With its dirt roads of red earth, children playing with old tyres and succession of dilapidated mosques, northern Togo is an unlikely home for a movement that’s challenging Africa’s longest-ruling political dynasty.
But small, out-of-the-way Kparatao is where Tikpi Atchadam was born to a local farmer and food seller in 1967 and spent his childhood.
Until just a few weeks ago, the former law student, hailed by his supporters as someone who “stops power from sleeping”, was a relative unknown.
But the head of the Panafrican National Party (PNP) has become the new face of Togolese opposition after organising the recent mass protests against President Faure Gnassinge.
In Kparatao as in the neighbouring city of Sokode, most of the street lights don’t work while the tarmac doesn’t go beyond the main road linking Togo with Burkina Faso.
With nothing else to do and a poor education, local youths have little option but to earn a living from the soil. Friday prayers in the mainly Muslim town break up the monotony.
Political protest had never seemed an option, at least until recently.
Atchadam — a recognisable figure in his square-rimmed spectacles — hasn’t fallen into the trap of other opposition leaders, whose confused message has fallen on deaf ears.
Instead, he has been direct and impassioned, stirring up crowds with a clear demand for the resignation of Gnassingbe, who has been in power since 2005.
– ‘Down-to-earth’ –
The opposition leader has cultivated an air of mystery and kept his public appearances to a minimum, claiming fears for his own safety
Teenagers in his village say they know him “very well”, however.
“He’s a down-to-earth man,” said Mohammed, an 18-year-old farmer from Kparatao. “When he comes to visit us, he doesn’t stay in a hotel. He stays in a mud hut.
“We were disheartened by Togolese politics, the other opposition groups are all corrupted by power but him, he refuses money,” he added.
“What he says is true. He’s really interested in the problems of young people.”
After 38 years of being ruled by General Gnassingbe Eyadema and 12 by his son, Atchadam and his popular movement have shuffled Togo’s political cards.
Togo’s south has long been seen as an opposition stronghold while northerners have often been wrongly lumped in with Gnassingbe’s Kabye ethnic group, which also dominates the army.
Since August, opposition protests have for the first time taken place outside the capital, Lome, in Sokode, Bafilo, Mango and Dapaong in the north.
Violent clashes between protesters, many of them wearing the red of the PNP, and the security forces have left at least four dead and dozens more injured.
The opposition has criticised what it says is a bloody crackdown and “punitive expedition” led by the army, while the government accuses the protesters of having provoked the violence and of burning down houses and shops themselves.
In Sokode’s overcrowded hospital, AFP correspondents saw seven patients injured during the marches recovering from surgery.
All said that soldiers shot them “at point blank range”. An eighth victim — a 15-year-old boy — died from his injuries.
– Red berets –
“You have to see the conditions in which we’re looking after people,” said Saibou Alassani, 50, from under the dirty sheets of his hospital bed.
“You can’t even do X-rays, everything’s broken. I’d never protested before but the situation is getting worse.
“The price of everything is going up — soap’s gone from 50 to 100 francs (9-18 US cents, 8-15 euro cents), fertiliser, grain… we’re suffering too much.”
Togo’s government has repeatedly condemned what it has called the “hate speech” and “extremism” of the PNP, whose leader is often described as a “radical Muslim” in national media.
“We receive propaganda messages on WhatsApp all the time, such as Tikpi is dangerous or that if the opposition gets into power, they’ll declare war on the Kabye,” said Faouzia, an unemployed graduate.
“They’re trying to divide us but we’re all Togolese, whether we’re from the north or the south, we’ve got the same problems,” the 26-year-old added.
Massive army reinforcements were deployed in the north before the protests. The “red berets”, an elite unit, continues to patrol and run check-points.
Locals in Kparatao say they’ve lived in fear since soldiers arrived on September 19 — the eve of the last protests — looking for weapons and taking over houses, even that of the traditional ruler.
“Some of them were masked. They were very nervous,” said one local leader, Agoro Wakilou. “We thought they’d come to kill us.”
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