Styled ‘the Jurassic Park of Africa’, the West African state of Togo has been ruled by Gnassingbé Eyadèma since 1967. The overthrow and death of his one-time idol, Mobutu Sese Seko of the former Zaïre, leaves the ageing Eyadèma increasingly exposed as a dinosaur of dictatorship in Africa.
In May 1999 Amnesty International published _Togo: Rule of Terror_. The report described a ‘persistent pattern’ of extrajudicial executions, ‘disappearances’, arbitrary arrest and torture. It alleged that hundreds of people had been killed by the security forces around the time of elections in June 1998, and that bodies had been dumped at sea by military aircraft.
In July 1999 President Chirac of France paid an official visit to Togo and claimed that Amnesty’s report had been the result of ‘manipulation’. Its findings were, however, confirmed by independent journalists and by an African human-rights organization, the Ligue pour la défense des droits de l’homme, based in Benin.
Born in 1937, Gnassingbé Eyadèma began his career, like many of his peers, in the uniform of the colonial power. He joined the French army in 1953 and served in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Dahomey (now Benin), Niger and Algeria. He had reached the rank of sergeant when he returned to Togo in 1962. President Sylvanus Olympio refused to take 626 Togolese veterans of French wars into Togo’s tiny army, so a group of them – including Eyadèma – murdered him in January 1963.
The army took over directly in 1967, making Eyadèma President at the age of 30. He retained the presidency in one-party ‘elections’ held in 1979 and 1985. Promoting African cultural authenticity, he campaigned to replace French with Ewe and Kabre as national languages of instruction, and changed his first name from Étienne to Gnassingbé, after his father. With the assistance of North Korean advisers he fostered a cult of personality centred on his heroic deeds and, as the sole survivor of a 1974 plane crash, his mythic invulnerability. Massive photographs and statues referring to him as ‘The Saviour of the Common Man’, ‘The Helmsman’ or simply ‘Le Guide’ were installed throughout Togo.
Eyadèma nationalized the country’s phosphate industry – the mineral is its main export – in 1974. As phosphate prices briefly soared, massive state enterprises were constructed. By the late 1970s, however, phosphate prices had plummeted and the newly built facilities – including a petroleum refinery and a steel mill – proved unviable.
In September 1986, shortly after Eyadèma had been ‘re-elected’ with 99.95 per cent of the vote, France sent troops to Togo to suppress a coup attempt. According to Amnesty, French military aid has routinely been used to repress the civilian population. In addition to direct aid for the maintenance of equipment, Buffalo aircraft made in Canada were repaired in France. These are the same aircraft reportedly used to jettison dead bodies along the coasts of Togo and Benin in 1998.
‘Le Guide’ came to rely increasingly on the 13,000 troops of the ‘army of cousins’, almost all of whom came from his own Kabyé group in southern Togo. More than 300,000 people fled the country. Moves towards civilian government during the 1990s were short-lived and accompanied by extreme violence, invariably leaving ‘The Helmsman’ still at the helm.
Eyadèma has strutted the international stage as a prominent member of the Organization of African Unity. Togolese soldiers may have proved useless when sent to fight for Mobutu in Zaïre – but Mobutu was doubtless grateful for the refuge he received in Lomé, the capital of Togo, after his fall. Allegations against Eyadèma include making his country one of the main foreign bases for UNITA, the diamond-rich rebel group in Angola headed by Jonas Savimbi. In exchange for hosting members of Savimbi’s family, Eyadèma was allegedly sent a ‘passport-sized’ package of diamonds.
In 1997 he celebrated 30 years in power with a flamboyant party costing $2 million – in a country where average income is in the region of $300 a year. None of the many heads of state invited felt able to attend.