Time for Change in Togo

President Eyadema has been a relatively mild tyrant, but his style of governing is out of touch with democratic trends in Africa

TOGO, a once tranquil sliver of a country squeezed into West Africa next to Ghana, is now in the news. A president named Gnassingbe Eyadema, who ruled by fiat for over two decades, is locked in a protracted tug of war with a coalition that challenges him in the name of democracy. The coalition, a broadly based grouping of opposition elements that enjoys overwhelming popular support in Lome, the capital, has succeeded in taking over most of the offices of government and has installed its leader, Joseph Koffigoh, as prime minister. Yet the president remains in place. While the democracy coalition continues to push for his ouster, Mr. Eyadema plots ways to make a comeback with the support of elements of the Army, which made several ineffectual tries at arresting Prime Minister Koffigoh and his associates, before succeeding Tuesday. In recent days the confrontation between the two sides had escalated. Troops loyal to Eyadema have seized the national radio station and other strategic points and surrounded Koffigoh's office. Reportedly, the soldiers ignored Eyadema's order to withdraw. Koffigoh's supporters, however, suspect that it was all a game, that Eyadema is in fact an accomplice in the Army's attempt to oust the prime minister. This is very strange for West Africa, where in the past changes of regime were operated overnight or over the siesta hour, ordinarily without massive bloodshed but always decisively. The old dictator was out, the new one was in, and the outcome was not in doubt. Now, in the era of the new world order, the rules of the game have altered dramatically. Togo is one of the smallest countries in West Africa, but also one of the more advanced. Its population, some 3 to 4 million, is better educated and enjoys a higher standard of living than any of its immediate neighbors. In part this is because of President Eyadema's policies. While other African leaders were being seduced in the 1960s and 1970s by the siren song of Soviet-style socialism, Eyadema made friendship with the West the cornerstone of his policy. This, together with a capable and reasonably honest bureaucracy, assured Togo a surfeit of Western aid. France, the former colonial power, was the biggest donor; in 1987 the United States Embassy in Togo calculated that French aid for the previous year had amounted to at least $200 million. But the European community, West Germany, and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (the World Bank) also gave generously. In fact Western countries and development organizations all regarded Togo as a fine place to put their money. It has had a stable government and the right political attitude. President Eyadema's regime, however, bore the taint of original sin. In 1963, Eyadema, then a semi-illiterate, out of work veteran of French army campaigns in Vietnam and Algeria, seized and killed Togo's democratically elected first President, Sylvanus Olympio, a man of great distinction who spoke four European languages and held advanced degrees from European universities. Mr. Olympio was considered a beacon of progress and democracy in Africa. His murder and the overthrow of his government set the pre cedent for a wave of military coups in the continent. In the years after he seized power in 1967, Eyadema seemed to be trying to atone for his crime. Under his rule roads were built, clean water and electricity were provided to the main towns, and education, public health, industry, and agriculture were promoted. Eyadema had himself tutored in French, history, geography, and international affairs. He longed for respectability, and he ruled Togo for the most part with a gloved hand. He was no bloodthirsty tyrant. In his heyday, critics were roughed up and ja iled or allowed to go abroad; rarely were they killed. In 1987 Eyadema permitted the creation of a semi-governmental human rights organization and actually let it exercise some authority. He himself called a conference on human rights and had banners put up all around the country celebrating it. But he couldn't bring himself to let go of power, and his rule had its less attractive side as well. He ran the country as his own private fiefdom, and while most Togolese struggled in poverty he had a luxurious palace built for himself near his hometown. He kept a fleet of airplanes for his personal use, dressed up spiffily in expensive French suits, and threw huge gala dinners at which visiting dignitaries gorged on Norwegian smoked salmon and Chateaubriand steaks flown in from Paris, all washed down w ith the best French wines. He never allowed corruption on the rampant scale of Zaire, but he looked the other way as top aides lined their pockets, and he almost certainly had his own secret bank accounts in Europe. He did some good for Togo, but after more than 20 years in power he wore out his welcome. And when communism collapsed and democracy became the standard by which the West's friends were to be judged, he lost Western support as well. To the French, his main backers, he is now an embarrassment. They, the other Europeans, and the United States would like to see him gone. They have warned Eyadema that a military coup against the democracy coalition would bring a cutoff of aid, and he knew that without Western aid he couldn't survive. That is what has obliged him to treat his challengers with restraint. But it is time now for President Gnassingbe Eyadema to go. If he tries to hold on longer he will destroy everything he built in over two decades of rule. For the good of his country, and for his own good, his Western former-friends should do everything they can to help him to that decision.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.