Chris Stein
Togolese opposition leader Gilchrist Olympio campaigns for the United Forces for Change party in Kpele Adeta, Togo, on July 22.

In tiny Togo, opposition leader survives hit squads, wants nation of flower plantations

Parliamentary elections tomorrow may break the back of a ruling family in control since 1967. 

Gilchrist Olympio survived a bloody ambush on his motorcade, escaped from a coup that saw his father – Togo’s first post-independence leader – gunned down at the door of the American embassy, and then he later managed to avoid two death sentences pronounced by the country's courts. 

Now, as the perpetual leader of tiny Togo’s political opposition, Mr. Olympio is still out on the campaign trail for parliamentary elections Thursday.

He is preaching about a new era for this troubled west African country that, since 1967, been ruled by a family dynasty.

“I’ve always done it,” Olympio says of campaigning, which he now does in a caravan of pickup trucks and SUVs. “Now it’s become legal.”

It used to be that Olympio snuck campaign literature across the border from Ghana. But his supporters now cheerfully approach the Olympio caravan on motorbikes decorated with stalks of grass. “The people of my party want me to be active,” he says.

With voters heading to the polls to decide on the balance of power in the country’s parliament, Togo just might be taking its first steps to shake control from the Gnassingbé family.

That family dynasty’s crackdowns on opposition have resulted in Togo being marginalized amid an increasingly democratic and economically vibrant west Africa.

The current president, Faure Gnassingbé, was shoehorned into office in 2005 in the wake of bloody violence between the military and street protesters, who say that the son's ascension into power after father’s death was unconstitutional.

If opposition parties tomorrow gain control of parliament – and set aside their differences – the parliament may pass reforms to check Mr. Gnassingbé’s power and perhaps disqualify him for elections in 2015.

Olympio himself, as one of the most senior opposition activists, has long been at the center of efforts to unseat the Gnassingbé rulers. But age and political missteps may damage Olympio's clout.

Significantly, Olympio joined a unity government with Gnassingbé in 2010. Rival opposition figures called him a sell-out. That led to a split in his own party that may undermine their chances in parliament.

“At some stage you have to stop looking in the rear mirror, and look forward,” Olympio says. “And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Since becoming independent from France in 1960, democracy for the sliver-shaped Togo has been fraught and fleeting.

Olympio’s father, Sylvanus Olympio, sat in office for three years before soldiers loyal to Etienne Gnassingbé Eyadéma, the current president’s father, staged a coup and gunned the elder Olympio down as he tried to seek refuge in the American embassy in the capital Lomé.

Four years later, President Eyadéma overthrew Mr. Olympio’s successor, seized power, and ruled Togo for almost 40 years. Along the way, he cultivated a personality cult, one replete with monuments to his deeds that he scattered around the country, along with a tall folk tale that he had survived a plane crash because he was invulnerable.

The elder Gnassingbé, Eyadéma, who died in 2005, was not kind to the younger Olympio, who had survived his father’s murder, fled the country, and became known as public enemy No. 1 in Togo.

Twice Olympio was sentenced to death in absentia. After a 1992 amnesty he returned from exile in Europe and other African nations. But while campaigning in the north, a hit squad riddled Olympio’s car with bullets, sending him back into exile abroad.

“Eyadéma was bad. He’s a page that everybody wants turned once and for all,” Olympio says in an interview.

He has nicer things to say about the son, the current president, who he considers well-read and accommodating. “You can argue cases with him,” Olympio says.

He describes their current political coalition as fruitful, and a way to get Togo’s economy back on track again after the 2005 political crisis.

Olympio envisions a Togo of flower plantations and increased coffee and cocoa exports, where container ships line up to unload at west Africa’s only natural deep-water port, just to the east of the capital.

But to some of his supporters, joining with Gnassingbé was anathema. Jean-Pierre Fabre, an important ally, left Olympio’s party to form his own opposition group, which is expected to make considerable gains in parliament.

“For some members of the opposition, he’s joined Gnassingbé’s force,” said Dany Ayida, a Togolese civil society activist. “Olympio is a businessman. Politically, he has lost.”

Even in Olympio’s ranks there are whispers that it’s time to find someone else to head up his United Forces for Change party, perhaps someone younger.

“He has the support of the people,” says Noms Mohammed, as he watches Olympio at his second stop of the day, a stump speech held in a dirt field an hour’s drive south of Kpele Adeta. Mr. Mohammed wants to vote for Olympio’s party but isn't as keen about the party leader. “He’s old…. They must appoint a new flagbearer,” he says. 

Olympio's next move must be decided before the presidential polls in two years time. Unlike the vast Gnassingbé family, the only child he has to draw on for a legacy is his daughter, who is married, living in the United States, and disinterested in Togolese politics, according to Olympio.

“I’m not very young,” he replied when asked if he’ll make another presidential try after being prevented from running so many times.

“As they say, old soldiers don’t die, they just fade away. You don’t quit.”

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