Togo Prisons: Abusive or Conducive to Security Needs?
AFRICA SERIES : PART 3
“I can’t vividly remember the date we last met except to say it’s been a long time ago,” Yao Nester, 49, said of his three younger brotherswho have been incarcerated in Togo’s Lome Prison since 2005. He said the last time he saw them, they were “dirty, lean and appeared sick.”
“Their health in prison scares me a lot,” Nester says. Even if he had the opportunity to visit more frequently, Nester says he wouldn’t: his brothers say they are maltreated and tortured.
Nester, who lives in Agbalepedogan, a suburb in Lome, Togo’s capital, deals in spare car parts, mobile phones and accessories. He says his three brothers were arrested during a demonstration against the allegedly rigged 2005 election in Lome. Togo’s president Faure Gnassingbe came to power in disputed and violent elections in 2005 after the death of his father, who had run the country for nearly four decades. He was re-elected to a second term in 2010 in a poll marred by opposition complaints of fraud and intimidation, the News Daily reported.
Strong security – inevitable?
Nester says that political imprisonment is not uncommon in Togo. Decades of maltreatment of prison inmates are not fading away. “One would have thought that in this modern day of human rights, our systems in prison would have changed a bit,” Nester said. “But that is not so.”
Nester is not the only one who speaks out against abuse in Togo’s prisons. Across the country, there is a growing concern that prisons have become vicious hubs for human rights abuses. This former French colony records significant human rights abuses, political harassment, police brutality, and intimidation.
According to Alhaji Gouda, as he wants to be identified, “During our time it was fighting the enemy so the maltreatment of people, whether in prison or on the streets, can’t be justified now.” Until he retired a year ago, Gouda was one of the top officers of National Intelligence Agency (NIA), Togo’s national security outfit equivalent to Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that gathers detailed national security information.
Togo’s security is still based on colonial era models. “See, in those days we were guiding the president and the state but now the order is to protect the people and their property irrespective of their political, religion, cultural or ethnic background or positions they hold,” Gouda said.
Many in Togo believe the country’s situation with human rights needs a strong group of freedom fighters united to have a collective voice. “We should not leave this thing to opposition parties alone to talk about, but all of us must rise up to the occasion to force authorities to change their ways of handling cases,” Gouda said. Though people may not be happy about the reports of human rights abuses, and particularly in prisons, there seems to be nothing an individual can do to change the system. “It will be difficult for an individual champion the fight and generate an action,” he said. “The idea must be widely bought by the masses if we want to fight a good fight.”
Some residents in Togo argue that the small state would have found it very difficult to deal with crime if its security system was too relaxed because the economy is growing. “In countries with small economies, crime becomes a day’s business but here, my brother, no lie: the security will deal with you very well”, said Refeal Agameve, an activist of Union of Forces for Change (UFC). He thinks the country would have become a lawless state if the security was loose. “Sometimes it’s good to be rigid to maintain your status quo.”
The type of growth prevalent in the economy of Togo is one that can easily create a lot of friction between the authorities and the public. Although the economy is growing, people live below US $1 per day. Malnutrition is high; there’s mass unemployment. In a country where agriculture accounts for 46 per cent of all jobs, the majority of university graduates live without formal employment.
Violence on all levels
Though much of his time is devoted to retail, Samuel Afegah, an activist for Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), says he and his friends “discuss politics among ourselves, praise or criticize depending on how favorable the policy is to the Togolese.” To him, the military is an integral part of the domestic security sector.
Reports of unending human rights abuses are not limited to prisons: they also apply to violence in the streets and on the political level. “Imagine what business military forces have to do with political party organisation? Even during the recent political conference held by RPT/UNITE, it was our military forces that mounted the tent for that meeting,” Afegah said.
The word on the street mirrors official reports. Chapter 8 of the African Commission’s report for 1995-1996 pointed out numerous human rights abuses in Togo and security brutality against civilians. The much-talked about abuses allegedly forced president Gnassigbe to form the Commission for Truth and Justice and Reconciliation to reconcile Togo people. Significant change has not occurred since.
