President Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo died last weekend. He was Africa’s longest serving leader, taking power in a military coup in 1967 (the year I was born). Eyadema was one of Africa’s strongmen. For twenty years, political parties were banned; and when elections were allowed from 1991, there was electoral malpractice and continued abuses of human rights.
The parliament – not a strong and independent voice in Togo – passed a constitutional amendment the day after Eyadema’s death which allowed his son, Faure Gnassingbe, to serve out his father’s term as president, until June 2008. This in effect ratified a decision that had already been made by the military to install Faure Gnassingbe as president.
What is interesting is the way other African leaders have reacted. President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, who currently holds the Presidency of the Africa Union, urged fellow African leaders to reject the transfer of power:
All African leaders should not accept what has happened in that country until there is a democratic transition
The Africa Union itself condemned the coup. Adam Thiam, a spokesman for the AU, said,
The African Union condemns the coup in Togo because it is violation of the AU Constitutive Act
Leaders from the 15-member Economic Community of West African States, also criticised the transition of power. In a statement, they said:
The heads of states strongly condemn the intervention of the military which resulted in the appointment as president of the son of the deceased president.
It has been common for people in affluent countries to call on Africans to get their act together to condemn dictatorship and embrace democracy. Africa is now doing so. The New Partnership for African Development has established a governance peer review mechanism to improve government. The public condemnation by African leaders of the events in Togo is further evidence that they are taking this seriously. I hope that those who have criticised African leaders in the past will now acknowledge how much has changed.
It is difficult to imagine European leaders making such clear statements about the internal political affairs of their neighbours. We often ask more of Africans than we would be willing to contemplate ourselves (“put public pressure on your neighbours; cut public spending by 20 percent; reform your judiciary; privatise your public service; have term limits to prevent re-election …”)
It is also interesting to see how French policy towards these African strongman leaders is evolving. Eyadema’s brutal regime was supported throughout by France. When he died, Chirac said:
It is with profound sadness that I learn of the sudden death of Gnassingbe Eyadema, president of Togo. France has lost a friend, and I, too, have lost a friend. In these sad hours, I send my sincere condolences to his family.
Since then, France has hastily had to catch up with African opinion to criticize the proposed handover of power to Eyadema’s son.
With Eyadema gone, there now remain three dictatorial rulers in French West Africa: Omar Bongo Ondimba of Gabon (now Africa’s longest-ruling president), Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Congo Republic, and Paul Biya of Cameroon.
Now that Africans themselves have turned their back on undemocratic and dictatorial leaders, isn’t it about time that the former colonial powers did the same?