Farida Nabourema : Is your country at risk of becoming a dictatorship? Here’s how to know.
A few weeks ago, somebody tweeted during the midterm elections in the United States that Election Day should be made a holiday. And I retweeted, saying, “Well, you’re welcome to come to my country and vote. You’ll get the whole week off to allow the military to count it.”
I come from Togo, by the way. It is a beautiful country located in West Africa. There are some cool, interesting facts about my country. Togo has been ruled by the same family for 51 years, making us the oldest autocracy in Africa. That’s a record. We have a second-coolest record: we have been ranked three times as the unhappiest country on earth. You are all invited.
So just to let you know, it’s not very cool to live under an autocracy. But the interesting thing is that I have met, throughout the course of my activism, so many people from different countries, and when I tell them about Togo, their reaction is always, “How can you guys allow the same people to terrorize you for 51 years? You know, like, you Togolese, you must be very patient.” That’s their diplomatic way of saying “stupid.”
And when you live in a free country, there’s this tendency of assuming that those who are oppressed tolerate their oppression or are comfortable with it, and democracy is projected as a progressive form of governance in such a way that those people who don’t live under democratic countries are seen as people who are not intellectually or maybe morally as advanced as others.
But it’s not the case. The reason why people have that perception has to do with the way stories are covered about dictatorships. In the course of my activism, I have had to interview with so many news outlets out there, and usually it would always start with, “What got you started? What inspired you?” And I reply, “I wasn’t inspired. I was triggered.” And it goes on. “Well, what triggered you?” And I go on about how my father was arrested when I was 13, and tortured, all the history … I don’t want to get into details now, because you’ll start sleeping. But the thing is, at the end of the day, what interests them the most is: How was he tortured? For how many days? How many people died? They are interested in the abuse, in the killing, because they believe that will gain attention and sympathy. But in reality, it serves the purpose of the dictator. It helps them advertise their cruelty.
In 2011, I cofounded a movement I call “Faure Must Go,” because Faure is the first name of our president. Togo is a French-speaking country, by the way, but I chose English because I had my issues with France as well. But then —
But then, when I started Faure Must Go, I made a video, and I came on camera, and I said, “Well, Faure Gnassingbé, I give you 60 days to resign as president, because if you don’t, we the youth in Togo will organize and we will bring you down, because you have killed over 500 of our countrymen to seize power when your father died. We have not chosen you. You are an imposter, and we will remove you.” But I was the only known face of the movement. Why? Because I was the only stupid one.
And the backlashes followed. My family started receiving threats. My siblings called me one morning. They said, “You know what? When they come here to kill you, we don’t want to die with you, so move out.” So yes, I moved out. And I’m so angry at them, so I haven’t talked to them in five years.
Anyway, moving forward … For the past nine years, I have been working with countries to raise awareness of Togo, to help the people of Togo overcome their fear so they, too, can come and say they want change. I have received a lot of persecution that I cannot disclose, a lot of threats, a lot of abuse, psychologically. But I don’t like talking about them, because I know that my job as an activist is to mobilize, is to organize, is to help every single Togolese citizen understand that, as citizens, we hold the power, we are the boss and we decide. And the punishment that the dictators are using to intimidate them must not prevent us from getting what we want. That is why I said it is very important to cover the stories of activists in the way that it helps mobilize people, not in the way that it helps deter their action and force even more their subjugation to the oppressive system.
During these years that I’ve been an activist, there are days that I felt like quitting because I couldn’t take it. Well then, what kept me going? The one thing that kept me going: I remember the story of my grandfather, and how he used to walk 465 miles from his village to the city, just to protest for independence. Then I remember the sacrifice of my father, who was tortured so many times for daring to protest against the regime. Back in the ’70s, they would write pamphlets to raise awareness on the dictatorship, and because they couldn’t afford to make copies, they would reproduce the same pamphlet 500 times each and distribute them. It got to a point where the military knew their handwriting, so as soon as they stumbled upon one, they’d go and get them. But I look at that and I’m like, you know, today you have a blog. I don’t have to copy the same thing 500 times. I blog and thousands of people read it. By the way, in Togo, they like calling me the WhatsApp girl, because I am always on WhatsApp attacking the government.
