What’s with the political unrest in Togo?

Don’t Panic!... Your war questions answered

As those of you who are employed as border guards in the west African nations of Ghana and Benin already know, your neighbor Togo just experienced a surge in political violence that spurred thousands of Togolese to flee the country for safety. The violence followed the announcement by Togo’s constitutional court that Faure Gnassingbé was the official winner of last month’s presidential election.

Before we look at the current politics, however, I want you to close your eyes and travel with me in your mind to a magic place. It’s time to go to Togo!

On second thought, go ahead and open your eyes. It’ll be easier to follow along.

You can find Togo on a map by putting your finger on Paris (France, not Hilton) and moving it straight down the map until you reach the reach the Gulf of Guinea. Togo is the tiny country shaped like a loose cigarette that’s been in someone’s pocket all night. It’s capital is called Lomé. It’s wedged between Ghana and Benin, a country that, depending on your map and your mood, looks either like a misshapen chicken drumstick or one of the heads in the Girl Scouts logo.

The CIA’s World Factbook says that Togo is slightly smaller than West Virginia and is home to 5.6 million people. Of course, the agency also said that Iraq has WMD, so who the hell knows if that is true.

Togo, formerly called Togoland by the West, was a German colony from 1884 until the first days of World War I. Shortly after the war began, the Germans surrendered Togoland to British and French forces. British Togoland is now part of neighboring Ghana. French Togoland became the independent Republic of Togo in 1960.

Though Togo is tiny, it’s still big enough to hold at least two dueling ethnic groups. The northern part of the country is dominated by the Kabyé people, while the southern, coastal part of the country is dominated by the Ewé.

What’s the difference between the two groups? Well, among other things, the Kabyé are dog lovers and the Ewé are cat lovers. When I say lovers, I’m referring to which of the two animals each group prefers to eat. The Kabyé eat dog meat, the Ewé eat cat meat, and each thinks the other is disgusting for it.

Togo’s ethnic divide was effectively exploited for almost four decades by its previous dictator, Gnassingbé Eyadéma. With the help of former colonial master France, Eyadéma made sure that his fellow Kabyé people (about 12 percent of Togo’s population) dominated the upper ranks of the military, police and government - even though the Ewé are a much larger group (comprising about 40 percent of Togo’s population). The longer Eyadéma was in power, the more conflict he provoked between the two groups to stay in power. By the 1990s, violent outbursts between Kabyé and Ewé were increasingly commonplace.

Is it just me, or does every name in Togo sound like Pig Latin?

Eyadéma died Feb. 5. The country’s constitution called for the speaker of Togo’s national assembly to take the presidency. Instead, the military’s Kabyé leadership declared that Eyadéma’s son, Faure Gnassingbé, would be the new president.

It was a blatant military coup - so blatant that the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States imposed sanctions on Togo. Faure Gnassingbé resigned Feb. 25 but returned to power this month thanks to the so-called election I referred to above. It is “so-called” because the main opposition leader is in forced exile, the press was bullied by the pro-Gnassingbé power structure, and ballot box-tampering was widely reported. Shortly before the election, Togo’s interior minister (nominally in charge of running the election) agreed out loud with opposition groups that the election was about to be stolen. He was, of course, fired.

When Gnassingbé was “declared” the official winner this month, riots ensued. Thousands fled, but press accounts and a Ghanaian man living in Togo named Sam Edmund (he picked up last week when I started dialing random Togolese telephone numbers) indicate that the situation is starting to calm down and refugees are starting to return.

Gnassingbé swears that he’ll serve the Togolese well, but that ain’t gonna happen.