Togolese activist Farida Nabourema visited Philadelphia last spring to speak on a panel entitled “How Should Citizens Resist Authoritarian Rule?” The panel was presented by the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy in its “Democracy In Trouble?” series.
Annenberg PhD student Florence Madenga and 2018-2019 Center for Media at Risk postdoctoral fellow Daniel Grinberg spoke with Farida after the event to discuss the risks she has faced through her activism.
What kinds of personal risks have you faced as a result of your prominence as an activist? Your father was arrested and tortured for speaking out against the regime. Both of you have faced considerable political intimidation. Can you tell us a little bit about your experiences?
In my country, Togo, we have been ruled by the same family for 52 years. Togo has the oldest military regime in Africa and under this leadership you have all your rights restricted, especially when it comes to civil rights. In my personal case, I have received threats and I have been a victim of assassination and abduction attempts. Luckily, I haven’t been home but there has also been a lot of pressure and threats towards my family and loved ones.
In addition to the risks you faced, you’ve noted that some of your personal relationships have also suffered. Is that something you anticipated when the Faure Must Go movement started? Where do you get the kind of support system that you need to be an activist?
Initially, I didn’t anticipate those repercussions and I didn’t think about the extent to which this could deteriorate my relationship with family members. I had the choice to continue doing what I was doing and separate from them or to completely abandon my political activities. I chose to keep up with my struggle because I believe that way too many sacrifices were made in the past to quit so easily. Luckily I have always had a very supportive father, considering the fact he himself has been an activist his whole life. So the two of us at some point were castigated in the family and we acted as a support system for one another.
Can you talk a little bit about the psychological and mental impacts of facing risks of possible abductions and all of these dangers that you constantly face? How does that affect you emotionally and psychologically?
Now I am doing pretty well because I have a coping system in place. I am aware of the risk and I have developed attitudes and resources to be able to mitigate those risks. So I am not as worried as I used to be. However, psychologically the toll is very high. I have been through depression and I have had instances where I felt like it wasn’t worth continuing the struggle. I came to a point where I felt like taking my own life because of the amount of pressure I was receiving.
These were not things that I was willing to share with the public. Especially because when you’re a female activist, you don’t want to give the appearance that you’re weak and you’re allowing all that talk to get to you. But as a human being it does affect you one way or the other. It has a huge impact on my health and on my professional career at some point. I haven’t faced any direct physical torture like other activists working in very sensitive and risky environments do face. I know activists who have been through that, and I can only say that I have been way luckier than they have been.
What are some of the realities of living under authoritarianism that people outside of that political system may not understand? You’ve spoken a little bit about how sometimes people think that those who live under authoritarianism are somehow not as intelligent or they’re not willing to mobilize, and that’s not really true. Can you speak a little more about what that means?
People who have lived their whole life under full democracy systems sometimes don’t realize that those who live under dictatorship are living in very hard conditions, and they are usually far more emotionally, psychologically and even physically resilient than people who have never lived under those systems. The tendency is to assume that they are allowing what is happening to happen to them. I’ve had comments coming from outsiders saying, how can you people allow these people to rule you for so long? Or why are you people not rising up?
They have no idea of the amount of resources that are invested in suppressing our uprising. They have no idea of the death toll, the thousands of people that were killed, the thousands of people that were arrested and tortured, or of the hundreds of thousands of families that are in exile today. They just assume that, well, if they have a difficulty it’s because they probably like it and they’re not doing anything about it.
Sometimes people don’t even realize that the system is so strong that to even get the word out for the world to notice takes a lot of efforts because all the media are rather controlled by the government. In some countries Internet penetration is either extremely low or completely shut down so citizens don’t get to share information with the outside world. There are spies in every system. Children are brainwashed from elementary school and taught to praise the dictator or to believe that they cannot survive without them.
