Trauma in Togo
by Mark Wentling (Honduras 1967-69 & Togo 1970-73)
Published in American Diplomacy, February 2020
April 1991, while I was serving in Lomé, Togo as the USAID Representative for Togo and Benin, protests in Lomé against the dictatorial regime of President Eyadéma reached the boiling point. One night, President Eyadéma’s barbaric soldiers entered the original neighborhood of Lomé, Bè, and killed a couple dozen people or more. They collected the bodies and threw them into the lagoon which cut across the northern part of old Lomé. Their morbid idea was that when the people saw the dead bodies, they would cease revolting against Eyadéma, his cronies and all for which they stood.
The opposite happened. Angrily, the people of Bè gathered the dead bodies and put them in a dump
truck. Thousands of people marched with the truckload of bodies from Bè, on the eastern side of Lomé, into the heart of Lomé. The idea of the protest leaders was to dump these bodies in front of the French embassy. Many people held the French responsible because they still backed the Eyadèma regime. They thought that maybe when the French saw the dead bodies, they might change their minds about supporting such a corrupt and murderous regime.
Before our eyes, there was indeed a bloody clash. The protestors were out armed and spread in panic in all directions. Some protestors jumped the wall of the embassy, causing the small group of Marines to go into react mode while they rounded up protestors who had sought sanctuary. Our warehouse across the street from the embassy suffered damage from the stun grenades and tear gas canisters launched at the protestors.I happened to be in the U.S. embassy when the protest marchers were coming in our direction with their load of bloated dead bodies, marching in front of the U.S. embassy before going on to the French embassy. I was on the second floor of our embassy with our new ambassador, the late Harmon Kirby, observing the protest marchers coming our way. We also observed coming from the opposite direction a large contingent of well-armed security forces. There was no way to avoid a violent clash between these two opposing groups.
In this ugly melee, the dead bodies were dumped in a pile in front of our embassy parking gate. Seeing all these dead bodies was perhaps the most horrific sight I have seen in Africa, especially as most of the bodies were women with their babies still tied to their backs with their traditional African cloth. The sight was so terrible that we were all awoken to the kind of evil atrocities Eyadéma was capable of committing. In any event, this was a real turning point in Togolese politics and in the history of Togo.
In early June 1991, the boiling point was again reached. A general strike was called, and protestors massed in larger numbers than before. This time they targeted the huge white marble statue of Eyadéma located in front of his political party headquarters in Lomé. They did a lot of damage to the statue before security forces intervened to dismantle and haul it away. Pieces of the statue were strewn everywhere. I have on my home desk one of these pieces. I use it as a paperweight.
Another target was the ideological school built by the North Koreans in the northern part of Lomé. This school was called by many Togolese the idiot school because they saw no reason to study ideology and the word, ‘idiot’ was close to the start of the word, ideology, and they thought you had to be an idiot to study there. I visited the school once and was impressed by the big wall murals portraying scenes of popular political gatherings. However, the black faces in the murals all had Asian features. Obviously, the creative North Korean artists were not able to paint faces with African features.
I was surprised during this violent period by how the Togolese would gather into their own ethnic groups and take sides. Usually, Lomé was a very tolerant place and you could not tell the ethnic group of anyone. The most surprising thing for me was these groups were armed with spears, clubs and bows and arrows. I had never seen any of these items before. I wondered where they kept these traditional arms hidden.
As I look back over the decades, I am forced to believe the legacy left by Eyadéma has ruined Togo forever. Years ago, when I visited Togo, I would ask close Togolese friends how things were going and they would respond, “we are waiting.”
I knew they were waiting for Eyadéma to die. However, when he did die in 2005, nothing really changed. He was replaced by one of his many sons, Faure Gnassingbé, a graduate of George Washington University in Washington, DC. It is reported that Eyadéma had as many as 90 children from mothers who represented almost all ethnic groups and every district in Togo. I heard he would send people around the country with a video camera to film any beautiful young women they would come across. He would view these videos and if he saw a girl to his liking, he would send his men to pick her up. I do know if people in the village of Agu-Nyogbo, where I had been a Peace Corps Volunteer for three years in the early 1970s, heard that an Eyadéma video crew was in the village, they would hide their adolescent daughters in the hope they would not be filmed.
In this way, and after decades in power, Eyadéma had innumerable offspring from every corner in Togo. His son Faure has been president since the death of his father in 2005. Togo’s constitution had to be amended to reduce the required age of the president to 35 years from 45 years so as to enable Faure, 37, to become president. Such constitutional amendments were considered minor details.
Faure’s mother is from Agu. (I guess she did not escape Eyadéma’s film crew.) Faure built her a mansion on the side of Agu mountain, constructing a paved road from the foot of the mountain to her house. I note that I would never say any of these things if I were in Togo, and I only say them now because I do not expect to see Togo again. I was warned the last time I was in Togo in 2016 that retribution for outspokenness from the ruling powers was still possible. The curse of the old Eyadéma continues. Although he has been dead for 15 years, his evil spirit still haunts Togo.
In my view, Eyadéma put a permanent biological hex on Togo. He and his son have ruled Togo for a half-century. The only question now is about who leads the Eyadéma dynasty next. The struggle for leadership is among the descendants of Eyadéma. The current president Faure fought with his brother, Kpatcha (from another northern Togo mother) to become president. He resorted to imprisoning Kpatcha. Whoever leads the dynasty, now or in the future, must have the backing of the military and police, which continue to be dominated by people from Eyadéma’s home Pya area in northern Togo.
If I ask my close Togolese friends today what the future has in store for Togo, they no longer say, “we are waiting.” They say instead “lost case.” They have lost all hope of any change in the leadership of the country and have resigned themselves to being ruled forever by the Eyadéma clan. Nonetheless, western nations continue to go mostly along with the leadership of Togo’s government. At the same time, other African countries also seem content to go along with the dishonest governance scheme in Togo.
Following two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in Honduras Mark Wentling first arrived in Togo, West Africa, in 1970 and served three years as a PCV. He then served as Peace Corps Director in Gabon and Niger. He began working for USAID in Niger in 1977, and served as the principal USAID officer in Guinea, Togo/Benin, Angola, Somalia and Tanzania. Following retirement in 1996, Mark continued to work for USAID as an advisor for the Great Lakes, then with USAID Missions in Burkina Faso, Niger, Zambia, Malawi, Guinea and Senegal. He also worked with CARE in Niger and Mozambique, and then with World Vision all over Africa. In addition, he was Country Director for Plan International in Burkina Faso. In these and other postings he has covered all of Africa, leading to his latest book, Africa Memoir, 50 Years, 54 Countries, One American Life, 1970 – 2020.