faure Must Go’ because I was extremely angry at France for the support it gave Faure Gnassingbé, and I decided to boycott the language.” During one protest, someone held a sign saying “Faure Moss Go.” The person did not know how to spell “Must” — but the meaning was unmistakable. This puts a smile on Nabourema’s face.
“At each protest, they are chanting ‘Faure must go!’” she says, “and that is the biggest achievement of my life, to have helped dispel that fear. To get people to say they don’t want the leader anymore is a victory.”
Does Faure have any popular support at all? Most dictators do, sadly, even if it’s not majority support. Again, Nabourema smiles. Last year, she says, the government tried to organize a counter-protest, to offset Faure Must Go. Even though they offered money, they could not get as many as 500 on the street. And those who showed up included the heads of the parliament and the supreme court. This so embarrassed the government, they never tried again.
“What do you want?” I ask Nabourema. “The first thing I want,” she says, “is for all of our people to feel like their rights are not privileges that only a few people are born with. That all people are entitled to freedom. I also want any Togolese citizen to aspire to become president, without fear of death or retribution.” Some 90 percent of the population has known only the dictatorship, passed from father to son.
“The people of Togo have been fighting with their bare hands,” continues Nabourema. “They have not turned to war, they have not formed rebel groups, as has happened in other countries.” Togolese people have been all too patient, as Nabourema sees it, which is “why we have the oldest military dictatorship in Africa.”
Further, she laments the outside help that the dictatorship gets — from Western governments and businesses. This “emboldens and empowers” the regime, she says, and it is an “in-your-face” to ordinary citizens. The regime portrays itself as a bulwark against terrorism; the only terrorists in Togo, says Nabourema, are the ruling authorities.
And if Western powers can’t bring themselves to support those who are opposing the dictatorship, perhaps they can at least refrain from supporting the dictatorship.
Regardless, there is a popular stirring in Togo. An “untelevised revolution,” Farida Nabourema calls it. The world at large doesn’t know about it, but Togolese do — and we do.