Despite all this hardship, I have seen people demonstrate strong courage and a commitment to justice and liberty that you couldn’t see in other countries. Some individuals are willing to pay the heavy price of allowing themselves or their family members to be killed if that is the price for their country to win its freedom. So it is a huge misconception to assume that people will live under governments because they are comfortable with it or they just don’t want to do anything about it.
You have used digital media very powerfully in your activism. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of blogging as an activist tool?
Blogging and microblogging, because now social media is more about microblogging, have several advantages. Number one: the reach is far higher. The largest media outlet that we have in Togo has about 2000 tweets a day. I can share a video on social media and then within hours I have like 50,000 views. In my country, WhatsApp is one of the most useful social media platforms even in the villages. It is more accessible to people so even those who cannot read or write can still listen to audio, watch videos and know what’s going on in their local languages. So in terms of reach, it is a huge advantage.
Secondly, blogging also provides a shield to activists. We have many activists who are using social media but are not physically in the country. Some of them are not using their own identities but they are sharing information and they are mobilizing resources very effectively. They couldn’t do that if they had to put themselves on the front line because they would become easy targets for the government.
Social media have also closed the gaps and borders between the diaspora and the people living in the country. Thanks to social media, people in the diaspora can get daily updates of what’s happening in the country. Those in the diaspora tend to be the biggest motivators and instigators of change, telling those in the country that they shouldn’t allow certain things or that they should rise against a situation. A majority of the funding for the resistance comes from people in the diaspora, so they also contribute financially.
These are all benefits of using social media. But, a risk or disadvantage could also be infiltration. We have had cases where there were people working with us as activists but they were informants for the government. Some activists were arrested as a result, so you have that risk there.
There is also the risk of low participation. Sometimes when you pitch an idea on social media, everybody seems interested and enthusiastic about it, but when the time of implementation comes, a lot of them chicken out or lose motivation and don’t feel like doing it anymore. So you don’t really know if people who promised that they would be doing certain things are actually going to be present at the moment they are needed.
Building on that, what advice would you give to other activists who are trying to use social media to build their movements?
They should always have a system to test the responsiveness of their followers by launching small, low risk activities to see how many people participate. That way you can see that followers are responsive to what you’re doing and you can analyze what kind of activities most interest them. Then from there, try to find key people who are influential in their communities that are willing to support your movement and activities on social media. Their face and image alone carries a lot of weight and when you have them on your side, it gives you more credibility and can only take you further.
One way activists gain traction is by getting covered by journalists. In your TED talk last year, you talked a little bit about how sometimes you’re frustrated by the way news outlets cover autocratic states, how some of them tend to fetishize violence and how that coverage can actually validate what the dictator is doing and undermine your cause. Could you talk a little bit more about that? What kind of reporting do you want to see happening?
In this specific case I was talking about the international media. When it comes to international media, reporters want to share stories that will interest and international audience—stories that are catchy. People are more interested in drama and tragedy, incest stories. Yes, it is nice to have some level of sympathy in America, for example, when the average American reader reads that people are being killed in Togo or beheaded or people are tortured. However, when we activists share our stories with the media we want those stories to help us in our struggle, not to further weaken us or make us feel our vulnerabilities to the system.https://embed.ted.com/talks/lang/en/farida_nabourema_is_your_country_at_risk_of_becoming_a_dictatorship_here_s_how_to_know
So the international media have their audiences both at the local level and the country level. We also have our audiences. We want to show people that we are making the news and that the efforts we are leading are getting attention in the West. But we don’t want that attention to be only focused on the people who are being killed or how people are being hurt. That coverage is only going to scare our people even more. Rather, we want media to showcase the courage that people are demonstrating, the resilience and commitment they are showing and the sacrifices they are making. When people making those sacrifices and rising against the system get international attention, it can inspire others. It means somebody’s paying attention, the world is following and it is listening. We don’t want it to just be the world feeling sorry for us, but to encourage us and to make us feel like we have some level of protection outside of the country.
