“Is the Virus a Thief?” Togolese Women and State Violence in a time of COVID-19

*By Marius Kothor

Ph.D. Student, Yale University

Togo's Eliane Amegah (2nd L) holds a Togolese national flag on September 20, 2012 in Lome as she joins several thousand women dressed in red to march in the capital in the latest string of protests by a group demanding sweeping political reform. Men and youths joined the march organised by the women's wing of Let's Save Togo, an opposition and civil society coalition that has called on Togo's President Faure Gnassingbe to resign. AFP PHOTO / Daniel Hayduk (Photo credit should read Daniel Hayduk/AFP/GettyImages
Image credit: Daniel Hayduk/AFP/GettyImages

On April 2nd, 2020, the government of Togo declared a state of emergency and instituted a curfew to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the small West African nation. A few days later, a woman known as Mama Taméa challenged the legitimacy of the curfew in a video that was widely circulated on various social media platforms. In the Gen language, Taméa asks “why are we being told to stay inside at night, is the virus a thief ? Taméa’s question humorously highlights the contradiction in the government’s efforts to restrict movement in the evenings while the virus is allowed to spread freely during the day. Beyond the comedic effect of Mama Taméa’s question, however, lies a deep suspicion of the true intentions behind the curfew.

Curfews are nothing new in Togo. Throughout the 52 years of military dictatorship in the country, curfews have been used by the government to suppress political organizing and enable military and police forces to commit atrocities. Thus, perhaps, the thieves that Mama Taméa is implicitly calling-out are not the ones who emerge at night to take people’s material possessions, but, rather the ones who have historically used the cover of darkness to rob people of their civil liberties and, often, their lives.

Since the declaration of the state of the emergency last month, women have been documenting the abuses they have suffered at the hands of government forces. 10 days after the curfew was implemented, a 65-year-old woman was severely beaten by soldiers on her way to use an outhouse at night. In a video published on a Togolese news website, the woman displays her wounds and answers questions about the attack. In doing so, sh