Death and Democracy

Filed in Missions by on 19th Feb 2010

Lomé, Togo – After the death of Africa’s longest-serving dictator, Eyadéma Gnassingbé, on the 5th of February 2005, one might be forgiven for thinking that democracy could return to Togo. However, the people living in this small sliver of a country in West Africa nestled betweenGhana and Benin had little reason for hope that day. General Eyadéma had ruled the country with an iron hand for 38 years since seizing power in a coup d’état in January 1967.

Gnassingbé died on a Saturday morning. By Saturday night, state media not only informed them of his death but also that the army had named his son Faure as his successor. Togo’s prime minister at the time, Kofi Sama, referred to General Yadéma’s death as a national castastrophe, and spoke of the need to preserve peace and national unity. While President Jacques Chirac spoke of Gnassingbé’s death in terms of profound sadness and of how France was losing a close friend, the people of Togo learned that the country’s borders were now closed and all land, maritime and air travel into or out of the country forbidden.

TogoIn 1993, the European Union imposed an embargo on Togo for what it called a « democratic deficit ». Éyadéma reluctantly promised to hold talks with the country’s unofficial opposition parties and to organise multi-party elections.  For the first time, multi-party elections were held, once in 1993 and again in 1998. Opposition leaders believe that General Eyadema rigged the 1998 vote to win over Olympio. The official count was General Éyadéma 52 per cent, Gilchrist Olympio 34 per cent.

In an interview with the magazine Jeune Afrique in 2001, General Yadéma said that being in power a long time wasn’t a bad thing insofar as people had confidence in him, and that a change in power is not always a sign of success. However, there’s confidence and there’s fear, and in 2003, just two years before his death, the International Federation of Human Rights published a report outlining not only the General’s arbitrary rule in Togo but also the country’s systematic torture, the impunity of Togo’s police and security forces, rigged elections, and  prisons over-populated with those who disagreed with General Éyadéma.

In December 2002, General Éyadéma changed the constitution so he could stand for another five-year term. He also banned opposition leader Olympio from running against him on the pretext of irregularities in his nomination papers. Other opposition leaders were censored as they tried to present their political views and pro-Éyadéma activists disrupted their rallies. The opposition also questioned the addition of one million new names on the voter’s list, compared with the vote five years earlier.

Within days after General Yadéma’s death, the Togolese diapora in Europe organised demonstrations. In Lyon, Marseille, Brussels, Togolese ex-patriots took to the street demanding that the constitution of their homeland be respected. General Eyadéma’s main opponent, Gilchrist Olympio, of the l’Union des forces du changement (UFC), (Union of Forces for Change) said it was time for him to return to his homeland. He had been in exile in France since an assassination attempt against him in 1992. In an interview with Agence France Presse, he expressed hope that General Éyadéma’s death would allow Togo to regain the road to democracy. “My wish is for transparent and free elections in Togowithin the next two or three months.”

The voices of change grew louder. From Togolese who had left their homeland to the African Union to the Economic Union of West African States (ECOWAS), the message to respect the constitution and hold free and democratic elections became clear. Faure Gnassingbé gave in to international pressure to hold elections.

In April 2005, the election was marked by violence resulting in between 400 and 500 deaths as pro-Éyadéma activists attacked opposition supporters. Many fled to neighbouring Ghana and Benin for their lives.

Togo’s official media, meanwhile, reported a peaceful, open vote and Faure Gnassingbé continues to rule.

As part of a project with The Partnership for Media and Conflict Prevention in West Africa, International Media Support (Denmark) and the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists, I took part in a fact-finding mission in 2006 to evaluate the state of Togo’s media. This involved conducting interviews with radio, TV and print journalists, Journalists’ Associations, Government ministers, Union Officials and Human Rights Organisations. An important part of my responsibilities was to draw up recommendations to promote press freedom.

A year-and-a-half later, many of the recommendations had been implemented, including confidence-building measures and bringing security forces and journalists together to discuss their grievances. On my return to Togo in 2007, I conducted media elections training of national radio, television and newspaper journalists offering basic journalism, interview and studio techniques, election and political reporting and gave presentations on confliction resolution as it pertains to the media.

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