Washington, September 7, 2001: Nightly newscasts
mostly chronicle how President Gnassingbe Eyadema, Africa's longest-serving
president, spent his day. Billboards with Eyadema's face adorn the
country, lapel pins with his likeness are worn by senior government
officials, and troupes of dancing women are brought out to welcome
him when he visits the countryside. When he returns from his frequent
trips abroad, the entire cabinet and other senior officials greet
him to show their loyalty and affection.
So it was hardly surprising when, after months of speculation,
Prime Minister Agbeyome Kodjo announced last week that he would
seek a constitutional change to allow Eyadema, once a favorite of
the United States and France, to seek yet another five-year term
in elections set for 2003. The country, Kodjo said, preferred the
"wisdom and experience of President Eyadema to the paths of
While much of West Africa has moved toward multiparty democracy
and left behind the era of the Big Men who dominated post-independence
politics for decades, Togo steadfastly remains a one-man show and
is likely to continue as such, according to diplomats and political
analysts. With a firm grip on the army -- in which 90 percent of
the officer corps and 70 percent of soldiers are from Eyadema's
minority Kabye ethnic group -- and control of 79 of the 81 seats
in the legislature, the president would have little difficulty changing
the constitution. There is little room for dissent in Togo, and
Eyadema has used his "entrenched position to repress genuine
opposition," according to a U.S. State Department report earlier
Eyadema has not formally endorsed the prime minister's move. Instead,
he issued a statement saying he would "scrupulously respect"
the constitution, and did not voice any objection to amending it.
Eyadema "says things to the outside world to make them believe
Togo is becoming a democracy, but it is not even a one-party state,
it is a one-man state or a one-family state," said an opposition
party analyst who asked not to be identified. "Everyone knows
he wants to stay in power until he dies, and he will try. And with
his support in the army, it is difficult to see how we can have
rapid, peaceful change."
Chris Fomunyoh, director of African affairs at the National Democratic
Institute, which monitors democratic movements here, said another
Eyadema term would "be terrible for the region, terrible for
Togo and terrible for the continent." "One of the problems
in moving to functioning democracies is that some of the players
remain the same in Africa," Fomunyoh said. "Eyadema came
to power through a military coup when Lyndon Johnson was president
and has been a real disaster for the country. Togo is almost a pariah
state, almost everyone shuns Togo, and this would make it worse."
Togo, an impoverished nation about half the size of Virginia with
a population of about 5 million, was created from a German colony
that was taken over by the British and French at the start of World
War I because of its valuable phosphate reserves. In 1957 the western
part of the territory joined English-speaking Ghana, and in 1960
the eastern side became an independent, French-speaking country.
Eyadema led the first military coup in post-colonial Africa in 1963.
According to his own accounts and historical records from the time,
he killed the democratically elected president, Sylvanus Olympio,
as Olympio sought to climb the wall of the U.S. Embassy to safety.
Eyadema, then a sergeant who had served in the French army in Indochina
and Algiers, rapidly was promoted to military chief of staff. He
seized power four years later in a bloodless coup and quickly banned
political parties and suspended the constitution.
Surrounded by Ghana, Benin and Burkina Faso -- all countries that
were undergoing Marxist revolutions -- Eyadema remained close to
the West, though he maintained ties to North Korea. He was rewarded
with lavish French military aid and a willingness by Washington,
Paris and others to overlook his excesses.
Eyadema has maintained control through a combination of state patronage,
pampering of the army -- in which two of his sons occupy key positions
-- and repression learned from North Korean security trainers, according
to diplomats, political analysts and politicians.
Emulating his close friend Mobutu Sese Seko, the longtime dictator
of Zaire, Eyadema built one of the most pervasive cults of personality
in the region. His official biography, distributed by the presidency,
describes him as a "force of nature" and says he is "not
a politician, and that is his strength . . . his patriotic sacrifice
has earned him the trust and love of all his people."
Yet, diplomats and analysts here said, he is not as ostentatious
as many other Big Men, who built elaborate palaces and flaunted
their corruption. Togo has one of the best road networks in West
Africa and, for those who can afford it, exceptional telephone service
With the end of the Cold War, Togo's former allies applied heavy
pressure for democratic reforms, and term limits and other electoral
reforms were put in place in 1992. But according to a U.S. State
Department report, elections since then -- including presidential
and legislative elections in 1993, and Eyadema's disputed reelection
in 1998 -- have been marred by "systematic fraud."
In 1994 the United States, the European Union and the international
lending agencies cut Togo off from aid and loans because of electoral
fraud and human rights concerns. The economy has deteriorated steadily
A 1999 Amnesty International report said Eyadema allies in the
army had killed hundreds of opposition supporters during the 1998
presidential election, for which the vote count was halted when
it showed that Eyadema was losing. The report said Eyadema carried
out a "rule of terror in a climate of impunity."
Last year a U.N. investigation found that for years Togo had violated
U.N. sanctions by importing massive amounts of weapons and ammunition
for shipment to rebels fighting to overthrow the government of Angola.
The rebels, known as the National Union for the Total Independence
of Angola (UNITA), paid for the weapons with the more than $100
million they earn annually by illegally exporting diamonds, the
UNITA "operated in Togo with the consent and cooperation of
Togolese authorities," the report said. When the report was
issued, the government denied any involvement in the arms transfers.
But diplomats and sources with direct knowledge of some of the arms
shipments said the weapons, carried in dozens of flights through
Lome, were sanctioned by Eyadema and his son Ernest, the feared
commander of an elite paratroop unit near the president's home town.
"If you come to do some small business here, you talk to the
ministers or someone and arrange things," said a business source.
"But if you want to do serious business, you have to see the
president. That is how it works. For the military side, you see
Ernest. Even the ministers fear him. The only one he is responsible
to is his father."