One of Africa’s most brutal dictators died last week. The population he had repressed for over four decades first rejoiced and then burst into protest for change and democracy. Gnassingbe Eyadema’s death brought to an end 38 years of his rule in Togo. The military then announced that his son, Faure Gnassingbe, would be taking over immediately as president.
This dynastic succession was in total violation of the constitution that says the presidency should be handed to the head of the national assembly, pending elections to be held within two months. Despite the clear indication from the military that it would take action against protesters, huge sections of the population of six million took part in two “dead days”—when people stayed away from work.
By midday on the first day stores that had opened first thing were again shuttered against the empty streets in the downtown area of Lome, the capital. The normally crowded markets of Hedzranawoe and Affigalme, also in the capital, were virtually empty. It is remarkable that anyone dared to protest because Eyadema had ruled with great brutality.
He came to power as a servant of the rich and powerful. In the late 1950s Togo was moving towards independence from France. Sylvanus Olympio was elected president, but angered the departing French by proposing some basic economic reforms which would reduce the stranglehold of the big corporations.
Olympio was assassinated in 1963 by a military squad led by Eyadema, who took power in a coup four years later. He was instantly accepted by the West as a bulwark against Communism—just like Mobutu in Congo, Houphouet-Boigny in Ivory Coast and the apartheid regime in South Africa.
When the price of phosphates, Togo’s main export, boomed in the 1970s, Eyadema began building four palaces. Each one swallowed the equivalent of half the state budget for a year.
Then, as phosphate prices dropped, Eyadema enthusiastically implemented the austerity measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund.
All wages were frozen in 1984 while inflation was rampant. Eyadema imposed a “solidarity tax” which confiscated 5 percent of all incomes. Only the rich escaped the measure. Eyadema could count on backing from the Western powers throughout most of his years in power. In particular he won support from France, the country’s former colonial ruler.
Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, the son of former French president Francois Mitterrand, was a personal friend of Eyadema.
France helped him survive big demonstrations over democracy and economic hardship in 1990 and 1991.
Only in the last few years did EU states and the US begin to raise criticism of the regime in Togo. Eyadema’s gross repression and lack of democracy had become an embarrassment and, more importantly, the US and France no longer needed an unstable dictator in power.
We must hope that the popular protests continue and deepen. Salvation will not come from other African governments, the EU or the US. It will come from more action from those who have suffered so grievously.