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Gnassingbé Eyadéma Biography


President of Togo

General Gnassingbé Eyadéma was one of the world's longest-serving national leaders, having run the West African nation of Togo from 1967 to his death in 2005. Eyadéma's hold on presidential power in Togo was consolidated by both force and by political machination in a career that included military coups, suspicious murders, assassination attempts on opposition leaders, and dramatic appeals to "national unity" at the expense of free expression.

While other self-imposed rulers in Africa bowed to demands for multiparty democracy—most often relinquishing power in the process—Eyadéma retained his hold on the Togolese government in spite of national unrest and international censure. Even a 1993 general election, which Eyadéma won by a large margin, seemed nothing more than a deceptive show designed to guarantee the general's continued power. Africa Report contributor Colleen Lowe Morna characterized the government of Togo as "essentially an authoritarian state, with the president dominating all branches and functions of government, and ruling by decree"; but legislative elections held in February of 1994 indicate that the opposition may soon gain a voice in Togo's government.

Africa Report correspondent Peter Da Costa noted that Eyadéma "has shown remarkable survival skills, clawing back his powers stripped by a national conference in 1990. … With his 1993 election victory, Eyadéma's bully-boy tactics, which cost hundreds of lives, appear to have paid off." Eyadéma's style of autocratic rule, which he held to tightly through contested elections in 1998 and 2003, led observers to call Togo "one of the [African] continent's most closed and repressive nations," to quote New York Times contributor Kenneth B. Noble.

Only 30 miles wide and 360 miles long, Togo is a tiny country that borders the Atlantic Ocean in West Africa. Formerly a French colony with strong ethnic ties to neighboring Ghana, the nation became independent in 1960. Most Togolese citizens are subsistence farmers, but the country does export coffee, cocoa, and phosphates. Many imports and funds for development come from France, Germany, and other Western nations, including the United States. Seagoing commerce is centered in Lome, the capital city, which is quite close to the Ghana-Togo border.

The two principal ethnic groups in Togo are the Ewe and the Kabiye. As is the case elsewhere in Africa, tensions between the two peoples present a continuing political concern, especially since neighboring Ghana contains a sizeable population of Ewes. Gnassingbé Eyadéma was of Kabiye descent. As leader of the Togolese military starting in 1963, he oversaw the promotion of Kabiye soldiers to all ranks in the army. Eyadéma's own ascent in the Togolese army ranks was swift. He received his military training with the French Army and served with French troops in such places as Indochina and Algeria before accepting a commission in Togo in 1961. At the age of 26 he was named a commander in the Togolese Army after he led a successful revolt against then-president Sylvanus Olympio.

After engineering the coup that resulted in Olympio's death in 1963, Eyadéma invited Nicolas Grunitzky, Togo's first prime minister, back to head the country. (Grunitzky had lost power to Olympio in 1958.) Grunitzky attempted to institute a constitutional multiparty government in Togo, but his efforts came to naught, and the increasingly popular Eyadéma began to court support among the military and the civilian populace. In January of 1967, Eyadéma, by then army chief of staff, assumed the political leadership of Togo in a nonviolent coup. He reorganized the government, named himself president, and scheduled a referendum on a new constitution. That referendum was later canceled, and by 1969 Eyadéma had enough popular support that he was able to form and head a new political party, the Togolese People's Rally (RPT). The RPT was Togo's only legal political party until the 1990s, and its simple platform rested on theories of "national unity" and "cultural authenticity." Under his authority many members of the Kabiye tribe came to dominate leadership in Togo's military and political institutions.

Eyadéma's dictatorship could not entirely quell opposition, however. As early as 1970 he was forced to suppress a plot to overthrow him, and by the mid-1970s several exiled dissenters—including the sons of ex-president Olympio—were viewed as real threats to the regime. On the other hand, foreign aid from France, Germany, and the United States introduced new industries into Togo, and a growing world market for phosphates brought improvement to the country's economy. As the relative prosperity continued into the 1980s, Togo became known as "Africa's little Switzerland." The capital of Lome, stocked with luxurious imports from Europe and America, was also a regional banking center and a bustling deepwater port.

Colleen Lowe Morna noted that the trappings of prosperity failed to cover severe problems in Togo. "The casual visitor might be forgiven for concluding that Togo is at the top of the African achievement league," she wrote. "Ironically, in 1982, Togo, along with a handful of other Third World countries, was officially designated by the UN General Assembly as one of the 'least developed countries among developing nations.' With an average GNP per capita of $300 per annum, Togo's 3 million people rank among the poorest in the world." A downturn in the phosphate market late in the 1980s accelerated an economic decline and, not surprisingly, produced new hostility toward the Eyadéma regime.