I was trying to bring this to the attention of the international media so they become more aware that the stories we want to be published are the ones that show our power as people fighting against authoritarian regimes, rather than stories that highlight the power of those who are fighting us to maintain authoritarianism.
One of the prominent examples of activism that gained international attention was the sex strike in 2012 when Togolese women went on strike to raise attention to try to get men to support the cause. What were the ramifications of that and how did the international attention impact national dynamics?
That sex strike was a very emotional moment for Togo, especially for us Togolese female activists. It took us years to raise awareness about the political crisis and the human rights abuses in our country. We led a lot of efforts to that extent. Finally, in 2012 we had a breakthrough when hundreds of media outlets all over the world were talking about Togo– in Australia, in Ecuador, in the U.S.–all over the world. It was exciting to see Togo in the headlines, but unfortunately, it was headline news for something that people found funny and interesting, which was the sex strike.
For me it was personally emotional. In my country, sex is a very taboo topic. It is the kind of word that you rarely ever hear even your parents mention. It took women putting themselves out there as sexual objects for the world to say, ‘hey women in this country are doing a sex strike let’s see what’s happening there.’ On the other hand, the strike also demonstrated the strength and level of engagement and commitment of Togolese women, who have been at the forefront of this struggle for many decades. At the time, the call for that sex strike was, yes, to raise awareness and to create some shock. But the goal was also to compel the men who were sitting idle and weren’t participating in the movements that the opposition were calling for– to ask for term limits and the end of dictatorship in Togo.
The strike demonstrated that women do play a role, but the unfortunate part is I don’t think that men will need to call for a sex strike before the world notices that something is happening in their country. Togolese women had to take this measure because they felt like it was the only way the world would pay attention to them, and it did work.
How has the history of colonialism impacted the contemporary struggles for democratic freedom in Togo?
Everything in Togo today is tied to our colonial past. Togo was originally a German colony and when Germany lost WWI in 1919, Togo was given to the British and French. The British side of Togo was called British Togoland and the French side is what you know as Togo today. British Togoland later joined Cape Coast to form what you call today Ghana. After our independence, we were the very first francophone country, French colony, to call for a referendum for independence. And that was on April 27, 1958, which we won by over 97% and that led to our independence two years later on April 27, 1960.
Our first President, Sylvanus Olympio, was not really liked by the French for many reasons of course. French didn’t want to let go of these colonies. As a result, he was assassinated less than three years later, and then the former, the coup was the very first coup in Africa in 1963 but then it was carried by former soldiers of the French colonial army. These soldiers did a second coup and that’s how they seized power and Eyadéma became President. He ruled the country for 38 years, then his son took over in the coup again, which was again endorsed by the President of France, Jacques Chirac, and his son Faure Gnassingbé has been leading Togo since 2005, and the family has been there for 52 years.
The military regime in Togo has always been supported by the French administration. In fact, in the early 1990s there was a rebellious movement against the regime, where some young people ruled and decided to bring down the government, but unfortunately they were severely repressed and killed.
And the French military took part in the operation to continue that rebellion. The French have always supported the regime in place and unfortunately that support continues today. Of course there are gains for French governments as they have the full control of natural minerals and also many of the key businesses in that country. The French government doesn’t openly say that it is friends with the regime, but when [Togolese President] Eyadéma died, [French] President Chirac said “I lost a personal friend and France has lost a great friend.” The new President of France, Emmanuel Macron, hasn’t openly endorsed the President of Togo, but the silence that we have seen from the French administration towards the repressions, the ongoing repressions in Togo and the attack on civil rights is very loud. It’s a loud silence, which in some ways gives the impression that they are continuing to endorse the regime, even though they’re not doing it openly.
Many people around the globe are worried about authoritarian creep– the fear that in some democratic states rights are being rolled back and people are falling into dictatorship. As someone who has experienced authoritarianism, what are some things you think people should be looking out for? What should they anticipate and what should they be doing right now?
