Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: French (official), Éwé, Kabyé.
Main religions: Traditional religions (33 per cent), Roman Catholic (28 per cent), Sunni Islam (14 per cent), Protestant (10 per cent), other Christian denominations (10 per cent). These estimates are from a 2004 study by the University of Lomé; however, it should be noted that some Christians and Muslims also engage in traditional religious practices. In addition, the Muslim Union of Togo has reported significant immigration from other Muslim countries, though there is no official data available to assess if this is the case. Nevertheless, some more recent estimates have estimated that around half the population engage in traditional religious practices, with Muslims making up around 20 per cent of the population.
In response to UN CERD requests for population information disaggregated by ethnicity, in 2016 Togo provided population figures for a list of 31 distinct ethnic groups. The largest group was Éwé, at 1,324,157 (22.3 per cent), followed by Kabyé 853,391 (14.3 per cent), Ouatchi (Gbe) 584,245 (9.8 per cent), Moba 498,109 (8.4 per cent), Losso 451,712 (7.6 per cent), Kotokoli 351,838 (5.9 per cent), Mina (Gen/Guin) 273,672 (4.6 per cent), Adja 232,696 (3.9 per cent), Ana-Ife 165,079 (2.8 per cent), Gourma 157,545 (2.7 per cent), and numerous smaller groups including Peul 109,360 (1.8 per cent).
There are between 20 and 40 different ethnic groups in Togo, depending on differing classifications. No group has a numerical majority. A northern group, the Kabyé, has dominated the country’s politics, and is the second largest group in Togo (after the Éwé), with some 14 per cent of the population. Northern Togo, where Kabyé are concentrated, is more ethnically diverse than the south. Other northern groups include the Moba, Kotokoli, Bassari, Hausa and Konkomba. One of Togo’s most homogeneous ethnic groups, Moba inhabit rich agricultural lands in north Dapaong area and speak a dialect influenced by the More language of the Mossi of Burkina Faso. Konkomba are related to Moba and live in northern Togo and Ghana in the Oti River basin, a tributary of the Volta, north of Basseri. They live in clans organized into patrilineages and age sets, with no central structure. Traditionally, they are herders, fishers and subsistence farmers. Bassari, who belong to the Kotokoli ethnic cluster, live north-west of Sokode in West central, Bassar, Kabou, Kalanga and adjacent areas, and in neighbouring Ghana. They call themselves Bi-Tchambe, which means metalworkers, their pre-colonial occupation. Not to be confused with the Bassari along the Guinea-Senegal border, Bassari of Togo live among large numbers of non-Bassari. There are only small numbers of Hausa in Togo, but they form an important mercantile and religious group. They have been the prime transmitters of Islam in Togo.
Éwé and related Ouatchi, Mina, Fon and Adja ethnic groups are concentrated in the south.
Updated May 2018
While no group in Togo’s ethnically diverse population has a numerical majority, for decades the country has been characterized by the longstanding dominance of the second largest ethnic group, the politically and militarily dominant northern Kabyé. Between 1967 and 2005 Togo saw Africa’s longest-ruling dictatorship, by Kabyé army officer Gnassingbé Eyadéma. He ruled through a mix of patronage, repression by the Kabyé-dominated security forces, and periodic sham elections, and largely excluded from power the numerically superior Éwé as well as rival northern groups including Kotokoli, Bassari, and Konkomba.
Following his death, the military ensured that power passed directly to his son Faure Gnassingbé. He won elections in 2005 that were marred by political violence, some of it ethnically oriented, and is currently on his third term in office. The main political opposition to Gnassingbé has come from Éwé-dominated parties: until recently, the Union of Forces for Change (UFC), led by Gilchrist Olympio, the son of Togo’s assassinated first president, Sylvanus Olympio, though after 2010 many split from the UFC to form the National Alliance for Change (ANC), which in the 2013 legislative elections made significant gains and is now the largest political opposition party.
Within this context, longstanding pressures for reform have continued, and in August 2017 gained new momentum. Some among the tens of thousands of protestors against the Gnassingbé dynasty who demonstrated repeatedly in a number of towns, including in the traditionally pro-Gnassingbé north, clashed with the security forces, leading to several deaths. Clashes continued in October 2017 and in November a group of prominent civil society organizations called for restraint and respect for fundamental freedoms in resolving the heightened tensions.
