Togo “purification” leaves bitter taste for many

Togo “purification” leaves bitter taste for many©Yanick Folly
Voodoo "purification" ceremonies in Lomé on July 7
2 min 33Approximate reading time

In Togo, the transitional justice process put in place by the authorities seems to be dividing people more than it is reconciling them. And it was amid controversy that the High Commission for Reconciliation and National Unity (HCRRUN) organized so-called “purification” ceremonies in the country from July 3 to 9.

A week of so-called purification in Togo ended on Sunday July 9 with a Christian service in the capital Lomé attended by the Prime Minister, members of the government, national institutions and the High Commission for Reconciliation and National Unity (HCRRUN). As on preceding days when traditional and Muslim communities also organized rites, prayers were said for the reconciliation process launched in the country in 2009.

It was in August 2006, as part of a political agreement (now declared lapsed by the government) that a recommendation was made for a transitional justice process in Togo to calm the political climate. A year before, this small West African country suffered an unprecedented level of political violence after contested presidential elections which saw current President Faure Gnassingbé succeed his father in power. According to various reports, the violence left at least 500 people dead, mainly from the ranks of the opposition.

In 2009, a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission was set up to shed light on the political violence committed in the country, not just in 2005 but from 1958 to Faure Gnassingbé’s arrival in power in 2005. For three years the Truth Commission, headed by a churchman, organized hearings and registered 22,415 victims, of whom 7,057 for 2005 alone. One of the Commission’s recommendations, which were submitted to the President in 2012 at the end of its mandate, was to organize “purification” days in the country to “help bring rest to the souls of the victims, deceased or disappeared; appease wounded hearts; and provide spiritual support to reconciliation”. 

And so as the HCRRUN, charged with implementing the Truth Commission’s recommendations, prepares to pay reparations to a first wave of 2,475 victims, it launched these days of so-called purification. The process launched in 2009 has always been controversial, but never as much so as this “purification” operation.

Ever since these ceremonies were announced, the criticisms have come thick and fast. On social media, using the hashtag #Kpatima, activists have mostly mocked the ceremonies, whilst political parties and other opinion leaders have also spoken out, some calling the ceremonies “fetishism” and a “con-trick”. A process that was officially meant to reconcile Togolese has ended up dividing them further.


Civil society and opposition slam the ceremonies

The National Alliance for Change (ANC), the main opposition party, called on its members to boycott the ceremonies. It said the ANC had decided to dissociate itself from what it called a con-trick in which “the perpetrators do not intend to admit their wrongdoings committed over the last 50 years in this country of our ancestors but are asking the victims to forgive”. Some of these perpetrators have even been rewarded by Faure Gnassingbé  for “service rendered to him by uselessly shedding the blood of thousands of Togolese”, it continued, saying the authorities were still clamping down on peaceful demonstrations, looting the country’s financial resources and refusing to implement institutional, constitutional and electoral reforms.   

“Reconciliation can only lead to peace if we all commit to a process of changing people’s hearts,” said Evangelical and Methodist ministers in a pastoral letter on June 30. They say reconciliation cannot be “just a simple financial reparations operation” but needs “acts of contrition and forgiveness from the people involved, that is, firstly perpetrators and victims.” 

“All the water in the world cannot purify (the perpetrators) because they have never had the courage to admit their terrible crimes against the Togolese people,” said Professor and writer Apedo-Amah Togoata, former secretary-general of the Togolese Human Rights League, which is one of the main national civil society groups. “There is no purification without confessions and trials” He pointed out that no suspect has so far confessed or asked forgiveness for blood spilled in the country between 1958 and 2015, and that leading suspects, including some been cited in a UN report on the 2005 violence, are still powerful and protected.