Sunday Herald - 24 April 2005

Togo election set to unleash new terror in Africa

Gnassingbé Eyadema, Africa's longest reigning military dictator until he dropped dead from a heart attack two months ago, made a big error in the mid-1990s when the foreign ministers of France and Germany visited Togo to discuss whether European Union sanctions on the west African country might be eased.

A crowd gathered in Lomé, Togo's capital, to greet the foreign ministers. The people, overwhelmingly southerners, got a little over-enthusiastic and soldiers, most of them drawn from Eyadema's northern Kabiye tribe, demonstrated to the Europeans the routine Togolese method of crowd control by opening fire and killing several people. Sanctions were not relaxed.

Today, Togo again makes one of its uncommon appearances in world headlines, holding a presidential election that the developed world is watching with special intensity - alongside other African hotspots, such as Zimbabwe, Kenya, Sudan and Ivory Coast - ahead of the G8 summit of industrialised superpowers in Scotland in early July.

The G8 leaders will be making the most serious review of Western policy on Africa in a generation. They will be looking for some greater commitment by African countries to democratisation and more transparent governance in exchange for a huge increase in aid, the dismantling of tariff barriers and granting of debt relief to help alleviate Africa's deepening poverty and spreading disease, especially of Aids, TB and malaria.

Togo, as a G8 litmus test, may not prove heartening. All the signs are that if the opposition presidential contender wins then the army will intervene and impose its candidate, the late dictator's son Faure Gnassingbé, as the new effective military dictator. And if Faure Gnassingbé is declared the winner, the opposition has vowed mayhem, while analysts predict civil war.

So serious is the situation that on Friday the man organising the poll and responsible for internal security, interior minister François Boko, called for the election to be cancelled.

"We have reliable information that there is a very real risk of a slide into bloodshed as a result of this poll whose outcome is uncertain," says the former army officer.

"It is essential that the president of the republic takes into account the very real risks which are visible on the horizon by ending this suicidal electoral process."

Boko was immediately sacked by interim president Abass Bonfoh, who said that today's election will proceed despite lack of proper preparation, widespread evidence of advance fraud and predictions of bloodshed. Already, during the election campaign, at least 12 people have been killed and many others maimed in clashes between supporters of Faure Gnassingbé and those of the main opposition candidate, Emmanuel Bob Akitani.

Akitani's supporters are wearing yellow bandanas, T-shirts and wristbands in imitation of the Ukrainians who successfully launched their country's peaceful "orange revolution" last year. The Togolese who seek to emulate the Ukrainians may not be so peace-loving. The yellow wristbands are above hands that more often than not bear machetes, with their owners vowing conflict, not passive resistance, if events do not swing their way.

Togo's birth was ridiculous and cruel. For a long time it formed part of the so-called Slave Coast, from where European slavers shipped captured black Africans to the Americas.

Togoland, as it was then known, was seized from the Germans by Britain and France at the start of the first world war. It was divided between London and Paris under League of Nations mandates.

The British-ruled western part was later incorporated into what is now Ghana. France granted independence in 1960, and Togo's first president, Sylvanus Olympio, was assassinated in a military coup three years later led by Gnassingbé Eyadema.

Eyadema had served in the French army, and when he seized absolute power in 1967 and dissolved all political parties Paris regarded him as the French equivalent of a 'good chap', much as the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office regarded fellow colonial army sergeant Idi Amin when he grabbed power in Uganda not long afterwards.

Gnassingbé Eyadema led his tiny, impoverished sliver of a country - just over two-thirds the size of Scotland - for 38 years, making him the world's longest-serving ruler after Cuba's Fidel Castro.

Eyadema ruled with a rod of iron through the military, which he kept loyal through a system of patronage. Torture and extrajudicial killings were commonplace, and an est imated one million Togolese have left the country since he came to power in 1967.

Eyadema, under international pressure, permitted multi-party elections in the mid-1990s, but the man who conducted the count was his personal head of security. In 1998 the vote count in the latest presidential election was abruptly stopped and Eyadema was declared the winner after the army had killed several hundred civilian protesters.

Human rights organisations estimated that Eyadema kept a personal fortune approaching $3billion in foreign banks while building himself a $6million French-style chateau in his northern home village. Much of his fortune came from his take of Nigeria's heroin, cocaine and money-laundering trade through Lomé and the ferrying of arms to Africa's rebel movements, including the late Jonas Savimbi's UNITA in Angola.

When Eyadema died unexpectedly on February 5, Togo's army high command quickly swore in 39-year-old Faure Gnassingbé as the new state president. This amounted to a military coup, contravening the country's constitution under which the speaker of parliament should have become interim president with the obligation to call elections within 60 days.

But under intense pressure from Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, French president Jacques Chirac and United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, the military was forced to concede that today's potentially explosive election should be held.

Copyright © 2005 smg sunday newspapers ltd. no.176088
Back to previous page