Faure Gnassingbe was seen as a malleable 38-year-old when the military installed him as president of Togo after the death of his strongman father in 2005.
Now the leader once dubbed “the youth” has claimed a fourth term in power after elections on Saturday, extending his family’s grip over the small West African nation towards a sixth decade.
The taciturn business studies graduate, 53, forced through constitutional changes last year that allowed him to stand again.
They could potentially see him remain in office until 2030.
Gnassingbe was just months old when his father, Gnassingbe Eyadema, seized power in a military coup in 1967.
The colonel-turned-president stamped his total authority over the country through repression and a cult of personality that enabled him to hold on to power for 38 years.
When Eyadema died suddenly in 2005, the military men around him moved with lightning speed to install Faure — one of dozens of children he reportedly fathered — in the presidential palace.
The manoeuvre catapulting the son into the top job was condemned as a coup and led to a wave of domestic and international anger.
Gnassingbe stepped down but was then promptly voted back into office with the support of the ruling party.
That election was hotly disputed, leading to violent protests in which up to 800 people are believed to have been killed.
After the initial victory, Gnassingbe sought to improve Togo’s tarnished image abroad and distance himself from his father’s iron-fisted methods.
He smoothed ties with foreign donors as he sought to portray Togo as a dependable partner in an often volatile region.
– ‘Doesn’t trust anyone’ –
But Gnassingbe has still showed streaks of the old man’s ruthlessness.
“He is very suspicious, he speaks little,” one of his close associates told AFP.
“I sometimes get the impression that he doesn’t trust anyone.”
In 2009, he had his half brother and former defence minister, Kpatcha Gnassingbe, arrested over an alleged coup plot. The presidential sibling was sentenced to 20 years in jail and remains behind bars.
That familiar steel has also seen the president weather a major outburst of opposition in 2017 and 2018 as huge crowds took to the streets for almost weekly protests against his rule.
The authorities used live bullets, tear gas and internet blackouts to crack down on demonstrators calling for term limits to be imposed retroactively.
The harsh treatment and squabbles between the opposition saw the rallies eventually peter out.
Togo’s parliament agreed constitutional changes in May 2019 that paved the way for Gnassingbe to remain in office for another decade.
In recent years he has pushed a flagship programme to bring electricity to rural areas and made securing his country against the jihadist threat from the Sahel a key priority.
But, after 53 years of dynastic rule, Togo still has a poverty rate of around 50 percent and is ranked 167th of 189 countries on the UN’s human development index.
As he campaigned for his fourth term at the elections in February 2020, one-time political neophyte Gnassingbe appeared to have well and truly come of age.
Looking at ease in an open-collar shirt and blazer, he shook hands with crowds of supporters across the country.
Provisional results from the electoral commission on Monday gave Gnassingbe 72 percent of the vote in a poll marred by allegations of widespread fraud by the opposition.
Gnassingbe coolly shrugged off the claims of victory from his main rival Agbeyome Kodjo.
“Those who wanted to get agitated got agitated, they announced imaginary figures, they proclaimed themselves winners,” he told supporters.
“We remained calm.” AFP