A series of bomb attacks in Lome during the summer of 1985 led to the arrest of more than a dozen people who were subsequently accused of terrorism and distributing subversive literature. The Togolese Movement for Democracy (MTD), made up of a group of exiled dissenters, claimed that members of Eyadéma's government had perpetrated the bombings and then used them as an excuse to launch a "wave of repression." When one of the detainees charged with the bombings died mysteriously in prison—and allegations surfaced that others may have been tortured—the human rights organization Amnesty International tried to send investigators to Togo. They were unable to enter the country, but a delegation of French observers did report evidence of torture among political prisoners. Eyadéma responded to these charges by issuing a presidential pardon to several of the detainees.

A more serious coup attempt against the Eyadéma regime occurred in September of 1986. A paramilitary unit occupied the Lome military barracks, the RPT headquarters, and the national radio station, killing about a dozen people during the attack. Eyadéma appealed to his French allies for assistance, and France sent 250 paratroopers to restore order. In December of 1986, 13 people were sentenced to death, and 14 to life imprisonment for the attack. One of three people to receive the death sentence in absentia was Gilchrist Olympio, an exiled son of the former Togolese president.

These and other demonstrations against Eyadéma's regime were the first harbingers of resistance to the dictator and his one-party rule. In an effort to silence the opposition, Eyadéma called for an election in the winter of 1986. Kenneth Noble described the voting procedure in the New York Times : "Gnassingbe Eyadéma held a referendum on his reign as President of [Togo]. As soldiers stood guard, voters were obliged to hold up a card of one color for 'yes' or another for 'no.' Given these circumstances, there were visible few signs of discontent, and Mr. Eyadéma, the sole candidate, polled 99 percent of the vote." Eyadéma was shrewd enough to realize, however, that he could not ignore the calls for multiparty democracy. By 1989 he was assuring the United States government—and his own people—that the process of democratization of Togo would begin shortly.

At a Glance …

Born Étienne Gnassingbe Eyadéma on December 26, 1937, in Pya, Lama-Kara, Togo; died on February 5, 2005; son of Gnassingbé and N'Danida Eyadéma; married; several children.

Career: French Army officer, 1953-61, serving in Indochina, Dahoney, Niger, and Algeria; Togolese Army, commander, 1963; Togolese Army chief of staff, 1965; president of Togo, chief of armed forces, and minister of defense, 1967-2005.

Awards: Named Chevalier du Legion d'Honneur (France).

Opposition parties multiplied both within Togo and outside its borders, especially in Ghana, while unrest swelled in Lome especially. After another round of politically-motivated arrests in 1990—and more allegations of torture of political prisoners—widespread strikes erupted in the capital city. Eyadéma's forces clashed with protesters who attacked public property; eventually almost 200 people were arrested. As in previous cases of organized unrest, Eyadéma blamed "international machinations" and foreign influence for the troubles, pointing a finger most notably at Ghana. Likewise, he once again resisted efforts to investigate human rights violations, issuing widespread presidential pardons to those arrested in the demonstrations.

Protests continued in Togo, gaining momentum as other African nations ousted long-standing dictators in favor of democratic governments. By the spring of 1991 Eyadéma was compelled to agree to widespread reforms. The most dramatic demonstration of his loss of power came in the summer of 1991, when an umbrella group representing ten political parties, the Collective of Democratic Opposition (COD), organized a general strike, tore down the statue of Eyadéma in Lome, and convened a national conference to address Togo's political problems.

That conference, attended by numerous opposition parties, government representatives, students, union leaders, and clergymen, became a forum from which Togo's citizenry denounced the Eyadéma administration and sought to overthrow it. Four days after convening on July 8, the conference declared its sovereignty. "The tide was already turning against the military regime," wrote Mark Huband in Africa Report. "The country's post-independence history was thrown into the spotlight, and very quickly the pillars of government began to crumble." Huband added that the conference highlighted both human rights abuses and cases of financial mismanagement that could be tied directly to the Eyadéma regime. "Accusations by the human rights activist Me Kwami Occansey that Eyadéma was no better than [German political leader and Nazi party founder Adolf] Hitler received rapturous applause in the conference hall," the reporter stated.

The 1991 national conference in Togo effectively removed Eyadéma from power and installed an arch-rival, Joseph Kokou Koffigoh, as leader of a new provisional government. The victory was short-lived, however. Armed forces loyal to Eyadéma mounted a siege of Lome's government establishments in the winter of 1991, taking Koffigoh prisoner. By mid-1992 Koffigoh had named a number of Eyadéma deputies to his inner circle, and by year's end he was little more than a figurehead. According to Da Costa, Koffigoh, "a human rights lawyer elected to lead the transitional government through to the elections and threatened, even kidnapped, by Eyadéma loyalists, [became] a shadow of his former self."

