Presidential elections are set for June 1st in the West African country of Togo. In response to the upcoming elections, the US State Department recently released a "diplomatic statement" calling for transparent elections and equitable access to media resources for all parties involved. If the United States is truly interested in liberating oppressed people through regime change, one would expect more than a diplomatic statement.
The Republic of Togo, like Iraq, has been under a brutal military dictatorship for many years. General Gnassingbe Eyadema has ruled Togo since 1967. His contemporaries were Mobutu of the former Zaire and Idi Amin Dada of Uganda. Thus, the regime of General Gnassingbe is one of the last vestiges of an era long gone.
In 1992, the Togolese National conference added a rule to the constitution to prevent any president from seeking more than two five-years terms. However, late last year, General Gnassingbe forced a change to the constitution and the electoral code allowing him to run for a third term. He has already sidelined many of his opponents for the elections in June, notably the son of the first president of Togo, Mr. Gilchrist Olympio, by introducing new requirements in January 2003 that every candidate must have spent at least 12 months in the country before the elections.
General Gnassingbe and Mr. Olympio are archenemies. The General killed Gilchrist Olympio's father, Sylvanus Olympio, in the first coup d'etat on the continent. General Gnassingbe has also made several attempts to assassinate Gilchrist Olympio. He almost succeeded in 1992, when the convoy of Mr. Olympio was ambushed in northern Togo by a brigade led by the sons of the General. Several people in Mr. Olympio's entourage were killed. Mr. Olympio was seriously injured in the assassination attempt and was evacuated out of the country.
During the 1998 presidential elections, as it was becoming apparent that Mr. Olympio would win, General Gnassinbge suspended the vote counting and declared himself the winner. With the control of the army and the lack of international condemnation, it was impossible for the opposition to do anything.
The regime of General Gnassingbe Eyadema shares many similarities with the regime of Saddam Hussein, at least in terms of brutality and repression of suspected dissidents. General Gnassingbe continues to torture and kill political dissidents, and he has terrorized and oppressed the people of Togo for several decades. Amnesty International and the US State Department have documented some of the abuses in Togo.
During a recent email campaign organized by the Togo Relief Fund, an organization started by Togolese living in the United States, Mr. John McCann, a former Peace Corps volunteer stationed in the northern Togo wrote, "Like most volunteers, I have wonderful memories of Togo. I learned a great deal and remain extremely grateful for the opportunity Peace Corps provided me. Along with good memories, I also remember numerous instances of police brutality and the chilling sound of screams coming from the Dapaon police station at night. Eyadema's was a regime of fear long before the mass killings of the early 1990s."
Indeed in the early 1990s, Togo saw widespread revolts calling for democracy and the liberalization of government institutions. But this period would not last. General Gnassingbe, after making superficial concessions, reasserted his grip over the country through mass killings and the violent repression of student demonstrations. Today, it is estimated that close to 20% of the Togolese population lives abroad for political and economical reasons.
Togo is one of the few countries in the region of sub-Saharan Africa that has not yet been engulfed by civil wars. If the situation in Ivory Coast is any indication, a civil war in Togo is only a matter of time. It may be difficult to avoid this violent path if the political situation is not resolved properly. With the rising conviction among the population and even in the Togolese clergy that only a civil war can overturn the regime of General Gnassingbe, Togolese around the world are bracing themselves.
It appears that Washington also is resigned to the idea of a civil war in Togo. But, like many Togolese in the United States and around the world, I strongly oppose this view. I believe that with a clear and strong message of condemnation and with the proper sanctions, the General and his regime will relinquish power. I am calling for the assets of the members of this despotic regime to be frozen, military assistance to be suspended, and travel bans imposed. It is true that Washington will face a strong opposition from the French government, who is continuing to support despots like general Gnassingbe in Africa. But by coming out with a clear position against the regime in Togo, I believe that George Bush will reinforce his stance against dictatorial regimes in the world, even in countries without large oil reserves.
USA, May 12, 2003
Coordinator of Togo Relief Fund
Amnesty International Annual reports: http://web.amnesty.org/web/ar2002.nsf/afr/togo
State Department Human Right report: http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2002/18231.htm
Human Rigth Watchon Togo at http://www.hrw.org/africa/togo.php
Chaos in West Africa by By Somini Sengupta, May 4th 2003, New York Times