Wednesday, February 23, 2005
As Togolese democracy goes, so may go Africa
- Is there still freedom after speech?
- More than two positions on abortion
- Move past our history of violence
- Cox is a willing partner
- Commentary archive
From the RoundTable blog
Read the latest entries
Dickovick, an assistant professor of politics at Washington and Lee University, was a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo for two years in the mid-1990s.
Assaba Massougbodji screamed when she heard the news. The Washington and Lee University junior from the small African nation of Togo had never known any president other than GnassingbŽ Eyadema. When Eyadema died unexpectedly on Feb. 5, he left a power vacuum in a country whose political life he dominated for 38 years. Worldwide, only Fidel Castro had ruled longer. Eyadema's death, largely unnoticed in the United States, has set into motion events that could shape politics in Africa for years to come.
With his death, the question of succession arose. Togo's constitution specifies that the speaker of parliament presides on an interim basis and must call elections within 60 days. But Togo's ruling class - composed mainly of Eyadema's closest confidants and the military - is not known for constitutionality. The sycophantic parliament promptly amended the charter to allow Eyadema's son, Faure GnassingbŽ, to take charge.
In the Africa of the Cold War, the ritual of passing power to the son would have been the end of the story. Even a few years ago, the death of a president in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) triggered a transfer of power to his son. The response in Africa and in the international community was tepid at best.
But in Togo, things have gotten interesting. Togo's small size and political and economic insignificance make it a target for robust international pressure. The African Union - the continent's new grouping of heads of state - and several elected African leaders loudly condemned the action in Togo and called it by its name: a coup d'Žtat. Sensing that Africa's self-proclaimed (but yet unproven) commitment to democracy hung in the balance, the union demanded the return of constitutional order and the calling of free and fair elections. Togo's neighbors, not the United Nations and not the United States, took the lead in threatening sanctions, an unprecedented step in Africa.
Togo's history offers an ironic counterpoint to recent events. In 1963, Eyadema was a leader in post-colonial Africa's first coup. He and other young soldiers deposed and gunned down Togo's first elected president. That big news in the tiny country set the tone in Africa for decades. Military coups ravaged the continent incessantly.
Now, Togo may represent a turning point again, and this one for the better. Africa's fledgling democracies and elected leaders have not had the stature to alter events in the DRC or to unseat independence-era leaders such as Eyadema and Zimbabwe's increasingly psychotic Robert Mugabe. But over the last two weeks, they have shown more spine in resisting the perpetuation of dictatorship as old leaders age and die off.
It is possible that Africa will soon forget Togo, and Eyadema's son will seize power for the long haul. If so, more despair in Togo and more pessimism about Africa are in the cards. It is also possible, though, that Africa's democracies will gain a foothold. If so, they can establish precedents to which larger countries may soon be held accountable. If international pressures for democracy in Africa grow more effective in years to come, spare a thought for the tiny country where it all began. And wish it luck as it tries to overcome the last 38 years.