A small West African country tucked in between Ghana and Bénin, Togo perfectly symbolizes the turmoil of a continent in which after achieving official independence has desired to move forward to an era of autonomy.
A little less than six decades later, the country has a hard time freeing itself from a neo-colonialist system where the masters no longer strangle the colonized people from their own hands but delegate the dirty work to local tormentors. Consequently, the majority of the Togolese population struggles in an endemic misery while the jailers who run the country live in a state of insulting luxury.
In Lome it is not rare to see large German sedans forcing motorcycles off the road, even while many motorcycles carry entire families that struggle to keep their balance.
The law of all or nothing applies in a country where the middle class is practically non-existent. And for those with nothing, the majority that is, their consequence is they must find a way to make it with the cards the system has dealt to them and such indifference is almost dogmatic.
In Togo, a large portion of the population dies slowly. Not due to attacks, nor earthquakes, but due to a misery that kills massively and avoids the light of western cameras. One can kill an entire population by bombing it but one can also assassinate it slowly by depriving it of the basics, like a decent health care system. In 2015, the life expectancy in Togo was 65 years old whereas for the same period, it was 82 years old in France — a difference of 17 years. Former presidents of France used to say that a country had no friends, just interests. Faithful to his principles, former French President Charles De Gaulle charged Jacques Foccart with the objective to weave the web of the “Françafrique” (French-Africa) (1).
This idea led to the meticulous installation of dictators who liked to water themselves with the blood and tears of their populations, all while perpetuating the survival exercises of the colonial structure. In this project, so respectful of “Human Rights” principles, Togo became the first French speaking country to have its president killed based on an order directly from Paris.(2)
Yes, one can become a serial killer without having to pull a trigger and have their killing deeds praised by having an airport, monuments, and streets named after him. The difference between heroes and executioners is not only semantic, but also refers to an appreciation of the angle of history. But while De Gaulle and Foccart were the architects of this system, it is important to mention that subsequent French presidents had nothing to say about this fact. After the death of Gnassingbé Eyadema (
president, dictator, King of Togo from 1967 to 2005), Jacques Chirac, who was the President of France at that time, called his death the “loss of a friend to France”.(3)
The people in power come and go, but the relationship dynamics that unify France and its former colonies have remained the same. And for each impetuous individual who tried to break away from the parent country, the penalty was often fatal for him. From Olympio to Sankhara, to the passing of Lumumba, Africa has had to cry too many times for the assassination of its hopes. Ask the Congolese, Gabonese or Togolese if the French right and the French left are fundamentally different? Waiting for this bad movie to end, the Togolese people try to live decently within the 65 years of life expectancy they have.
In a country where corruption is everywhere and its educated graduates are hardly offered an outlet, the lure of somewhere else is often more attractive than the reality of the right here. The right here offers ridiculously underpaid salaries to students with Masters degrees whereas the somewhere else is happy to recruit these same young people, acutely aware of their educational backgrounds and high potential.
But for all of those who do not receive a precious visa to elsewhere helping them to escape this oppressive straightjacket, the need to “hustle” is also the law. Whether street vendors or gas station attendants, seeking money to make ends meet is a sport that they must practice daily to survive.
The misery tends to reveal the worst qualities of human nature, the thief is widespread throughout the country and especially in Lome. So the houses are built with protective walls around them, the walls always high and topped with chards of glass as a last tool of dissuasion. The winners of this little game are the leaders of the regime. Their houses are true fortresses, and to the contrary, those with modest means are unable to protect themselves effectively from the thief’s desperation.
Lome’s streets are full of stories of thieves being caught and burned alive, because when protecting the tiny lot that you have is at stake, the punishment is expeditious.(4)
French rappers Daddy Lord C and Rocca, proclaimed loudly in 1996 that God had never come to the place they come from, it seems that God also removed Togo from his list of priorities. Nonetheless, in every corner of Lomé, the people call out to him, beg for him, chant his name, and write their prayers on their motorcycles …waiting for an answer.
Conscious that hope has a price, churches (Christianity was first considered a sect when it began) and new sects flourish by taking the cash that its devotees have such a hard time to make. Ironically, once outside of the church, the devil is quick to remind everyone who is the real master of the place. The money seeking starts again. One profession, Zémidjan (motorcycle-taxis), symbolizes the unease of the Togolese more than any other.
Public transportation being underdeveloped, the “Zém” as people call them, help to fill the lack of a coherent public transportation policy. The other side of the Zém coin is one of saturation and chaotic rule over the Togolese roads, particularly in Lomé. Nonetheless, the number of Zémidjan never decrease, despite the constant sacrificial deaths (a question of point of view) that are counted every day.
Perfectly aware of their situation, but not really interested in the needs of its population, the politicians in charge of the country squander public funds displaying an attitude of certain tribal kings that can be linked to the period of triangular trade. Different time? Different values? Not so sure. There are always souls to bribe when there is money at stake.
Contrary to the sordid depiction of Togo by Western countries, Togo, like many Africans countries is a potentially rich country and the historic interests of the Portuguese, Germans, and French in the lands and the people of the Gulf of Guinea provides a concrete example.
In the excellent book by author G.Labarthe « Le Togo, de l’esclavage au libéralisme mafieux » that we can translate to “Togo: from Slavery to Mafia Capitalism” quotes an opponent to the regime “We are mistaken if we think that because of its small size, our country is at the center of different rivalries…in reality the offshore oil exploitation, the exploitation of phosphate, and of our agricultural materials (coffee, cotton, cacao etc…), the looting of our teakwood, our mineral deposits (ex: clincker, used to make cement), are all activities wherein Togo is the hub…and all of those activities generate a lot of revenues.”
A lot of revenues — but not for the Togolese people. A country belongs to those who have its capital. After being trapped by unscrupulous funders ready to finance investment projects without logic to enrich mostly French companies and Togolese politicians, by the 1970s the country found itself largely in debt. Debt, owed to the creditor governments of France and Switzerland, what a surprise!
This is the moment that the IMF selected to dictate to Togo its structural adjustment policy. A policy that led Togo to sell part of the public sector to private companies, plus a strict reduction in public expenditures. No one will be surprised to know that the French companies took advantage of the situation by taking the control over the country’s most profitable activities.
In less than three decades, the “recolonization” of Togo was achieved. The “Conquistadors” as cruel as they were at least were clear in terms of modus operandi. Their desire for gold was unabashed to the point that they openly killed those who got in their way, letting their blood flow in the streets.
With time, capitalism has evolved and the “Conquistadors” know how to look more respectable as they kill from a distance in their three-piece suits going from Presidency meeting to IMF meeting carrying pens with lethal ink that goes totally unpunished.
Instead, we see how the International Criminal Court targets people like Laurent Gbagbo who was mainly guilty, without being especially revolutionary, of questioning the economic hegemony of the French in the Ivory Coast’s economy by creating more space for competitors like China. The French newspapers went on the offensive against Gbagbo, criticizing his actions. The journalists themselves were so entrenched in the French post-colonial political structure that they did not seem to understand their own intellectual alienation and lack of objectivity in the matter.(5)
In Togo, after 38 years of reign without sharing, the father Eyadema is dead from old age, and not because he ever went to jail. He died free like the majority of African dictators (Mobutu, Omar Bongo…). His son Faure took control of the country as president in 2005 after what can only be described as an election parody and with the hopes to have the same life as his father. The « Bolloré » and other powerful business interests still come to Lomé to sign contracts with large figures in the presidential office. The president and his clan work very hard to find accounting tricks to conceal all of the wealth and to distribute it everywhere around the world, while at the same time the Togolese people are strangled by the misery of a country left abandoned.