It has been a while since I last updated my blog and sweeping off the cobwebs to arrive at the meat of content production has been disturbing for me. Do I start by offering an explanation to a few of my readers why the site has been still for sometime or do I just plunge into dialogging like nothing happened? I have agreed to take on the second approach with the hope that subsequent posts will contain explanations to my hiatus. So, pardon, the long silence and lets get into the meat of the matter.
This is a trip I was rather apprehensive of because of the many countries I have to visit and the tasks to perform on the trip. Series of interviews in Senegal on a truly interesting World Bank and African Development Bank funded project; a two hour stopover in Accra to breakfast with my friend Kwami Ahiabenu doing excellent work on the African Elections Project (www.Africanelections.org); and Togo to participate with the internet and development community on its national consultation process on internet public policy in Togo. On my return to Winnipeg, I will go through Senegal to continue my series of consultations with the Climate Change community, stop by in Columbia University where I am sitting on a panel with intellectuals talking about the current wave of democracies in Africa; “Power and Pressure, the Media in Africa” – my particular focus; African media, social media and the politics of representation (where I would also be meeting my host, expert economist and Nobel prize winner, Prof. Joseph Stiglitz, and my old time friend Prof. Anya Schiffrin); and then my team meeting in Ottawa with mentor David Souter. But I was truly impressed by my first hand observation of the happenings in Togo. This is not my first time here, so I had a benchmark by which to gauge the progress in this little but important coastal West African country.
I arrived the airport aboard Asky airline (www.flyasky.com) a collaborative project by African organisations, banking institutions and an african airline, Ethiopian Airlines. Flight was regular, plane was clean although the “free sitting” instruction is still very much alive in the region. No harassment from the customs and immigration people like they previously did to Nigerians/Anglo-phones. The tout trying to sell me a sim card for my mobile phone told me that the country has sort of stabilized. He was gentle, very friendly and to say the least, nice! Earned $2 for his effort plus the profit from the sale of his ware. One year after the elections he can see roads being constructed and there is a semblance of constant electricity.
I observed that people were kind of glowing – a facade of confidence that results from living in a rather peaceful society. Less stressed, I might add. My host took me to a street restaurant where I had fufu, local style and I could see vehement dialogue taking place between men and women who gather to share a drink. For an outsider, it would seem as though there was a fight but I was told that this is the style to debate, engage and enjoy friendship. “It is normal”, he says. He confirmed that it is true, there is some semblance of progress in the country. “No one can say there has not been progress in Togo given recent developments.” Although the opposition party, the UFC was “swallowed” by the ruling party, a more extreme fraction of the UFC called the ANC named after the South African anti-apartheid party continued to demonstrate every week for one year since the elections in March 2010. They had promised to keep to their words of demonstrating for five years to last the duration of the current mandate. However, they have taken their demonstrations to the churches – “we should continue our struggles through prayer and fasting.” My host said that there are current draft bills working their way through the parliament that should clamp down on public demonstration. Previously, you had to inform the government of your intention to gather and express your displeasure. The current bill will be more restrictive in that demonstrators must receive approval before they gather.
My host says that the country’s media had capitalised on an opening last year when they started probing a phosphate corruption story. Togo, he claims has the second best phosphates in the world. But the revenue from its sales cannot be traced back to the country. The ruling party shut that company down, fired its boss and started a new one. The extent to which they (government) will report revenues from the new company may be too early to predict. However, the media has since this probe began to comment on social and political issues – something that was a taboo in the last Eyadema administration. Dialogue is constant on the radios and call in programs are becoming more common. The national broadcaster has one station that broadcasts in FM and MW while community and private radio stations are scattered all over the country. There is one national daily newspaper. Others publish less frequently from once a week to once a month. Financial challenges pose difficulties to the media in Togo but also slightly repressive legal provisions clamp down on media from time to time. My host mentioned the closure, thrice last year of a particularly vocal FM station. That station has been opened now and the actual act of impunity has reduced even though it rears it ugly head a few times last year. I funded a newspaper two years ago, “Le Crocodile” which used to be very vocal of the administration but I hear it has taken sides with the new administration. They (new administration) must be doing something right or …
So, I am pleased by what I see to be the new wave of true democracy sweeping across the West African region specifically and the African continent at large. The continent is becoming truly open and democratic. We would liken ourselves to the revolutionary years of the West where defining moments arose from a rather proactive and determined paradigm shift demanded by the people but entrenched by a few radicalist but open minded politicians. People are tired in the region – of wars, anti democratic practices and demonstrations. They want to see stability, peace and progress. My host kept saying, no one wants to see the situation of cote d’Ivoire here. I agreed with him. I can say for sure that there is some semblance of progress in Togo. Free expression and transparency is fundamental to open societies and Togo seems to want to embrace that.