Eyadema’s stranglehold on Togo

[NOTE: this was originally posted on Global Voices Online, a project at the Berkman Center at Harvard. Check out their daily roundups of blogs across the globe. Global Voices is a fantastic resource, if you’re interested in world wide blogging.]

By Jurgen and Agbessi .

It’s official: Faure Gnassingbe has inherited the family business from his daddy, Gnassingbe Eyadema: ACME Dictators Inc. – Exploiting Togo since 1967. Like father, like son, Faure was installed by a military coup on Feb. 6, the day after Eyadema died. After some international pressure he pulled back and performed a perfect bait-and-switch maneuver. He retreated, called elections, and then used the de-facto single-party state apparatus to pull off an Eyadema-style fake election, complete with stolen ballot boxes, army raids on opposition offices and fire bombed cultural centers. Dad would be proud.

So what is really going on in Togo? Don’t ask the journalists. The BBC, AFP and Reuters all reported reliably about the crisis. But they provide very little background. The regional media are mostly concerned about the crisis spilling into the neighboring countries. The Togolese media are too close to the fire for clear-headed analysis. The ruling RPT’s rag just sings the Eyadema – uh, I mean Faure – song. The opposition’s LeTogolais has more depth, but still tows their party line.

The big question in politics and at company lunches is always “who is going to pay for this?” Journalists generally know a thing or two about free food, so why don’t they just look at who gets a free lunch in Togo? When you follow the money in Togo, quickly you can see how looters and profiteers can drive a country like Togo to the brink of civil war. Previously, I’ve pointed out that the turmoil in Togo right now has a significant ethnic dimension, and it is important to understand this. But only because it helps to see where the money goes and who gets stuck with the tab.

Togo has at least 37 ethnicities. In the South, the Ewe (pronounced Eh-veh) tribe is dominant, and they are the largest ethnic group in Togo (41 percent). The Ewe lands stretch from Lake Volta in Ghana across southern Togo into Benin. The Kabyé people are another ethnic group of significant size in Togo. The Kabyé homeland around the northern city of Kara is arid and mountainous. So before Togo’s independence in 1960, many young Kabyé moved south to help support their families by working as laborers of sharecroppers on Ewe farms. As a result, many Kabyé live in small enclaves scattered all over rural southern Togo, and many Ewe looked down on the Kabyé, as they were not as closely connected to the land they lived on.

Togo was a German colony from 1884 to 1919. Then the French and the British kicked the Germans out and split the former Togoland. After the French part of Togoland became the Republique Togolaise in 1960, Sylvanus Olympio was elected president of the new nation. But in 1963, a Kabyé soldier by the name of Gnassingbe Eyadema, newly returned from the French colonial army, killed Olympio, in the first military coup in post-colonial Africa. Four years later he made himself president of Togo, and his rule ended with his death on Feb 5, 2005, after ruling Togo for 38 years.

Eyadema’s rule was strongly supported by the French government, which regards West Africa as a strategic sphere of influence. Despite the fact that Togo does not have a lot of natural resources beyond phosphate mines, Eyadema managed to maneuver the country into a position of strategic importance to France. That meant the French government provided military aid and armed and trained his troops.

With French support, Eyadema recruited a loyal military from his own tribe, the Kabyé, for most of whom government service was a great opportunity to help support their families. Soon the Kabyé dominated all the security forces by roughly three quarters, while they only represent less than 15 percent of the total population. For a long time this disproportion was not a major point of contention. However, it is clear now that the Gnassingbe clan started skimming the profits of what modest resources Togo had. And it seems obvious that the French would have not been so forthcoming with military aid, if the bottom line was not favorable to them.

In the early 90s, when I was in Togo, rumors circulated about the vast fortunes of the RPT cronies originating in the drug trade and from smuggling illegal goods. At one point I read that one of Eyadema’s sons was caught in France with a huge amount of cocaine stashed in his private jet. But there were never any charges filed, and he left France hours later. There is no doubt in my mind that Lomé was (and probably is) a significant hub for trafficking a vast array of illicit goods. Considering the total control the Gnassingbe clan had of Togo, and the cosy relationship Eyadema enjoyed with Mitterand, and later with Chirac, I don’t see how all this money could have gone unnoticed by these gentlemen.

