Faure must go: How one Togolese woman is risking her life to end 50 year Gnassingbé dynasty
Nabourema has lived in exile from her childhood home of Togo for 10 years after speaking out against the regime of Faure Gnassingbé, whose family has ruled the West African nation for more than 50 years.
During the Gnassingbé dynasty, Togo became one of the world’s poorest countries and a place characterized by a crackdown on freedom of speech and dissent.
Nabourema had an early introduction to the regime’s brutal tactics when her father was arrested in 2003 for opposing the regime, she says.
Bemba Nabourema was a student activist in the 1970s calling for political change in the country.
Togo was then ruled by the current president’s father, Gnassingbé Eyadema, who came to power in a 1967 coup, seven years after the country’s independence from France.
“Every day during his rule people had to queue from the military camp, where he lived, to the presidential palace to clap for him in the morning, the afternoon, and the evening,” Nabourema says.
Nabourema recalls her father’s experiences at the hands of the elder Gnassingbe.
Her father was first arrested in 1977 for distributing pamphlets calling for political change.
“In 1985 my father was arrested again. He had electric cords wrapped on his genitalia and was tortured ’til he lost his voice. When he lost his voice, a soldier said ‘He is not screaming anymore probably because he was not feeling the pain anymore.’ So they started hitting him ’til they broke 13 of his ribs.”
He continued to have run-ins with the law.
In 2003, when Nabourema was 13, her father was arrested along with 28 others, for attending a meeting to discuss opposition to Gnassingbé.
He was released three days later but the message was clear. He was expected to live in silence under the shadow of an oppressive regime.
Faure Must Go
In 2005, Eyadema Gnassingbé died after ruling Togo for 38 years. Many Togolese were hopeful for change, but he was immediately succeeded by his son, Faure Gnassingbé, in what the African Union and rights groups called a coup.
“Even though I was 15 years old, the powerlessness in the face of injustice revolted me to the extreme,” Nabourema says.
She joined her father’s political party, Union of Force for Change, (UFC) and started attending opposition rallies.
Three years later, she left Togo to study in the United States, and in 2011 she co-founded the Faure Must Go movement that has since become a hallmark of the Togolese people’s struggle.
Her family members were immediately threatened by government loyalists and they became frightened for their safety.
“My siblings who I was living with at the time asked me to leave. I was 20 years old, in a foreign country but I pulled through and never allowed it to pull me down.”
Born ready for a revolution
Togo lies between Ghana and Benin on the west coast of Africa and around 60 percent of its population is under 25 and many of them have only known one ruler.
“I recall my sister telling me Togolese people are not ready for a revolution and I told her that no one is born ready for a revolution, we have to prepare them for it.”
Through social media, Nabourema started writing about the regime, denouncing what she considered violent atrocities and the continued injustice, and encouraging young Togolese people not to ever give up on freedom.
The government accused her of being a troublemaker.
“In 2014, I published the personal contact numbers for all members of Togo’s Parliament. I asked my compatriots to call the members and ask why they had voted against a bill to reinstate presidential term limits. I called the majority leader, who insulted me, then abruptly hung up the phone.
“I shared a recording of that call on social media and it soon went viral. A few days later, Parliament held a session in which they complained about not being able to sleep because they were harassed by hundreds of phone calls.”
“Of course, they retaliated with personal threats, intimidation and smear campaigns to depict me as a prostitute, a porn star, a fraudster. … The more they tried to destroy me, the more my followership grew, and the stronger I became,” she says.
A life on the run
Taking on the might of the regime has meant a life on the run for Nabourema, who now has limited contact with her family.
She says she has received numerous death threats and online abuse since starting her movement.
“The past two years, I move around every two to three weeks and sometimes even less,” she says.
“I usually pick countries that are not led by dictators.”
Nabourema says she usually shares information about a particular country after she has left it but she is extra careful in African countries.
“Police in Ghana once called me for questioning and told me: ‘We reserve the right to refuse you entry to our country if your political actions cause diplomatic tension between both nations.’
“No country wants to host an agitator. These were the words of the Accra regional police commander last August when they called me in for questioning. And I was questioned by nine officers,” she recalls. CNN is unable to independently verify this account.
“On some occasions, I have had to go to countries I know nothing about, where I know no one and can’t speak the language, but these are the places I feel safest, because… no one knows who I am.”
“However, there were times that I got very ill,” she adds. “These were the most challenging and depressing times, the fear that I would actually die a natural death while running away from potential assassins.”
One million strong
In 2016, Nabourema decided to return to Togo, but due to safety concerns, stayed in neighboring countries, only entering Togo when possible.
“When the Togolese authorities found out I was back, my parents who reside there received threats constantly. My father, being an activist himself, knew how to cope with it but my mom was not and used to blackmail me emotionally,” Nabourema says.
“So I decided to cut ties with her and have not spoken to her for the past two years. I still don’t have a relationship with my siblings, but I assume the farther away I stay from them, the safer they will feel.”
Despite the huge emotional toll, Nabourema remains steadfast, working with community organizers and political leaders.
A turning point came in August 2017, when Togolese opposition parties united to demand the reinstatement of the 1992 constitution that specified term limits on a president’s rule.
President Faure Gnassingbé refused, and Nabourema, along with thousands of others, began to call for his immediate resignation.
Protesters took to the streets nationwide and were swiftly met by a military crackdown.
“The regime, in typical fashion, retaliated by repressing the protests, shutting down the internet, arresting hundreds, shooting live bullets into crowds, and killing children as young as nine. But this time, we chose not to give up and the more they oppressed us, the more our numbers swelled until we reached one million people on the streets in 14 different cities in every corner of Togo in December 2017,” Nabourema says.
The people deserve better
The government did try to make some concessions in September, releasing prisoners and proposing a referendum on the reinstatement of the two-term limit for presidents. But the opposition boycotted the vote, fearing it would not apply retroactively to the current president and would allow him to run again in 2020.
Near weekly protests have continued but there has been little international outrage. The government has labeled the protesters as terrorists whose aim is to destabilize the region.
“We have no gold, we have no diamonds, or oil, and we have no coltan to bargain with. At times I feel exhausted and depressed by the continuous pressure, the waves of bad news about arrests of our activists, and the killing of our country’s children by security forces.”
But Nabourema won’t give up.
“When I look at all the sacrifices that were made for us to get this far, from my grandfather’s generation to my father’s and now to mine, I am filled with gratitude and hope. … Hope in a Togo where every citizen can aspire to become president without fear of retribution or death.
A Togo whose citizens have full say in the affairs and policies of their government and can hold them accountable.
“The Togolese people deserve better.”