THE DEATH of the Togolese dictator Gnassingbe Eyadema after 38 years in power has removed a crucial link in the West African elder-statesman chain of command that considers authority to be a tribal prerogative, long service and old age to be an asset, and that systematically plays off political decisions against business favours.
Famous for his lavish gifts to visitors and his obliviousness to calls for human rights, Eyadema helped institutionalise the image of the African despot in dark glasses who named the streets of Togo's capital, Lome, after red-letter dates in his life. In the world, only Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, the Gabonese president Omar Bongo Odimba and the Cuban leader Fidel Castro come anywhere close to Eyadema's long hold on power. His longevity in control - despite sanctions imposed by the European Union 12 years ago - was in large part due to his close ties with the successive presidents of Togo's former colonial master, France. Eyadema's death was greeted by the French President Jacques Chirac as a "personal loss".
Born in 1935 to a peasant family of the Kabye tribe in northern Togo, Eyadema was a wrestling champion before joining the French army and serving in Benin, Indochina, Algeria and Niger. In 1962, two years after independence from France, Sergeant Eyadema returned to Togo. In January 1963, aged 28, he supported a military coup against the first President of independent Togo, Sylvanus Olympio, who was killed and replaced by Nicolas Grunitsky. As chief of army staff, Eyadema himself took power on 13 January 1967, rapidly declaring himself President and defence minister.
It was 26 years before Eyadema ran in an election - and a questionable one at that. Ten years later, in his next election, in 2003, when Eyadema might have been defeated, Togo's electoral commission ruled out the candidacy of his main opponent, Gilchrist Olympio, son of Sylvanus. The commission said Olympio's tax affairs were not in order because he had lived in exile in France since an attempt on his life in 1999.
From the end of the Cold War, when European governments began to take into account the democratic credentials of their partners in Africa, Togo was constantly among the worst performers. Amnesty International and other human-rights groups time and again condemned Eyadema's regime for opening fire on demonstrations, systematically torturing opponents and ordering assassinations. Eyadema's response to the claims was to denounce the "injustice" of campaign groups whom he accused of carrying out denigratory campaigns against him. He argued that true Togolese-style democracy was based on "security and peace".
Known as "the boss", he survived at least seven attempts on his life and, on his desk at his "Lome 2" presidential palace, proudly kept a notebook in a glass display box that had saved his life when it was pierced by a bullet in one attack.
But, as Togo - despite continuing phosphate exports - felt the pressure of EU sanctions imposed in 1993, Eyadema had begun to accept the need to envisage his own succession, if only in favour of his son, Faure. Under EU pressure, Eyadema's eternal partner, France, helped ease him towards the idea that dictatorships were out of fashion. Nevertheless, change was always slow and accompanied by U-turns, delayed elections and, for example in 1991, a massing of military tanks in front of the prime minister's office to force him out of power. Elections were again planned for this April or May but at the time of Eyadema's death the calendar was still vague.
Over the years, Eyadema, who once said, "Democracy in Africa moves on at its own pace and in its own way", had established himself as one of the linchpins of West African regional politics. Even though Togo is small and poor and the capital Lome has all the vibrance of a forgotten Soviet- era bywater, Eyadema himself had fingers in many pies.
He helped create Ecowas, the Economic Community of West African States, which has grown into a powerful grouping. His status as an elder of the region earned him the respect of other African leaders, and his privileged relationship with France made him a useful middle man for any business or political grouping that needed an entree in Paris. In the same way, he played a role on France's behalf in the current African Union negotiations to bring peace to Ivory Coast.
But the Franco-African networking system which also includes President Paul Biya of Cameroon, President Bongo and President Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo has largely been overtaken by the African Union and its generation of modern leaders such as the South African president Thabo Mbeki, who see the continent as a political grouping in its own right rather than as 52 countries vying for the bilateral attentions of their former colonial masters.
For several months, there had been persistent rumours about Eyadema's state of health, although he did manage to attend an African Union heads- of-state conference in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, 10 days ago. He died, it is believed of a heart attack, on board an aircraft taking him for emergency treatment.
He is credited with having more than 50 children, although only four sons are visible in public life.
Etienne Gnassingbe Eyadema, wrestler, soldier and politician: born Pya, Togo 26 December 1935; President of Togo 1967-2005; married; died 5 February 2005.
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