Show Me The Way Togo: Olympio’s Long March

By Taryana Odayar.

Togo, officially known as the Togolese Republic, is a country in West Africa bordered by Ghana to the west, Benin to the east and Burkina Faso to the north. It extends south up to the Gulf of Guinea, where its capital Lomé is located. It has a population of just under 7 million people, its official language is French, and it is home to a particularly distinguished LSE alumn; Sylvanus Olympio (6 September 1902 – 13 January 1963), who after studying Economics at the LSE under Harold Laski, went on to become the Prime Minister and then the very first President of Togo. Olympio served as President from 1958 until his untimely assassination in 1963, thereby making him the first President to be assassinated during a military coup in post-colonial era Africa.

Upon graduating from our esteemed institution, Olympio, who spoke English and French equally fluently, went back to his beloved country as the General Manager of Unilever’s African operations. During the Second World War, Togo came under the control of the Vichy France government, which eventually arrested Olympio in 1942 because of their suspicion of his and his family’s alleged ties with the British. However, Olympio’s imprisonment in the isolated city of Djougou in French Dahomey would prove vital to the formulation of his political agenda, and upon being released, he began actively campaigning to secure Togo’s independence from the French. Indeed, a large part of Olympio’s short life, and sadly even shorter political career, was dedicated to achieving independence for his beloved country.

However, this would prove to be an uphill battle, as at that time Togo was not officially a French colony, but held the very complex status of being a trustee under the rules of the League of Nations, and following that, the United Nations. In 1947, Olympio resolutely petitioned the UN Trusteeship Council to grant Togo its independence, and in doing so, created history, as this petition was the first ever petition for the resolution of grievances to be taken to the United Nations. In the meantime, Olympio founded the Comité de l’unité togolaise (CUT), which later became the dominant party opposing French control of Togo. Olympio’s petition to the UN finally paid off in 1958, when the Trusteeship Council ensured that French control over the 1958 elections was limited, resulting in a resounding victory for Olympio’s CUT party which secured every elected position in the national council, granting Olympio the post of Prime Minister.

1958 to 1961 proved to be Olympio’s golden years in office, as he went on to hold not only the post of Prime Minister, but the posts of Minister of Finance, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Minister of Justice as well. Then, in 1961, the citizens of Togo voted to instate a President, as well as the Constitution created by Olympio’s party. With over 90% of the vote, Olympio then went on to further cement his power in being elected as the first President of Togo, as well as finally achieving independence for his country through the approval of the Constitution. During this time, Olympio also sought to improve Togo’s diplomatic relations with the rest of the international community, especially Britain and the US, and to this effect visited President John F. Kennedy in 1962, and maintained friendships with many of the elites of the day in both British and American high society.

Olympio’s brutal assassination, merely 2 years later in 1963, was mourned by the entire country, who were devastated to have lost a true statesman without whom their country may never have achieved independence. The assassination, which was the culmination of a coup led by rebel army officers, angered many African states, such as Guinea, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, and Tanganyika, all of whom denounced the coup and the assassination, and refused to recognize the new government by excluding it from the Addis Ababa Conference later that year which formed the Organisation of African Unity.

Currently, Olympio’s son, Gilchrist Olympio, is following in his father’s footsteps, as the head of the main opposition party, the Union of Forces for Change, against the incumbent Gnassingbe government.

Economically speaking, Togo remains amongst the world’s poorest countries, with a GNI per capita of US$ 570 (World Bank, 2011). Furthermore, it has been faced with wide international disapproval for its human rights record, and is also under considerable pressure to hold more credible parliamentary elections. Recently, opposition groups condemned the changes that have been made to the country’s electoral law which they feel give an undue advantage to the incumbent government coalition.

As a republic under transition to multiparty democratic rule, the country is now holding its breath as the 2015 presidential polls draws closer, as whispers of a new political contender challenging the Gnassingbe family’s decades-long rule, grow in both volume and frequency.


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