In addition, Togo is facing a number of social and economic challenges, particularly in the south, where Éwé and related Ouatchi, Mina, Fon and Adja ethnic groups are concentrated. These include widespread flooding and the rapid erosion of coastal areas caused by rising sea waters, which is destroying the country’s fishing industry along with homes, communities and livelihoods.
The Republic of Togo, located on the Gulf of Guinea, is one of Africa’s smallest countries and lies between Benin, Ghana and Burkina Faso. Tropical forest along the coast transitions to grasslands in the north. Togo has deposits of phosphates that are mined and arable land that supports most of its population of subsistence farmers.
Éwé moved into the area of today’s Togo from the Niger River valley between the 12th and 14th centuries, and, as with the Gurma and Kabyé in the north, were organized into small chiefdoms in contrast to the centralized states to the east and west. Portuguese traders reached the coast in the 15th and 16th centuries, and by the 17th century the region had become a major source of slaves for Europeans engaged in the Atlantic slave trade, earning the area the moniker ‘The Slave Coast’. The Danish dominated the slave trade throughout the 18th century until prohibiting it in 1802; Danish and German Protestant missionaries were also active in the area from the 18th century onwards. German merchants operated in the port of Aneho, and in order to counter the neighbouring French and English, appealed for protection from Germany in the 1880s. In a treaty signed in 1884 at Togoville, Germany declared a protectorate over a stretch of territory along the coast, called Togoland. Germany gradually gained control over the interior, and in 1897 made Lomé the capital. Palm oil produced through forced labour in the south proved lucrative for Germany.
In 1904, the Germans agreed on a boundary to the British Gold Coast to the west, which divided the tribal territories of several large ethnic groups, including Éwé and the Konkomba. German administrators provided education to some southerners but largely neglected the north. The British and French invaded Togoland in 1914, and after World War I, parts of northern Togoland were annexed to the Gold Coast. Under a mandate from the League of Nations, Britain administered one-third of the remainder and France two-thirds. After a referendum, British Togoland was incorporated into newly independent Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast) in 1957, over the objections of a majority of Éwé. Under French colonial rule, Kabyé were dominant in the Togolese military. From 1955, Togo was an autonomous republic within the French Union. In 1960 French Togoland became the independent Republic of Togo.
Tensions between the northern Kabyé and southern Éwé continued after independence, resulting in political violence. Many southerners were prejudiced against the north, regarding its inhabitants as savages. Sylvanus Olympio, the first president of independent Togo, and a Éwé, was assassinated in 1963 after he attempted to deny many Kabyé soldiers a place in the new army of Togo. Olympio had also been unpopular among his own people by closing the border to Ghana and spurning suggestions from the Ghanaian president to unify the two countries, and thus their two Éwé communities. By some accounts, Olympio’s assassin was Lieutenant Colonel Etienne Eyadéma (later known as General Gnassingbé Eyadéma), one of the Kabyé officers who launched the coup. Nicolas Grunitzy became president until his ouster by Eyadéma in a bloodless coup in 1967. Eyadéma assumed the presidency and declared a one-party state in 1969. Through a mix of patronage, repression and sham elections to defuse pressure, he would cling to power for the next 38 years, until his death of natural causes in February 2005. He was Africa’s longest-ruling dictator.
Gnassingbé Eyadéma ruled through an extensive patronage system, financed largely through phosphate mining, and relied on his Kabyé-dominated military to intimidate political opponents. His government relied on an alliance between the Kabyé and southern groups, excluding Éwé. This alliance also excluded such northern groups as the Muslim Kotokoli, the Bassari, and the Konkomba. Eyadéma’s ethnic favouritism heightened ethnic tensions. He developed a road network into the country’s north and pursued free trade policies that made him palatable to the international community. Ironically, his foreign backers justified Eyadéma’s personal rule as a necessity for national unity.
Under the Togolese Constitution, upon Eyadéma’s death in February 2005, the president of the National Assembly, Natchaba Ouattara, should have become president. However, within days the military installed Faure Gnassingbé, Eyadéma’s son, to take his father’s place. Street demonstrations were brutally repressed and opposition political activity banned. The African Union (AU) and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) condemned the coup and broke off economic ties with Togo.
