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The end of the line

When Togo’s president, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, died on 5 February, the story of Togo’s future began like an old African folktale with a predictable ending. Africa’s longest-serving leader may have passed away, but he followed the old African way, leaving his people impoverished and his son to rule over them.

Death came suddenly for the man who ruled over this small West African state of 5.5 million people, if indeed anything can be called sudden in a country where one man ruled for 38 years and long-promised democratic reforms had always moved with glacial slowness.

Until President Eyadéma’s death from a heart attack—reportedly on board a plane which was about to take him abroad for emergency medical treatment—only Fidel Castro, who has ruled since 1959, has been in power for a longer period. Even in Africa, he was the elder statesman of an elite but disappearing clique of rulers-for-life; President Omar Bongo of Gabon came to power in 1967, a few months after Eyadéma, while Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi has been head of state for a mere 36 years.

Eyadéma was among the last of Africa’s ‘Big Men’, those rulers who seized power by military means and then remained there for life even as the world around them embraced democracy. Such leaders of African countries were, for many years after independence in the 1960s, the rule rather than the exception.

The death of President Eyadéma was, therefore, a crucial test of African democracy, but a test that few expected Togo to pass.

The man who would become the ‘father of the nation’ was born in 1935 to a peasant family in northern Togo. Even before he became president, Eyadéma was a man accustomed to distinction—he was a wrestling champion; he rose rapidly through the ranks of the French army for whom he served in Indochina and Algeria; and, in 1963, was the driving force behind independent Africa’s first military coup in which Togo’s democratically elected president, Sylvanus Olympio, was killed.

Not content with a secondary role he took the top job for himself in 1967. Thereafter he secured his position by stacking the military and senior bureaucratic positions with members of his own Kabye tribe. Eyadéma also had powerful friends who included every French president from Charles de Gaulle to Jacques Chirac. At home, he kept dissent in check by, according to Amnesty International, imprisoning, torturing and even killing his political opponents. All the while he cultivated a cult of personality with the president’s portrait adorning the walls of almost every building in Togo.

It took him 26 years to hold the first election which he won so convincingly that the European Union imposed sanctions. At the end of his second ‘democratic’ term as president in 2003, he announced that he would ‘sacrifice’ himself and run again for president. The constitution was amended and the previous two-term limit removed. Leading up to the 2003 elections, Gilchrist Olympio, the son of Togo’s first democratically elected leader whom Eyadéma had deposed, showed signs of causing an upset. Just to make sure, the electoral commission disqualified Olympio’s candidacy on the grounds that his tax affairs were not in order because he lived abroad; Olympio had lived in exile in France since an assassination attempt in 1999.

Not to be outdone, Togo’s leader-for-life himself survived at least seven assassination attempts, all of which merely added to his legend. 

When President Eyadéma finally died, the Speaker of Parliament, according to the Togolese constitution, should have taken over the presidency for a period of 60 days. Thereafter, elections should be held.

As if they were unable to envisage life without the man known universally as ‘the Boss’—he had, after all, ruled Togo for all but seven of the country’s 45 years since independence—the Togolese parliament hastened to change the script.

The Speaker of Parliament, Fanbare Ouattara Natchaba, was briefly outside the country when the president died. In his absence, parliament took its lead from Togo’s army and sacked Natchaba, installed Eyadéma’s son, Faure, in his place and amended the constitution to allow Eyadéma the younger to serve the remainder of his father’s term which was to run until 2008.

That was the way things had always been done in Africa, and Togo, if nothing else, stood for the preservation of the old ways.

But Africa has changed. Upon Eyadéma’s death, Gilchrist Olympio warned world leaders that ‘the situation of Togo is more than just Togo. It is a test for all of Africa. If the leaders do not stand firm, that will mean that they will have no more credibility to speak about freedom and democracy in Africa. They must stand on principle or become irrelevant.’

Almost immediately, while the president’s supporters were congratulating themselves on the efficiency of the seamless transition they had engineered, African governments rushed to condemn the installation of the president’s son as leader.

Adam Thiam, spokesman for Alpha Oumar Konaré, chairman of the 53-member African Union (AU) warned that ‘this administration will not be recognised because it comes from a coup d’état’.

