Magazine article New Internationalist

Gnassingbe Eyadema

Magazine article New Internationalist

Gnassingbe Eyadema

Article excerpt

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Styled 'the Jurassic Park of Africa', the West African state of Togo has been ruled by Gnassingbe Eyadema since 1967. The overthrow and death of his one-time idol, Mobutu Sese Seko of the former Zaire, leaves the ageing Eyadema 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 defense des droits de l'homme, based in Benin.

Born in 1937, Gnassingbe Eyadema 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 Eyadema - murdered him in January 1963.

The army took over directly in 1967, making Eyadema 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 Etienne to Gnassingbe, 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 invulner-ability. Massive photographs and statues referring to him as 'The Saviour of the Common Man', 'The Helmsman' or simply 'Le Guide' were installed throughout Togo.

Eyadema 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 Eyadema had been 'reelected' with 99. …

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