PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP
Togo went to the polls Saturday in an election widely expected to see President Faure Gnassingbe claim a fourth term in power and extend his family’s half-century domination of the West African nation.
The incumbent, 53, has led the country of eight million since 2005 following the death of his father Gnassingbe Eyadema, who ruled with an iron fist for 38 years.
In Lome, some voters were out early to cast their vote in the hope the election may bring much-needed change.
“We suffer too much in Togo, this time it has to change,” said Eric, a driver in his 30s, near a voting centre.
“I am not going to tell you who I will vote for, but this time we don’t want to be cheated of victory,” he said, adding that he would return in the evening to watch over the counting after polls close at 1600 GMT.
Elsewhere, ruling party supporter Balakebawi Agbang urged people “to turn out in force to make the right choice” so the government can continue its work.
The authorities faced major protests in 2017 and 2018 demanding an end to five decades of a dynastic rule that have failed to lift many out of poverty.
But the demonstrations petered out in the face of government repression and squabbles among the opposition.
Last year, Gnassingbe pushed through constitutional changes allowing him to run again — and potentially remain in office until 2030.
The current president has sought to distance himself from his father but his regime still maintains a stranglehold over the country and its financial resources.
“I don’t feel like a dictator,” Gnassingbe told AFP in an interview.
Critics insist the vote will not be free and fair and the authorities have banned a civil society coalition and the Catholic Church from fielding observers.
The president is hoping to win a resounding victory in the first round but turnout could be low if opposition supporters stay away, as many have said they will.
Results are expected in the coming days.
Stability and security are central to Gnassingbe’s message as Togo eyes the jihadist violence rocking its neighbour Burkina Faso to the north.
The country has so far managed to prevent the bloodshed spilling over and its army and intelligence service are among the most effective in the region.
The president has also made a major play of a programme that aims to provide the entire population with power by 2030 and is pledging to create 500,000 jobs for young people.
But after 53 years of his family’s rule, the country still remains deeply impoverished.
The World Bank says that around half of the population live on under $1.90 (1.76 euros) per day.
Even so, the six challengers lining up against Gnassingbe face a mammoth task to persuade the 3.6 million registered voters to oust him.
Veteran candidate Jean-Pierre Fabre came second at the last two elections but the 67-year old has failed to keep the opposition united.
Agbeyome Kodjo, who served as prime minister under Gnassingbe’s father, is seen as a potential dark horse after winning the backing of an influential Catholic archbishop.
One name not on the ballot is Tikpi Atchadam, a politician from second city Sokode who shot to prominence in 2017 at the head of anti-government protests.
But he fled Togo for Ghana in the face of a crackdown by the authorities on his supporters and has seen his influence dwindle.