The Milton S. Eisenhower (MSE) Symposium hosted democratic activist Farida Nabourema on Wednesday to discuss her work creating systemic political change in Togo. The event, part of MSE’s “Butterfly Effect” series, was co-sponsored by the Foreign Affairs Symposium and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute.
Togo, a relatively small West African country, has been controlled by an authoritarian regime for over 50 years. Shortly after Togo voted to become independent from France, Gnassingbé Eyadéma orchestrated a coup against Togo’s first president and seized power, ruling from 1967 to 2005.
Nabourema emphasized the importance of democracy, stressing that autocratic regimes such as the one that exists in Togo limit free speech without any form of due process.
“You wouldn’t get to appreciate democracy unless you live in that kind of country. I grew up in a country where you couldn’t officially say the president’s name outside of their home out of fear of being arrested,” Nabourema said.
She described several acts that citizens would have to perform for the president on a regular basis, including lining up to clap for his motorcade four times a day and how public servants would often have to dance and sing to appease him.
Nabourema underscored the cruelty of authoritarian rule, with the constant threat of being arrested, kidnapped or killed if one were to speak out against the regime. She specifically tied these experiences to those of her father.
When Nabourema was 13, her father was arrested for reasons that she could not fathom at the time. Nabourema described what their family had to endure as a result.
“Soldiers would come to our house and destroy everything, and would torture him in front of us and handcuff him in front of us and the whole community would be so shocked and appalled,” she said.
Nabourema stated that the anger she felt from her father’s mistreatment is what inspired her to become an activist. She began to attend rallies and protests around this time in her life, she said, and as a result saw more tragic events unfold before her.
When Gnassingbé Eyadéma died in 2005 and his son seized control, a number of anti-regime protestors were killed and many more were forced to flee. After witnessing these atrocities, Nabourema questioned how the government could evade responsibility and international repercussions for their actions.
“[My father] said, ‘Well, I don’t think anybody will come and save this country. We have to stay for ourselves and we have to do the work ourselves,’” she said. “It was at that moment that I pledged, no matter what it takes, no matter what the price is that I have to pay and what I have to endure, that I will put my life on the line to end the regime.”
Nabourema left Togo to study in the U.S. and began to take significant action to oppose the regime from abroad.
She began a petition demanding the president’s resignation which received over 3,000 signatures. She also began to practice civil disobedience by posting government officials’ personal data online so that citizens could call them to demand accountability and ask for term limits.
Despite the threats to her life, Nabourema eventually returned to Togo in order to better organize the people and document their suffering. She inspired thousands of Togolese people to protest three days a week for weeks, regardless of age, ethnic group or gender.
Nabourema also credits the power of messaging tools like WhatsApp, whose voice-to-text features facilitate communication for those with low literacy skills, for her success in mobilizing sections of the Togolese public.
Nabourema noted, however, that there were significant costs to her activism.
“In Togo, there was one word people were afraid of, and it’s a title, and it’s a title of what we call opposant. Opposant is an opponent. When you are tagged as an opponent of the regime, you become eliminated by your community,” she said. “And this has happened to many activists I know, including my father. People were afraid of him, people were afraid of us, they saw us as aliens.”
She added that some of her siblings and a majority of her friends distanced themselves from her because of her activist status. They viewed her actions as selfish, she said, and feared both her and their own safety.
According to Nabourema, the Togolese government made numerous attempts to smear her as she continued her activist efforts, claiming that she was a porn star and that she was involved with drug dealers.
Eventually, she fled to the neighboring country of Ghana. She would spend the next year in 13 countries, continuing to fight for the rights of Togolese people abroad.
“I’ve always said... that we’re actually fighting for the right to have rights. We do not even have those rights yet. And in some countries, you do have those rights, you just have to fight to maintain them,” she said. “My advice to people who have that luxury of having the right to speak up is... don’t waste that opportunity.”
In an email to The News-Letter, Ryan Ebrahimy, the director of programming for the Foreign Affairs Symposium (FAS), said that he valued Nabourema’s ability to provide a spotlight on an issue neglected internationally.
He explained that he hoped she was able to help Hopkins students place their own fights into a wider, more informed activist context.
“I think providing a platform for Farida to speak on the brave work being done by Togolese activists in their fight for democracy is... essential, as it helps shed light on an often ignored issue that many Hopkins students might have little familiarity [with]. Hopefully through bringing Farida on campus we are able to broaden students’ understanding of the many different conflicts and battles that are raging in the world around us,” Ebrahimy wrote.
Husain Hakim, a member of MSE’s programming team, explained in an email to The News-Letter that he appreciated the opportunity to hear Nabourema’s experiences.
“I was totally unaware of the struggles of the Togolese people under the Gnassingbé dictatorship,” he wrote. “She was incredibly well spoken and knowledgeable about so many aspects of Africa’s colonial history.”
Taran Krishnan, a co-chair of MSE, added that bringing Farida on campus allowed her to spread an important message that should resonate with any student, faculty, or community member.
He said that Nabourema’s talk aligned especially well with MSE’s theme this year of the butterfly effect.
“Throughout her life, she has fought for democracy, in an authoritarian system, and that’s something that many countries around the world are facing today. She represents the butterfly effect in a great way, in her single fight to depose this dictator in Togo. That message should resonate with students and the larger community and that’s where the value comes from,” Krishnan said.
Correction: The original version of this article referred to Ryan Ebrahimy as the director of programming for MSE. He is the director of programming of FAS.
The News-Letter regrets this error.