Gnassingbé Eyadéma

Étienne (Gnassingbé) Eyadéma was born on 26 December, 1937 in Pya in northern Togo. He was a Togolese political leader and head of state. His parents were farmers belonging to the Kabye ethnic community. whose members lacked the numbers and access of more prominent ethnic communities such as the Ewe to mission education in the French colony.

His mother was known as Mamam N’Danida. There is currently a road known as Avenue Maman N’danida where the “Dove of Peace” monument is situated.

After attending primary school, he decided upon a military career and joined the French colonial army in 1953 until 1961. As is the case with many northern Togolese, he had limited access to advanced schooling that could have led to a well-paying job.

He served with distinction during the warring moments of the French war in Vietnam and then fought against the anti-colonial rebels of the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), during Algeria’s war for independence. Togo was granted independence in 1960. He remained in the French army until 1962, then returned back to Togo.

Gnassingbe found his niche in the volatile politicial landscape of the Togo decolonization period. There were two main political parties that impacted Gnassingbe’s political life were Sylvanus Olympio’s Comite de l’Unite Togolaise (CUT: Committee of Togolese Unity) and the Parti Togolais du Progres (PTP; Party of Togolese Progress – Nicolas Grunitzky). It was Grunitzky’s party that won in the legislative elections of 1958. However, the adversarial nature of the two parties ran deep and on occasion, members of both parties battled each other on the streets of Lome from 1958 to 1963

Olympio attempted to strengthen his hold on the presidency by placing obstacles in the way of the opposition. But in the process, he alienated many Togolese. In addition, Togo’s first president Sylvanus Olympio issued an executive order prohibiting former French soldiers from serving in the new Togolese army. This was deeply resented among the military segment of the population. Playing off the popular resentment against Olympio, Gnassingbe joined a group of military officers intent on overthrowing Olympio and led to a coup d’etat on 13 January 1963, in which Olympio was killed; it is rumoured that Gnassingbe personally killed Olympio. If this was actually true, it would have given Togo the dubious distinction of having an assassin as president. However, Gnassingbe did not take power in 1963. He and the other officers placed Nicolas Grunitzky in power.

Nicolas favored his own party above other former opposition parties and placed Gnassingbe at the head of the army after a failed coup in 1964. He then promoted him to full colonel. Some of the conspirators in the failed mutiny wanted Togo to unite with neighboring Ghana which did not appeal to Gnassingbe. By 1966, Grunitzky’s position had grown increasingly shaky as was his dependence on Gnassingbe. With French approval, Gnassingbe seized power in January 1967. Gnassingbe banned all political parties and made himself the head of the state security forces.  He had a number of political rivals jailed  and killed. in 1969, he formed a single party state with himself at the head of the Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais (RPT; Rally of the Togolese People). He imitated the ruling style of Mobutu Sese Seko in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Gnassingbe embarked on promoting a personality cult on his supernatural characteristics. Among other things he had an entourage of 1000 dancing women who sang and danced in praise of him, portraits of him in most stores, a bronze statue of him in the capital Lome, $20 wristwatches with his portrait, which disappeared and re-appeared every fifteen seconds; and even a comic book that depicted him as a superhero with powers of invulnerability and super strength. In addition, the date of a failed attempt on the President’s life became a national holiday celebrated every year as “the Feast of Victory Over Forces of Evil.

In 1974, Gnassingbe was involved in a plane crash that killed the French pilot and three other passengers.  He was not the sole survivor of the crash but he took advantage of the situation by deliberately distorting the facts of the crash to make himself look like the only survivor of the crash with superhuman strength. He changed his name from Étienne to Gnassingbé to help him remember the day of the crash and set up a memorial commemorating his miracle.

In 1979 he ran for President in a campaign in which he was the sole candidate. He won as no other candidate was allowed to run against him. Even though he was portrayed as a colorful African dictator by Western journalists, his ruthless rule and rampant corruption were major concerns to a lot of Togolese.

In the early 1990s,  Gnassingbe’s reign began to feel the heat due to the end of the cold war as well as grass roots movements demanding  democratic change in a number of African countries.  He was forced to accept a national party convention in 1991 that ended single party rule. He won both the 1993 and the 1998 presidential elections amid allegations of fraud and having hundreds of government opponents killed. Because of these human rights violations, the European Union suspended aid in 1993. In 2000, he was elected head of the African Union. In late December 2002, Gnassingbe had the constitution modified to remove how many terms the President could serve in office.  Despite promises not to run after the 1998 elections, he ran again in 2003 and this time amended the constitution to lower the minimum age requirement for Presidency to 35 years from 45 years, paving the way for his son to take over. 

Gnassingbe was known for working very long hours and being a strict disciplinarian as well as being short-tempered. It was rumored that he had over 100 children with several women. By 2004, his health began to deteriorate. On February 5th 2005, he died of a heart attack while on board an airplane. At the time of his death, he had been the longest serving leader in Africa.

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