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Étienne Gnassingbé Eyadéma Biography (Part 1 of 2)

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Part 1 -- President of a One-Party State
Gnassingbé Eyadéma © Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images

Gnassingbé Eyadéma at 22nd Franco-African Summit, Paris 19 Feb 2003 © Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images

© Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images

Étienne Gnassingbé Eyadéma was a professional Soldier and president of the Republic of Togo (14 January 1967 to 5 February 2005). At the time of his death he was Africa's longest serving Head of State.

Date of Birth: 26 December 1935, Pya, French Togoland
Date of Death: 5 February 2005, in air on route to France from Togo

An Early Life
Étienne Eyadéma was born to a peasant family on 26 December 1935 in the village of Pya, northern French Togoland. (The year of his birth has been disputed.) He was part of the Kabiyè speaking people of the Kara region (who form roughly 12% of the population of modern Togo) and are part of the majority northern Volta-Congo (or Gur) language group.

Étienne Eyadéma joined the French army in 1953 and served in various conflicts between 1953 and 1961, including Indochina, Dahomey, Niger, and in the Algerian War of Independence. He returned to Togo in 1962 with the rank of sergeant and joined the Togolese army. Sylvanus Épiphanio Olympio, Togo's first president, refused to take 626 Togolese army veterans from the various French engagements into Togo's small but growing army (Olympio also favored the Ewe people of southern French Togoland).

First Coup d'État
This enraged parts of the Togolese army and they, with Emmanuel Bodjollé and Eyadéma at the helm, assassinated Olympio on 13 January 1963. The leaders of the coup d'état installed Nicolas Grunitzky (who returned from exile in France) as president, representing the Mouvement des Personnes Togolaises (MPT, Togolese People's Movement). Grunitzky was confirmed as president by national elections on 6 May (although he was the only candidate put forward).

There was a failed coup attempt by Ewe people in 1966, who wanted to restore the preferential status of their ethnic group over others in French Togoland (which had existed under Olympio).

President Eyadéma
On 14 January 1967 the army removed Nicolas Grunitzky as president. The almost bloodless coup was lead by the now Lieutenant-Colonel Étienne Eyadéma (who was the Army Chief of Staff) and Kléber Dadjo. Dadjo took power temporarily as the Chairman of the National Reconciliation Committee and Grunitzky was sent into exile in Paris. The army chiefs later claimed that Grunitzky had simply resigned the presidency after being faced with his political and economic shortcomings. On 14 April, Étienne Eyadéma was installed as president and minister of defense. One of his earliest moves was to invite past political exiles back to Togo.

In 1969 Étienne Eyadéma set up new unity party, the Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais (RPT, Rally for the Togolese People) and the country was turned into a one party state. The following year there was another failed coup attempt.

On 9 January 1972, facing increasing criticism of his rule, the president ordered a referendum, which asked the question: "Do you want General Eyadéma to continue the functions of president of the republic entrusted to him by the army and the people?". Unsurprisingly, given the totalitarian nature of the state, the yes vote garnered 99.9%. Two years later, Étienne Eyadéma was the 'only' survivor of an aircraft crash. The claim fed into his growing cult of personality as proof of his invulnerability; although it has since been revealed that others did, in fact, survive the crash.

Africanization
In 1974 President Étienne Eyadéma introduced a program of Africanization, and set about strengthening nationalistic sentiment by demanding Togo's elite adopt African first names (rather than the typical, popular French first names) -- he took the name of Gnassingbé. French geographical names were also changed. Eyadéma also began a program of nationalization (of major industries such as phosphate production) which led to increased state revenue which was ostensibly ploughed back into development.

In December 1977 Eyadéma faced another attempted coup, this one led by Lieutenant-Colonel Merlaud Lawson. Lawson was lucky enough to escape the country, but 65 of his collaborators were arrested. Eyadéma publicly accused the exiled sons of late president Sylvanus Épiphanio Olympio (assassinated on 13 January 1963) of complicity in the attempt.

In 1979 there was also another attempted coup. This time President Gnassingbé Eyadéma not only accused the sons of late president Sylvanus Épiphanio Olympio (who were in exile in France) but also the family of Emmanuel de Souza (who were in exile in Ghana). Emmanuel de Souza's father had been involved in the Comité de l'Unité Togolaise (CUT, Committee of Tongolese Unity), and had served as vice president to Sylvanus Épiphanio Olympio. Family members of both dynasties were stripped of Togo nationality and the Togolese government contacted French and Ghanaian authorities to start extradition proceedings. In August 1979 Ghanaian authorities agreed to extradite Emmanuel de Souza to Togo -- he was tried, found guilty and sentenced to death. This was later commuted to life imprisonment, and then he was released.

New Constitution
In late 1979 a referendum resulted in a new constitution which set the period of presidential terms of office to seven years. National elections were run in December with Gnassingbé Eyadéma as the only candidate (as too in 1986). Eyadéma continued as president of a one-party state, bringing a small degree of stability to a country facing increased economic troubles (with falling world prices of natural resources) and an increasingly corrupt and mismanaged government. The celebrations for his presidential inauguration in January 1980 included the release of 32 political prisoners and the reinstatement of Togolese nationality for the De Souza family.

By the mid 1980's there were calls for democratic elections. In 1985 seats in the legislature were made available to any member of the ruling Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais (RPT, Rally for the Togolese People), rather than the previous system of selected candidates. However a third of those who put their name forward were 'encouraged' to step down before the election. Protests erupted in the streets of the capital Lomé over the apparent usurpation of an ongrowing democratic revolution. The following year Amnesty International accused president Gnassingbé Eyadéma of human rights abuses -- the Togo government banned the organization from continuing investigations within the country.

On 23 September 1986 yet another coup attempt was foiled. This time, the Togolese government accused neighboring Burkina Faso and Ghana of supporting the 'commando unit' that had been captured. The government closed Togo's border with Ghana in protest. The trial in December of those detained resulted in 13 death sentences and 14 for life imprisonment. Gilchrist Olympio was tried and found guilty in absentia. The following year, President Gnassingbé Eyadéma celebrated 20 years in office by releasing 200 political prisoners. He also announced the creation of a human rights commission (as a response to increasing international condemnation of his rule).

Biography of Étienne Gnassingbé Eyadéma Part 2 -- Growing Demands for Democracy

Timeline of Togo
Part 1: From Prehistory to the Assassination of Sylvanus Épiphanio Olympio (13 January 1963)
Part 2: From the Assassination of Sylvanus Épiphanio Olympio (13 January 1963) to President Gnassingbé Eyadéma's 20th Anniversary as President (January 1987)
Part 3: From President Gnassingbé Eyadéma's 20th Anniversary as President (January 1987) to the Death of Gnassingbé Eyadéma (5 February 2005)
Part 4: From the Death of Gnassingbé Eyadéma (5 February 2005) to the Present Day

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