Togo deals blow to Israel’s Africa quest

Hundreds of thousands of Togolese massed in protest in their country a week after African diplomats gathered at the Sheraton in Pretoria to discuss unity.

Since last Wednesday the streets of Lomé have been pounding with anger, which radiates out of the opposition’s eastern stronghold of Bé. As many as 100 000 have showed the limits to their civic patience over the past week on the palm-lined boulevards of the capital.

Meanwhile, a fortnight ago at the Sheraton hotel some 4 500km away, diplomats from around the continent debated a key event to which Togo’s president, Faure Gnassingbé, had agreed with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu: the Africa-Israel Summit, planned to be held in Lomé in six weeks’ time.

At the Pretoria forum, organised by the Johannesburg-based Afro-Middle East Centre, activists, academics and country representatives weighed solidarity with Palestine against the Israeli occupation with Israel’s bid to enter the new scramble for Africa.

The delegates thrashed out an African position regarding Lomé’s cosiness with Jerusalem, epitomised by the planned summit.

Gnassingbé finds himself in the eye of a long-gathering, powerful storm. In power for 12 years, he’s the beneficiary of a 50-year family rule following his father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who was president for nearly 40 years.

Against the backdrop of the people’s cries to end the current president’s increasingly repressive control, Lomé this week conceded that it could consider a presidential limit with a constitutional amendment. But that doesn’t seem enough to quell the growing coalition wearing the red, orange and pink of a Free Togo movement. At the very least, it wants a two-term ceiling and a change to a two-round voting system.

Then, as its Parliament met amid these crises this week, Israel simultaneously announced that the Africa-Israel summit in October had been postponed. And it was that news that drew headlines around the world, more so than the days of protests against Gnassingbé’s rule.

From The Washington Post to The Argus, spanning Twitter and all social media, the dominant response was that Lomé had buckled under pressure from Arab countries, some African countries and other parts of the world to cancel the event.

Contributors to the Pretoria gathering, who had applauded South Africa’s decision to shun the summit because of the Israeli occupation, welcomed the announcement. And out of Gaza, Hamas political bureau member Izzat al-Risheq called it “a victory for humanitarian values and its defenders”. Tel Aviv-based newspaper Haaretz dubbed the cancellation a blow to Netanyahu.

Just three months ago, the Likud leader was saying Israel had “returned to Africa” as he travelled to Liberia for the Economic Community of West African States summit. That was part of a strategic Africa charm offensive, which included Netanyahu visiting Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia last year.

Through myriad Israeli technology, energy, security and water-related companies and public-private partnerships, Israel has been trying to win itself greater favour on the African continent. It was, therefore, careful to suggest this week that it was Togo’s internal political crisis that led to the decision by Gnassingbé, made in consultation with Netanyahu. This consultation happened despite the summit being due to parade the products of Israeli private, not government, enterprise under the slogan: “Building bridges towards greater shared prosperity”.

Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon said it was decided “to put off the … summit to a future, agreed-upon date”, and that “the president [Gnassingbé] stressed that the success of this important event requires significant and complicated preparations”.

But the stakes are high. Israel’s hard sell into Africa is, in part, to try to gain an observer seat at the African Union, which it believes might allow it an easier time on its policies against Palestine at the United Nations.

But the postponement of the Africa-Israel Summit was announced just as the Palestinian Authority prepares to submit 16 resolutions for vote during the UN General Assembly session on September 20, including on the illegal Gaza blockade and the Israeli settlements.

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