According to the UNHCR/Refworld/Amnesty International’s 24 May 2012 report ,“In September, 33 people accused of plotting against the State, including Kpatcha Gnassingbé, half-brother of the President, were sentenced to prison terms of up to 20 years by the Supreme Court. Immediately after the trial, the Minister of Justice asked the National Commission on Human Rights to investigate the torture allegations. It had not published its conclusions by the end of the year.”
The 33 arrested on political grounds military personnel; some were held incommunicado.
In its 2010 annual report, Amnesty International states that although death sentence has been abolished, “prisoners have died in prison detention as a result of torture or other ill-treatment.” It also notes that torture in pre-trial detention was widespread in order to extract confessions or implicate defendants.
In March, Sow Bertin Agba was arrested for fraud and tortured in handcuffs for five days in a garage at the National Intelligence Agency premises. He suffered a fractured arm and wounds all over his body. By the end of the year, he was still detained without trial at the civil prison in Tsévié in southern Togo.
Kojovi, a former detainee, who did not want to use his full name for privacy concerns, said: “When you are thrown inside our prisons the officers treat you like an animal. Each day two or more inmates die through torture. They can deny you food and water for one week, among other brutalities.”
Kojovi also said arbitrary arrests were increasing, as was detention motivated by political expediency. Kojovi was released three months ago after spending 15 years imprisoned for political violence. His case was not presented in court for almost nine years. “Some of us were released as a result of international pressure mounted on the president,” he said. “Close to 5,000 prisoners in Lome prison are yet to stand trial. Some of them are as old as one could imagine.”
Changing names, changing ways?
The campaign for human rights, freedom of speech, political association and the media has reached the doorsteps of president Gnassigbe, who has initiated a number of frameworks to change the situation. To dodge allegations of human rights abuses, the president decided to change the name of his party from Rally for the People of Togo (RPT) to Union for the Republic (UNITE).
“The change of name is a way to excuse the president from massive atrocities committed by members of RPT which was formed by his father, the late president Gnassigbe Eyedima,” a UFC party activist said. UNITE, according to the president of the party, seeks to create a climate of political appeasement in Togo. Thousands of Togolese are peeved with the political system that does not allow them to partake in governance. The president’s olive branch has been the formation of the reconciliation committee for Togo.
According to the current president, UNITE seeks to transform Togo’s political landscape in line with the democratic world while creating a new framework for political expression. This would allow all Togo nationals, whatever their political beliefs, origin, and social status, to feel welcome in the construction of a new Togo where equal opportunities and social justice become reality. The goal is one in which dialogue and tolerance prevail over authority. “Since 2006, Togo has launched a major reform movement that affected all sectors of national life. Given his stature and responsibilities at the national level, our party, the Rally of the Togolese People has always been the forefront of these reforms,” the president once said.
But despite his nice words, action hasn’t followed, according to Issah Mohamadu, who as a member of the opposition took part in the 12 June protest in Lome. “RPT has no good human rights, political tolerance, good governance, democracy or rule of law records,” he said. “It will be impossible for President Faure Gnassigbe to clean up the messes of RPT and the only way is to rename it and modernise the structures.”
A UN report on human rights abuses states with regard to ill-treatment in prisons, the Special Rapporteur (SR) notes satisfaction that the situation has certainly improved considerably since 2005 and that he has received only a limited number of allegations of ill-treatment and corporal punishment. However, he found allegations and evidence of several cases of beatings by guards and by other inmates, as a means of punishment. This appears to be a tacit approval of violence in the prisons.
The SP identified one more problem: ”The fact that in the prisons, authority is systematically delegated to what is often referred to as the ‘bureau interne’, i.e. to the hierarchy of prisoners, there is corruption and dependency of detainees on fellow prisoners.” While international reports continue to highlight human rights abuses in Togo’s prisons, prisoners continue to suffer in dramatic and undemocratic ways, politicians fawn niceties, and many support “strict” security operations.