What you said is right. More and more countries are flowing back into authoritarianism and sometimes it is a progressive process, but it’s only aggravated by a leader that is very much interested in keeping power and having absolute control of the country. People you think tend to have the impression that once they live in a democracy and they get to vote for their leader and choose their own leader, then they’re fine and they’re safe, but democracy goes beyond elections. It goes beyond choosing one leader because you have seen some terrorists who came to power through a democratic process but then later on became dictators, and it was hard for people to remove them. I call on people to look for certain signs and to never relinquish and to always continue to build upon the democratic gains that they have and open the civic space.
Number one, they should always avoid to have power, because they treat it in the hand of the few or an individual when only a few people in the nation have the power to make decisions for everyone, and there is no possibility of holding them accountable. That is a very dangerous sign. Number two, you have to look past the balance of power and the strength of their institutions. Sometimes institutions remove credible people who were chosen through the democratic process from their posts. They replace those people with cronies who can be manipulated or blackmailed easily and who execute their orders.
As a result, you have the impression that you have institutions in place. You think you have a supreme court, or you have judges that have transparency, or you think you have members of parliament that you can count on, but at the end of the day they are just working for the agenda of one man. Then you have to look at the military. In some countries the military does not interfere at all in politics, but in certain countries when there is a protest, you see a heavy military apparel being displayed just to intimidate people to start with. Or sometimes the military gets involved in the repression of protest all in the name of national security and protecting the country against what they call terrorism or national terrorism.
What would you like future activists to learn from your example?
There is never a dull moment as an activist. There is never a time where you think, “I’m an expert, and I know it all.” In Togo we are still in the struggle. We haven’t won yet, though we have made far more progress in the past few years than we have in decades. Most of the things that I learned through this struggle were self-taught. I have always said that the majority of challenges do not even come from the enemy, but from your entourage, your own people, your friends, your allies, your comrades who are scared for you. Some are worried for themselves, some don’t even believe it is possible.
It wasn’t until 2017 when we finally had the very first major uprising in Togo where hundreds of thousands of people were in the streets. People started seeing me as a leader and started looking up to me and were coming to me for leadership and advice because for a long time when I was preaching uprisings and revolution, they thought I was just a crazy woman and this can never happen in Togo. Then they were like, how did it happen? Who made this possible? And they started believing it because now they are seeing the results. And some of my biggest critics, who went openly and said I was just mad to think that I can remove this government, and they said Faure would never go, became supporters and joined the struggle.
My advice to people is to understand that the very first step for you as an activist is to protect yourself from people trying to make you believe that your struggle is not going to work. Because it always starts from one person. As long as you believe in it, you will be able to build that movement that is needed to implement the change.
Farida Nabourema has been a fearless advocate for democracy and human rights in Togo since she was a teenager. Through more than 400 articles on her blog and other sites, she denounces corruption and dictatorship and promotes a form of progressive pan-Africanism. In 2014, she published La Pression de l’Oppression (The Pressure of Oppression), in which she discussed the different forms of oppression that people face throughout Africa and highlighted the need for oppressed people to fight back.
Nabourema is also the engagement and collaboration coordinator of Africans Rising, a pan-African movement that fights for justice, peace and dignity through grassroots organizing, civic education and advocacy. She cofounded and is the executive director of the Togolese Civil League, an NGO that promotes democracy through civil resistance. In 2001, at age 20, Nabourema founded the “Faure Must Go” movement, where she supported and organized with Togolese youths to stand against the dictatorial regime of Faure Gnassingbé. “Faure Must Go” has become the slogan for the civil resistance movement in Togo, of which Nabourema is one of the most well-known leaders.
Nabourema was awarded the “Young Advocate of the Year” and the “Female African Youth of the Year” in 2018 by Africa Youth Award for her contribution to raising awareness on the oldest military regime in Africa.
Follow her on Twitter @Farida_N