TOGO: As Togo Buries Its Past: Reflections on A Nation's Future
Positive change takes time.
In the case of Togo, where General Eyadema ruled with notorious severity for 38 years, and where the most outspoken and adamant political opposition has resided among the country's large international Diaspora, structural and political change is happening at a galloping pace, much faster than is perceived by the outside world. Nevertheless, massive conceptual changes in the manner in which a country (and society) governs itself cannot (nor should be pressured to) occur overnight.
One forgets how long it took even the United States in the early days of the republic to assure freedom of speech and assembly.
I have just returned from an intensive week in Lomé, Togo's capital, where, as a media strategist, I was attempting to analyze the political climate in the weeks following the abrupt death of General Eyadema. In any country in which the disappearance of the sole authority figure is abrupt a power vacuum is to be an expected, although disturbing, phenomenon. Hanging out in Lomé's poorly-ventilated and time-warped showcase hotel, the 2 Février, at the vacant Place de L'Indépendance, was like living in the eye of the storm.
The way in which the Togolese Constitution was doctored to allow for the swift ascension to the presidential fauteuil of General Eyadema's 39 year old son, Faure, was not only regrettable, it was ultimately not in the best interest of the country and its aspiring leader. By all the accounts of friends, diplomats and others close to Faure, the young man is mild-mannered, well-educated, level-headed, reasonable and deeply committed to doing what is best for the development of his country. That doesn't mean he doesn't have difficulties making bold decisions on his own. The outer chambers of his briefly-occupied presidential office were strangely cluttered with calculating insiders hoping to shape the son's path.
Faure holds degrees from universities in France and the US (including an MBA from George Washington University), has multi-ethnic roots and is multi-lingual. His English is excellent, whereas his father's strengths never included verbal proficiency in any language.
Whereas it is understandable to be connected by the cultural and emotional strings of family ties -- the power of familial and ethnic chemistry is particularly strong in Africa -- it is harshly debilitating for any son or daughter to be cast in the dark and heavy shadows of a powerful father. The euphemistic "big brother" of the Soviet age continues to loom over societies across Africa, where influence follows the lineage of age and parentage. The best way to wield influence in much of Africa, even in the 21st century, is to have direct links to a well-positioned grand-frère.
In those strained and humid days in Lomé, as the Obesanjo-led CEDAEO intensified its objection to the legitimacy of Faure and international pressure built daily for the young leader to resign based on the rules of transition under Togo's constitution, I watched a multi-headed and aging political machine toss and turn like a fat snake whose head had been chopped off.
Military leaders accompanied by a French-lawyer of dubious reputation and undeniable influence, who had been grotesquely feeding on the Togolese national budget for decades, led Faure Gnassingbé down a dead-end trail. The only logical strategy for long-term survival was to throw in the towel and resign, which he did on February 25, 2005.
Presidential elections, as stipulated in the Togolese constitution, were called for within 60 days, and are now scheduled for April 24, 2005. In the absence of the former head of the Assembly, Mr. Natchaba, whose political intentions and private dealings with the former supremo maximo are ambiguous, an interim president who has no overbearing personal ambitions, Abass Bonfoh, was named.
Whether or not the process of selection was impeccable, or whether or not he is applauded by all political parties, is ultimately of little importance. What is important is that Togo, as a young nation and a country with very little democratic experience and even lower international reputation, has made some very major and impressive steps towards real and lasting political and economic reform. And this, whether you are an old-time Eyadema groupie or a vehement enemy of the former iron-fisted regime, you must admit represents a swift change.
The political opposition to the Eyadema sphere of power, most visibly represented by Mr. Gilchrist Olympio, who leads the Union des Forces de Changement (UFC) and has been in exile in Paris for decades, has also contributed to the political confusion of the very-recent political volcano in Togo. On one hand, the opposition screams for a strict respect for law, and yet it is precisely Togolese law that prevents Mr. Olympio from running for the presidency himself.
A Togolese citizen, Mr. Olympio, who has lived in France longer than in Togo, does not fulfill the residency requirement that the constitution stipulates for all candidates. Admittedly, Mr. Olympio's life and political engagement - his father was the first democratically elected president of Togo who soon after taking power was assassinated by the French-backed Colonel Eyadema or his men - has historic legitimacy, and thus should play an active role in Togo's emerging political process.
But he cannot be a presidential candidate. And he should not publicly throw gasoline on the embers by publicizing his wish to be. He can, however, raise the bar for political debate and help encourage fellow Togolese citizens to exercise their rights and use their voices in a Togo that is on the brink of a new era of democracy.
Six opposition parties have just agreed to present a single candidate to oppose Faure, calculating that one strong opposition candidate has a greater chance than a cluster of weak choices. In fact, Togo's opposition has for so long been inculcated as incapable of effecting real change, that now that there is an opportunity for real change true leadership has yet to emerge. With an end to the Eyadema era, no party should think of itself as the opposition; the playing field has for the most part been leveled and opposition is no longer an appropriate adjective for any party.
Faure is not his father, and it takes bravery to state publicly "I am not my father." And yet his political future hinges on this very relationship. Without abandoning the respect and homage one always maintains for a parent, especially as the fallen leader is laid to rest this week, Faure needs to distance himself as much as possible, and as quickly as possible, from the politics and style of governance of General Eyadema if he wishes to emerge as the next hope of his country.
Today, he is the only man who has the national recognition of his people, who represents both the Kabré of the dominant north and the Ewé and Mina of the south, who has the international experience and the ear of Africa's most influential leaders (Ghaddafi, Bongo, Obasanjo, Mbeke, Wade, Tandja, Konaré…). He is also the only leader with the vision for economic development and international dialog with Brussels, Washington, London, and Paris, areas which are so desperately needed in a country as disadvantaged as Togo.
In essence, regardless of the outcome of the April 24 elections, Faure should be appreciated for the unprecedented courage he has demonstrated in relinquishing power voluntarily (albeit with a little coaxing), bucking the tide of traditions that have not served the country well during the long reign of his father, and for finding the appropriate balance between past affiliations and future necessities.
David Applefield is a media strategist specializing in Africa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org