Where's Tikpi? Togo's disappearing opposition strongman
When campaigning began in Togo this week for parliamentary elections, Tikpi Atchadam, the northern strongman who led the popular uprising that shook the country last year, was nowhere to be seen. But he was in their hearts -- and on their WhatsApp.
"Tikpi is not with us today but the fight continues," said Ouro Longa, a representative of his Pan-African National Party (PNP), at its headquarters in Lome.
Tikpi Salifou Atchadam, 51, emerged as a key political figure in Togo in August 2017 around the time of the first anti-government protests against President Faure Gnassingbe.
His verve and charisma helped to galvanise northern Togo, in particular the Tem community and Muslims, which had previously given tacit support to the regime.
With the success of the first protests, "Tikpi" as his supporters call him affectionately, forged an alliance with 13 other political parties, including the National Alliance for Change (ANC) of leading opposition figure Jean-Pierre Fabre.
Since then, the coalition has repeatedly called for the re-introduction of a two-term limit for presidents and the departure of "Faure", who has been in power since the death of his father, Gnassingbe Eyadema, in 2005.
More recently, these parties have decided to boycott parliamentary elections slated for December 20 because of what they say are irregularities in their organisation.
At the first anti-government protests last year Atchadam was a very visible presence and spoke freely to the media. But since October 2017 he has completely disappeared from the public eye.
He has rarely commented on politics or the opposition strategy.
"He's hiding. He's afraid for his own safety," said one of his close friends.
Atchadam is thought to be in exile in neighbouring Ghana from where he sends voice messages to his supporters across Togo via WhatsApp.
"Jean-Pierre Fabre's life has been threatened on a number of occasions but to some extent his status as the leader of the opposition protects him," a PNP source told AFP.
"Atchadam is seen as the bete noire of the government and won't let up for a minute. He's not on the ground but he's in our hearts."
Other members of the PNP say the same.
"Political opponents have been assassinated in this country. His safety is more important because Tikpi is our idol," said Nouroudine Idrissou.
Idrissou was wearing a red t-shirt emblazoned with a white horse, the PNP symbol. Under the horse it said: "I love the PNP."
"Tikpi is not physically present but spiritually and morally he's right here," he added.
At major rallies in September 2017, which left at least a dozen people dead and more injured, Atchadam's house was under surveillance -- and often surrounded -- by security forces.
Those close to him say he was threatened but was never beaten up or prosecuted -- unlike his ally and rival Fabre.
Today, the opposition still officially maintains it is united but Atchadam has hit out at Fabre, accusing him of organising "small-scale demos" and "suffocating" the movement.
In his last WhatsApp message sent on November 11, Atchadam insisted "a huge march is possible and it alone could be enough to liberate Togo" from the Gnassingbe presidency.
After months of crisis and aborted talks with the government, some of his allies fear the return of Atchadam, assessing that his absence is a "political strategy" to portray him as a saviour.
"We need the PNP to win the north as much as the PNP needs the rest of the opposition and its political base," said one member of the coalition.
Parliamentary elections scheduled to take place in Togo on December 20 could have been the ideal time to test the strength of the coalition but it has said it will not take part.
The fledgling PNP could have tested its popularity in the polls, to win its first members of parliament and position itself as a credible opposition force against the ANC.
But the orders are clear. "We aren't fighting this battle to become members of parliament," said coalition spokesman Eric Dupuy. "We're fighting for change."