Just as quickly, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)—a regional political grouping which President Eyadéma had helped to create—similarly denounced the succession as a coup and demanded the restoration of the previous constitution. One of the most influential ECOWAS members, Nigeria, demanded that the new president stand down and threatened military action if he did not. 

It was a far cry from the not-so-distant past when African unity meant preserving the status quo, when military coups d’état were ignored in the name of African solidarity that dared not meddle in the affairs of your neighbours lest uncomfortable light be shed on the illegitimacy of your own rule.

The new political maturity which has come to characterise Africa was exemplified by Togo’s near-neighbours Ghana and Niger who both held their second successive and peaceful democratic elections last year. Just prior to President Eyadéma’s death, leadership of ECOWAS passed from Ghana to Niger, and together they led the campaign against the Togolese coup.

Perhaps Togo’s new leaders hoped that the criticism would prove ineffective and abate, as indeed it has amid the mess that has become the Ivory Coast. They decided that, in time-honoured Eyadéma fashion, they could weather the storm.

Togolese protesters took to the streets, demanding democracy and the right to elect their own leader. Togolese soldiers opened fire into the crowd of demonstrators, killing at least three people.

The new president expressed anger at ‘attempts by protesters to call for violence, insurrection and acts of civil disobedience’ and praised his security forces in glowing terms:

We particularly thank the Togolese armed forces and the security forces and congratulate them for their courage and faithfulness and for the calm, order and discipline they maintain across the country … We call on them to preserve their unity and cohesion, indispensable for their sacred mission to protect our hard-working population and national integrity.

He also made vacuous speeches, mouthing platitudes about peace and security, promising ‘discussions towards a consensual electoral framework which will result in the holding of free and fair general elections as soon as possible to reflect the will of the people, as indicated by the father of the nation’. He announced the closure of three radio channels and one television station for supposed opposition sympathies and he banned all political rallies during a two-month period of national mourning. And he promised to serve the remainder of his father’s term.

The AU and ECOWAS maintained their pressure and West Africa’s newly free press joined the clamour for democracy in Togo. Ghana’s National Democrat described events in Togo as ‘simply pathetic’ and said that ‘what happened in Togo is a disgrace and shameful’ which ‘would greatly set back the course of democratisation in Africa’.

Nigeria’s Daily Champion was similarly unequivocal, claiming that the new regime, like the old, stood ‘at the forefront of advancement of anti-democratic tendencies in the African continent’. Another Nigerian daily, Vanguard, called the Togolese charade of democracy a ‘democratic aberration’ and described it as ‘criminal and ungodly for the Eyadéma family and their ethnic group to feel they could foist an Eyadéma presidential dynasty on Togo’.

Burkina Faso’s Sidwaya denounced ‘this deadly and destructive foolishness’ while its compatriot Le Pays asked: ‘How can we let the undemocratic rule that characterised the 1960s resurface?’

When none of this worked, ECOWAS resorted to sanctions. Togo was suspended from ECOWAS, ambassadors were recalled from the Togolese capital Lomé, Togo’s leaders were banned from travelling abroad and an arms embargo was imposed on the country.

Initially, the Togolese government remained defiant, with Foreign Minister, Kokou Tozoun, claiming that ‘we prefer to have sanctions and be in peace and stability rather than descending towards civil war’.

However, surrounded on all sides by democratic governments and howled down by the region’s plain-speaking press, the isolated regime soon took the only path left open to it.

Parliament was recalled and duly voted to reverse the constitutional amendments enacted upon the old president’s death. The deputy speaker told the special parliamentary session that only a fool never changed his mind. On 20 February, just 15 days after his father’s death, Faure Gnassingbé announced that he would resign ahead of elections this month. Although he intends to stand as a candidate, his future now depends on the people of Togo. The parliamentary speaker Abass Bonfoh has assumed the presidency pending the election.

The old president, the father of the nation who held Togo in the palm of his hand for almost four decades, once declared that ‘democracy in Africa moves on at its own pace and in its own way’.

Indeed it does. 

Anthony Ham is a freelance writer living in Madrid.



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