Togo circus revolts Africa

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Togo circus revolts Africa

From Tawanda Kanhema in Harare

Political developments in Togo, where the army trashed the country’s constitution and installed a new head of state while the late President Gnassingbe Eyadema lay in his shroud, are a major drawback to Africa’s efforts to clean up its image as a continent of chronic coups d’etat and military dictatorships.

Soldier canes a protester in Lome

Eyadema died of a heart attack on February 7 in the tiny west African State’s capital, Lome and the army conspired with parliament to amend its constitution and allow Eyadema’s son Faure Essozima Gnassingbe to take over as president and ‘preserve the status quo.’

Faure wore two hats in one day before snatching the crown in a quasi-constitutional succession roundly condemned as a “military coup d’etat” and it has sparked an international furore that threatens to isolate his enfant regime.

Faure, who was appointed minister of Public Works, Mines and Telecommunications in 2003 by his father in an attempt to trim his hair for the crown was made speaker of parliament and then head of state within a few hours by the Togolese army.

Togo’s constitution clearly states that the speaker of parliament serves as head of state for 60 days in the event of the president’s death, but it was amended to accommodate Faure, a crafty demagogue who has used his ill-gotten incumbency to appeal to the people’s emotions and position himself for election.

Two days after his ascension to power, Gnassingbe made a seemingly generous declaration of amnesty for exiled citizens and his father’s jailed opponents while promising to abide by democratic principles.

This has been seen as a desperate attempt to win the hearts of the Togolese people and appease African heads of state who have expressed profound indignation at the developments in Lome and threatened to tighten screws on the new government.

Among the exiled Togolese politicians are veteran politician Gilchrist Olympio, founding president Sylvanus Olympio’s son, who is leader of the opposition Union of Forces for Change.

He was sentenced to death in absentia in 1986 for alleged complicity in 1985 coup attempt and he had been Eyadema’s staunchest critic. Gilchrist survived an assassination attempt after his motorcade came under fire in Lome in 1992 and he has been alternating between neighbouring Ghana and France since 1998.

“The appointment of Eyadema’s son confirms that we are living under a military dictatorship, and nothing will change,” Olympios said from Paris just after Eyadema’s death, and he did not indicate whether he would return to Togo.

Olympio, who declared,  “the night may be long but the morning will certainly come,” in reference to the late Eyadema’s regime, has been seen as playing a waiting game and there is speculation that he could return to Togo.

Political analyst and historian, Leo Zeilig criticized French President Jacques Chirac and accused him of complicity in the horse trading in Lome and the bulk of Francophone African countries, where the French have continued to play a domineering role.

“I was astonished at the reaction of the French President Chirac, who described one of the continent’s longest standing dictators as a close personal friend and that he and the French nation were grieving, “He was forced to recant before these sentiments had left his month as the reality of Eyadema’s contempt for democracy and human rights became clear,” he said,

“Nothing in my opinion explains better the colonial relationship that France maintains with its former colonies. We owe Chirac thanks for clarifying this relationship that many in France describe as Francafrique.”

The African Union and the Economic Community of East and West African States (ECOWAS) condemned the Faure
Gnassingbe enfant regime and ordered step down and restore the country’s constitution.

ECOWAS heads of state, including AU chairmen Olusegun Obasanjo and Alpha Omar Konare, met in an emergency
meeting in Niger last week and determined to take a “zero tolerance” approach towards the new government. AU and ECOWAS officials will descend on Lome in a few days.

Togo was the first African country to gain independence, and the first to have a coup d’etat after the assassination of its first democratically elected president, Sylvanos Olympio at the gate of the United States embassy in 1963.

Olympio, described as a political moderate and fiscal conservative who invigorated the tiny West African country’s economy after independence in 1960 was overthrown for denying his 250-strong army a salary increase.

Nicolas Grunitzky replaced Togo’s first democratically elected president in 1963, but in 1967 a former French soldier, Gnassingbe Eyadema, ousted him in a bloodless coup and dissolved all political parties.

Togo set the precedent, and a wave of coups snowballed across the region, sweeping though about 50 countries
between 1962 and 1980, and by 2000, there had been more than 100 coups.

“The procedure has become so routine that the coup d’etat has become to Africa what an election is to the West- except that the loser often ends up dead or in prison instead of in comfortable retirement,” wrote David Lamb, in his book, The Africans.

The Olympio assassination ended Togo’s momentary encounter with democracy and it degenerated into a military dictatorship punctuated by assassination attempts, attempted coups and later savoured by occasional elections that went Eyadema’s way.

The recent coup came at a time when African countries had started to shed the old stereotype of military dictatorships and chronic coups, and African states have taken it as an insolent challenge to the structures that they have put in place to bring
stability to the region.