So it’s much easier. When I’m angry at the government, I just make an angry note, and I send it out and thousands of people share it. I’m rarely this composed. I’m always angry, by the way.
So I was talking about the necessity to showcase our stories, because when I think about the sacrifices that were made for us, it helped me keep going. One of the very first actions of our Faure Must Go movement was to come up with a petition, asking citizens to sign so that we can demand new elections, as the constitution allows. People were scared to put their names because, they said, they don’t want to get in trouble. Even in the diaspora, people were scared. They were like, “We have family at home.”
But there was this woman who was in her 60s. When she heard about it, she took the petition, and she went home, and by herself she collected over 1,000 [signatures]. That inspired me so much, and I was like, if a 60-year-old that has nothing more to gain in this regime can do this for us, the young ones, then why should I quit? It is the stories of resistance, the stories of defiance, the stories of resilience, that inspire people to get involved, not the stories of abuse and killings and hurt, because as humans, it’s only natural for us to be scared.
I would like to share with you a few characteristics of dictatorships so that you can assess your own country and see if you are also at risk of joining us.
Number one thing to look at: concentration of power. Is the power in your country concentrated in the hands of a few, an elite? It can be a political elite, ideological elite. And you have a strongman, because we always have one guy who is presented as the messiah who will save us from the world.
The second point is propaganda. Dictators feed on propaganda. They like giving the impression that they are the saviors, and without them, the country will fall apart. And they are always fighting some foreign forces, you know? The Christians, the Jewish, the Muslims, the voodoo priests are coming for you. The Communists, when they get here, we’ll all be broke. These kinds of things. And our president, in particular, he fights pirates.
I am very serious. Last year, he bought a boat that’s 13 million dollars to fight pirates, and 60 percent of our people are starving. So they are always protecting us from some foreign forces.
And this leads to point three: militarization. Dictators survive by instigating fear, and they use the military to suppress dissident voices, even though they try to give the impression that the military is to protect the nation. And they suppress institutions and destroy them so that they don’t have to be held accountable. So do you have a heavily militarized country?
And this leads to point four, what I call human cruelty. You know when we talk about animals, we say animal cruelty when animals are abused, because there’s no charter acknowledged by the UN saying animal rights charter. Point one: all animals are created equal. So you don’t have that. So whenever animals are abused, we say animal cruelty. But when it comes to humans, we say human rights abuses, because we assume that all humans have rights. But some of us are actually still fighting for our right to have rights. So in that condition, I don’t talk about human rights abuse or violation.
When you live in a country and you have an issue with the president and the worst thing that can happen is he bans you from the presidency, you are lucky. When you come to my country and have an issue with the president, you just run, disappear; you vanish from the universe, because they can still find you in Turkey. So people like myself, we don’t get to live in Togo anymore. And people like myself, we don’t get to live in the same place for more than a month, because we don’t want to be traced. The way they abuse people, the type of cruelty that happens in all impunity under dictatorships are beyond human imagination. The stories of some of the activists that were killed, their bodies dumped in the sea, that were tortured to the point where they lost their hearing or their sight — those stories still haunt me. And sometimes, as an activist, I am less concerned about dying than how it will happen. Sometimes I just sit down and I imagine all scenarios. What are they going to do? Are they going to cut my ears first? Or are they going to cut my tongue because I’m always insulting them? It sounds cruel, but it is the reality. We live in a very cruel world. Dictators are cruel monsters, and I am not saying it to be nice.
So yes, that is the final characteristic. The list goes on, but that’s the final thing that I want to share about autocracies, so that you look at your country and see if there are risks there. It is important that you acknowledge the gains of freedom that you have today, because some people had to give their lives for you to have it. So don’t take this for granted. But then at the same time, you also need to know that no country is actually destined to be oppressed, while at the same time, no country or no people are immune to oppression and dictatorship.