The political crisis continued through 1992 and into 1993, with strikers demanding immediate elections and neutral armed forces. Hundreds of thousands of Togolese citizens fled to Ghana and Benin, and the international community was stunned by an assassination attempt on opposition leader Gilchrist Olympio. In March of 1993 Eyadéma's residence in Lome came under armed attack by dissenters within the military ranks. Eyadéma survived the coup attempt and proceeded to negotiate a timetable for presidential elections with the leaders of Togo's principal political parties.

The presidential election, held late in the summer of 1993, was beset by numerous controversies. Observers from the international community—including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter—refused to endorse the results, citing "hasty planning, the lack of a credible opposition, and question marks over voter lists and cards," to quote Da Costa. Indeed, Eyadéma's principal opponent—Gilchrist Olympio—was not allowed to run because he would not agree to be examined by Togolese doctors to confirm his health. Olympio, who had documentation of a thorough examination by French doctors, complained that he could not safely enter Togo to undergo the examination. In Olympio's stead, Eyadéma faced the leaders of three opposition parties. When the results of the August 25th election were polled, Eyadéma had received 96.42 percent of the popular vote.

Da Costa wrote: "Eyadéma, with close to three decades of self-imposed autocratic rule under his belt, will find it difficult to claim that his victory in Togo's …presidential elections gives him an undisputed right to remain at the helm of the West African country. … The context behind Eyadéma's huge margin—the lack of credible opponents, as well as a paltry turnout officially put at 39.5 percent—confirmed the landmark in Togo's march toward democracy as little more than a sham, an exercise in self-delusion by a man reluctant to surrender to the mass of forces ranged against him." Da Costa felt that Togo would face further violence and unrest as long as Eyadéma wielded power, but other observers offered a different view. For instance, in an election-day appeal to his fellow citizens, Koffigoh characterized Eyadéma as a man who "could guarantee security, peace, and stability for Togo."

At least one citizen interviewed by Da Costa echoed Koffigoh's optimism. "I voted for Eyadéma because he's not just our patron, he's our god," a Lome taxi driver told Africa Report. "The city used to be safe, you could taxi …24 hours a day and even sleep in the streets. But now Lome is in a mess. It's democracy that's done this. Only Eyadéma can solve our problems."

Over the next decade, Eyadéma remained in power. Although he won multiparty elections in both 1998 and 2003, Eyadéma was widely considered to have held power by intimidation and other unfair means. Over his many years as leader of Togo, Eyadéma had placed himself so squarely in the center of Togo's affairs that when he died of a heart attack on February 5, 2005, he left his country with "no reliable mechanisms for resolving disputes without him," according to the Economist. Eyadéma's legacy was seen when his loyal army quickly named his 39-year-old son, Faure Gnassingbé, as Togo's president, a move that went against Togo's constitution. A successful business man, Faure Gnassingbé had limited political experience, having served as his father's minister for public works, mines, and telecommunications. Gnassingbé's appointment as president caused such outrage in Togo and western Africa that he stepped down in order for a proper election to be held in April. He later won the presidential election and was sworn into office on May 4, 2005. Violent protests of the election and flow of refugees from Togo to neighboring countries caused ongoing instability as Gnassingbé took office. It remains to be seen if he rules with the iron fist of his father.



Africa South of the Sahara: 1994, 23rd edition, Europa, 1994.


Africa Report, September-October 1990, pp. 36-38; November-December 1991, pp. 18-20; November-December 1993, pp. 61-65; March-April 1994, p. 7.

Economist, April 27, 1991, p. 48; December 7, 1991, p. 50; February 13, 1993, p. 48; August 21, 1993, p. 34; February 12, 2005, p. 48.

New African, March 2005, p. 20; April 2005, p. 4, 27.

New York Times, July 25, 1991, p. A-6; August 29, 1991, p. A-13; November 29, 1991, p. A-10; December 1, 1991, p. 9; December 4, 1991, p. A-8; February 2, 1992, p. A-8; February 2, 1993, p. A-6; May 4, 2005, p. A-10.


L'Info en Direct Togo, www.republicoftogo.com/fr/home.asp (June 9, 2005).

"Profile: Faure Gnassingbé," BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/4242469.stm (May 31, 2005).

—Anne Janette Johnson and

Sara Pendergast

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