Deconstructing Neo-Colonial Dictatorships

“On the surface, the dictatorship might appear to be efficient; but the opposite is usually the case. The fact that a dictator is ruthless, does not necessarily make him efficient. A dictatorial system destroys initiative. It does not allow the genius of the people to flourish and it frustrates even that class from which the dictator emerged. Dictators always pretend to be strong men, but in practice, the effort to control everyone and everything is too much. The historical record shows that several dictators were more than a little bit mad before they seized power, and many of them certainly went crazy after some years of despotic rule.”

-Walter Rodney, “People’s Power, No Dictator”

When colonialism ended in Africa the former colonial powers had no intention of giving up the mineral wealth and resources that they had been plundering from Africa, so what often happened was that Western nations orchestrated coups throughout Africa to appoint “leaders” that would serve Western nations. This is why I emphasis that these are “neo-colonial” dictators because the function that these dictators serve is to ensure that the relationship between Africa and Western nations remains the same as it was during the days of colonialism when Western nations were free to exploit Africa’s resources at the expense of the African masses. Togo, which currently has the oldest of these neo-colonial military dictatorships in Africa, provides a classic example of the manner in which a neo-colonial dictatorship in Africa operates, so for the purposes of this article I will focus on Togo.

Sylvanus Olympio led Togo into independence in 1960. The challenge that Olympio faced was not an easy one. Olympio himself acknowledged that the infrastructure which the colonial powers left behind was built to maintain foreign domination of Africa by isolating African nations from each other, while also ensuring that those same divided nations remained in close contact with the former colonial powers:

The effect of the policy of the colonial powers has been the economic isolation of peoples who live side by side, in some instances within a few miles of each other, while directing the flow of resources to the metropolitan countries. For example, although I can call Paris from my office telephone here in Lomé, I cannot place a call to Lagos in Nigeria only 250 miles away. Again, while it takes a short time to send an air-mail letter to Paris, it takes several days for the same letter to reach Accra, a mere 132 miles away.

Olympio also wanted Togo to be economically independent of France, which included developing a currency for Togo rather than relying on the CFA franc. Olympio would not live long enough to truly implement his vision for Togo, however. Olympio was assassinated in a French supported coup in 1963. Gnassingbé Eyadéma, one of the people involved in the coup against Olympio, came to power in 1967 after staging a second coup.

Eyadéma was a former soldier in the French colonial army. It was not uncommon for former colonial soldiers to take power through Western supported military coups. Idi Amin, for example, was a soldier in Britain’s colonial army and helped to fight against the Mau Mau rebellion on Kenya. Several years later Western governments would support Amin’s coup against Milton Obote in Uganda. Even after Amin’s public relationship with Britain and Israel became strained, Britain continued to covertly support Amin until he was finally driven out of power. Jean-Bédel Bokassa also served in the French army and Joseph Mobutu was a solider in the Belgian colonial army. Bokassa is especially interesting because Bokassa was fiercely loyal to France, despite the fact that Bokassa’s father was beaten to death by a French colonial officer. Some of these dictators were themselves victims of the colonial system, but rather than oppose the colonial system they decided to support colonialism.

Like many neo-colonial dictators, Eyadéma maintained power through fear and intimidation. Critics of Eyadéma’s government were often horribly tortured and killed. A 1999 report from Amnesty International titled “Togo: Rule of Terror” provides just some idea of how horrible life under Eyadéma’s rule was.

Eyadéma also fostered a cult of personality around himself. Whenever Eyadéma made a public appearance he was accompanied by people who would cheer, sing and dance for him. Anyone who refused to cheer for Eyadéma when his convoy passed by would be arrested for the crime of failing to publicly worship the dictator. People in Togo wore clothes that were adorned with Eyadéma’s portrait. His face also adorned billboards across Togo and Eyadéma even celebrated himself with his own comic book.

Dictators maintain power over the population through the very tactics that Eyadéma employed. Dictators use the threat of violence against their critics, while also foresting a cult of personality that is meant to portray the dictator as having mystical or even superhuman abilities. This precisely what Francois Duvalier did in Haiti. Duvalier operated a secret police force known as the tonton makout. In Haitian folklore the tonton makout is a figure who kidnaps misbehaving children. In the case of Duvalier’s tonton makout, they kidnapped Haitian citizens who were considered enemies of the government in order to torture and kill these people. Duvalier also styled himself after the voodoo deity Baron Samedi in order to terrify the peasantry in Haiti. The government of Togo employed voodoo to cleanse itself of its past atrocities so that it could continue to commit new atrocities with a clean conscience.

Duvalier often wore black suits and a black hat, which is how Baron Samedi is depicted as being dressed

The comparison between Duvalier and Eyadéma is an apt comparison because both dictators were succeeded by their equally ruthless sons. When Eyadéma died in 2005, the military in Togo quickly moved to place his son Faure in power. Like his father, Faure’s hold on power has been maintained largely with the support of Western countries, which have provided financial and military support. Faure is also given diplomatic recognition as the elected president of Togo, despite the fact that elections in Togo are rigged and opposition leaders are regularly harassed and imprisoned. Faure’s regime has also engaged in the same brutal tactics that his father has engaged in. Critics of the government have been arrested, tortured, killed, or driven into exile.

Like all neo-colonial dictators, the dictatorship in Togo is fundamentally very weak. By this I mean that is has no power of its own. The military power of the Togolese regime is based on support from Western governments. This support comes in the form of providing weapons to the military in Togo, as well as providing military training. In 2017, for instance, the United States provided $0.3 million in military education and training. In 2013, the U.S. Army provided training for the Togolese military. The American instructors found that the Togolese soldiers were “eager to learn.” The government of Togo has also relied on Israel to spy on its citizens.

All of this military support essentially amounts to arming and training the soldiers of Togo so that the soldiers can brutalize and kill their own people, including shooting and killing innocent children. Typically the military exists to protect the civilian population, but in Togo the military is a threat to the civilian population.

Soldiers in Togo often use these sticks to beat people

In order for a neo-colonial dictatorship to survive, it must retain the image of being all-powerful in order to reduce the civilian population into fear. The reason why the Duvalier dictatorship came to an end in Haiti was because the people of Haiti decided to rise up against Duvalier. The Haitian people reached a point where they had no more fear of the regime and they drove Duvalier into exile. The same thing happened in Burkina Faso in 2014 and Blaise Compaoré also driven into exile after having been in power since 1987. Since August 2017, the regime in Togo has been desperately working to contain the Togolese people to avoid a similar fate, but the aura of invincibility that Faure has maintained over the Togolese people has already been weakened and it is only a matter of time before Togo becomes the next African country to rid itself of a leader that has overstayed his time in power.

Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.

Dwayne Wong (Omowale) is a Guyanese born Pan-Africanist, author, and law student.

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