Traditionally, the relationship between the Ewe and the Kabyé had been tense, but restrained. That’s the Ewe view, at least. The Ewe needed the hardworking northerners as laborers, and the Kabyé needed the jobs. But that relationship was one of dependency, and sometimes exploitation and violence. When tensions grew in Togo, Eyadema started arming “his people” – the Kabyé – and the Ewe started getting scared of the Kabyé among them. In 1990, during the unrest then, this tension sometimes exploded into regular genocide and ethnic persecution. Eyadema did everything to stoke the ethnic tensions and paint the unrest as a North-South conflict. The result was that Ewe living in the north were persecuted by the Kabyé there, and Kabyé minority in the Ewe-dominated south were terrorized by their Ewe neighbors.

The Kabyé-dominated military also frequently turned violent against Ewe civilians, and sometimes against anyone who crossed their path. I don’t know how many times I had drunk soldiers wave loaded assault rifles or pistols in my face at road blocks, just because they did not like my face, or I did not offer a large enough bribe. During the strikes, when the tensions were at their peak, Ewe villagers on several occasions attacked and destroyed Kabyé enclaves in southern Togo. In retaliation, Ewe villages were harassed, razed and burnt down by the military. And the prisons were full of Ewe dissidents and trouble-makers.

All the while, the weapons dealers, diamond smugglers, drug traffickers, and looters were getting richer and richer. The CIA estimates the 2003 annual per capita income in Togo at $1,600. That is comparable to Haiti, Nepal and North Korea, and quite a bit less than Bangladesh ($2,000), Viet Nam ($2,700) or neighboring Ghana ($2,300). Yet, in 2002, Eyadema’s personal wealth was estimated at $2.8 billion, and his personal financial adviser, Maurice Assor, at also over $2 billion. Eyadema owned a Fokker 28, Grumman helicopters, a DC-8, various Boeing jets and an arsenal of arms. (more info ). He owned numerous mansions all over Togo, and some prime real estate in places like Tokyo, Paris and Manhattan.

Although he did spread some of his wealth among his clan in his hometown of Pya, near Kara, most of his fellow Kabyé saw precious little of his vast fortunes. My friend, who studied at the Universite du Benin in Lomé, remembers discussions with some of his fellow students from up north, where they pointed out that even in Eyadema’s hometown Pya many homes have no electricity or running water. Right next door to the air-conditioned mansions of the RPT cronies, people live in tin-roofed houses and cook on charcoal stoves in the courtyard, just like everywhere else in Togo. The Kabyé students also told stories about Eyadema’s son Ernest, a high-ranking military officer, who “acted like the president of the North.” Ernest is feared in Togo’s northern prefectures for his brutal persecution of anyone who dared say anything critical about his dad. The military may seem like a monolith of RPT power, but throughout the years there was occasional grumbling among the rank-and-file. The soldiers are underpaid and often have to wait weeks for their paychecks. Yet, most Kabyé and most soldiers are fiercely loyal to their leadership, because they are simply scared of what will happen to them if the RPT loses control of power.

With the French behind him, arming the Kabyé dominated military, the Kabyé scared of retaliation from the Ewe (and others), and the Ewe under the boot of his dictatorship, Eyadema held Togo in a stranglehold that gave him unlimited power, vast fortunes and a bloody legacy. His son, Faure Gnassingbé; appears determined to continue the “family business.” Just like under his father, he and his family and the looters and crooks that surround them, are slated to keep getting richer under the “Baby Eyadema” regime. The crooks are getting a free lunch in Togo. Everyone else, Ewe as well as Kabyé and everyone else are getting stuck with the tab.

2 Responses to “Eyadema’s stranglehold on Togo”

  1. w o r d s » Blog Archive » 2005 Says:

    […] man. The president of Togo Gnassingbé Eyadema died and his son inherited the “family business.” Togo qualified for the World Cup! The last year saw a lo […]

  2. Cara Wakelin Says:

    kara…

    Interesting post. I came across this blog by accident, but it was a good accident. I have now bookmarked your blog for future use. Best wishes. Cara Wakelin….

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