Under this pressure, Gnassingbé agreed to April elections, which he won with 60 per cent of the vote. While AU and ECOWAS observers accepted the results, American and European observers noted rampant fraud in the polling process, including intimidation tactics and the military’s seizure of ballot boxes before the count. Protests erupted upon the announcement of the results. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 400-500 Togolese died in the ensuing violence, and over the course of 2005, 40,000 fled to Benin and Ghana. In response to international pressure, Gnassingbé appointed a purported government of national unity in August 2005, but in reality kept power in the hands of the ruling party. With continued pressure, the government and opposition signed a Global Political Agreement in August 2006 that created a true government of national unity, established an independent election commission, paved the way for parliamentary elections in 2007 and the beginning of military reform, and called for an investigation into the violence of 2005. The ruling party won the October 2007 vote, which ECOWAS observers deemed free and fair, and EU observers judged ‘transparent’ and ‘satisfactory’, but which opposition parties claimed were flawed.
In 2008 the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed concern at ‘tensions between various ethnic groups in Togo that could persist and hinder the reconciliation process’. In particular, it noted the persistence of ethnic imbalances in the Kabyé-dominated military and civil service, while other groups such as Peul remained under-represented in public roles.
Since 2005, Gnassingbé has remained in power, winning elections in 2010 and 2015. During this time, his government has continued to attract sustained criticism for its human rights record and repressive tactics. In 2012 the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission established to enquire into the 2005 violations recommended that the authorities investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible, but many recommendations have yet to be acted upon.
The 1992 Constitution set a two-term limit for presidents; howeve,r this was overturned in 2002 when the current president’s father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, still held power. His son Faure Gnassingbé, who took over following his death in 2005, won contested single-round elections in March 2010 and April 2015 and is currently serving his third term. The main Éwé-dominated party, the Union of Forces for Change (UFC), declined to join a national unity government in 2005 but accepted in 2010, leading to a rift and the creation of a new opposition party, the National Alliance for Change, which replaced the UFC as the main opposition party following significant gains in the 2013 legislative elections. Despite growing domestic calls for reform, the country’s most recent legislative elections, in July 2013, were also won by the ruling party, in place since 1967.
The draft Criminal Code penalizes discrimination, the definition of which includes on the basis of ethnic and religious origin.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
National Commission of Human Rights (Commission Nationale des Droits de l’Homme)
Togolese League for Human Rights (Ligue Togolaise des Droits de l’Homme)
Women in Law and Development – Togo
Sources and further reading
Decalo, S., Togo, Santa Barbara, CA, Clio Press, 1995.
Ebeku, K., The Succession of Faure Gnassingbe to the Togolese Presidency: An International Law Perspective (Current African Issues), Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, January 2006.
Froelich, J.C., Alexandre, P. and Cornévin R., Les populations du nord Togo, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1963.
Gayibor, N., En savoir plus sur – les peuples et royaummes du golfe du Benin, Cotonou, University of Benin Press, 1986.
Les Bassari du Nord Togo by Robert Cornévin (Collection Mondes d’Outre-Mer. Serie Nations.) Paris: Editions Berger-Levrault, 1962
O’Malley, M., ‘Togo’; ‘Ewe’; ‘Kabré’, and ‘Konkomba’ in Appiah, K. A and H.L Gates (eds) Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience New York: Basic/Civitas Books, 1999
Toulabor, C.M., Le Togo sous Eyadéma, Paris, Karthala, 1986.
Welch, C., Dream of Unity: Pan Africanism and Political Unification in West Africa, Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1966.
Lawrance, B., The Ewe of Togo and Benin, Woeli Publishing Services, Ghana, 2006.
Nugent, P., Smugglers, Secessionists and Loyal Citizens on the Ghana-Togo Frontier: The Lie of the Borderlands Since 1914 (Western African Studies), James Currey Ltd, 2002.
O’Malley, M., ‘Ewe’ in Appiah, K. A and H.L Gates (eds) Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience New York: Basic/Civitas Books, 1999.
Les Bassari du Nord Togo by Robert Cornévin (Collection Mondes d’Outre-Mer. Serie Nations.) Paris: Editions Berger-Levrault, 1962.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in