From Slavery to Dictatorship: A History of Togo’s Struggle for Freedom

This is a revised version of an article that was originally published on Huffington Post.

Since August of last year, the people of Togo have been struggling for the resignation of Faure Gnassingbé, who has been the president of Togo since 2005. When asked why the people of Togo do not let Faure finish complete his term before leaving office, Togolese activist Farida Nabourema explained:

It is unacceptable to ask people who are being violated to wait until the end of the term of their violator to take action. Elections are a tool of democracy but are not the democracy. A democratic government ought to respect the rights and protect the freedoms of its people as well as the institutions of the republic.

To really understand the historical scope of the struggle being waged right now in Togo it is necessary to provide some historical context for those who are unfamiliar with Togo’s history. Like most African nations, Togo’s history within the last few centuries has been a history of constant struggle for liberation against European colonizers and their African allies. Togo was one of the many African nations that were impacted by the slave trade. In fact, Togo was located in the region of West Africa that was known as the “Slave Coast” because of how many Africans were taken from that region.

Little Popo, which is today known as Aného, was one of the largest centers of slave trading activity in the Slave Coast. The people of Little Popo were frequently at war with many neighboring kingdoms, including Dahomey. Prisoners of these wars were captured and sold into slavery. The Portuguese were the first set of Europeans to trade for slaves in Little Popo, but slave trading activity in Little Popo would increase significantly when the Dutch and the British became involved. The French would also get involved in the slave trade in Little Popo. The French Compagnie du Sénégal launched a series of voyages to Little Popo in an attempt to acquire slaves. By 1772 the Danes were also involved in the slave trade in Little Popo.

It may be tempting to think of the ones that escaped being captured and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean as being fortunate, but the ones that escaped being captured were often left the wonder about the fate of the friends and family that they lost in the slave trade. Robert Campbell, who was born in Jamaica, recorded an encounter he had with a chief in Nigeria named Ogubonna:

On the occasion of my first visit to his Highness, as usual he was informed of my African origin. “From what part of Africa,” asked he, “did your grandmother come?” As this was a point on which I possessed no information, I could not give him a satisfactory answer. He remained silent for a short time, and at last said: “How can I tell but that you are of my own kindred, for many of my ancestors were taken and sold away.” From that day he called me relative, and of course as every other African had as good a claim to kindredship, I soon found myself generally greeted as such.

The slave trade in West Africa had a very destructive and destabilizing impact. Families were torn apart. Villages, towns, and even entire kingdoms were depopulated. In the Kongo Kingdom, for instance, King Afonso complained that so many of his people were being stolen by slave traders that his kingdom was being depopulated. Among those that were stolen were some of Afonso’s own relatives, including one of his grandchildren. Sekou Toure, the first president of Guinea, complained that Africa was still underpopulated many generations after the slave trade had ended:

The relation between the degree of destitution of peoples of Africa and the length and nature of the exploitation they had to endure is evident. Africa remains marked by the crimes of the slave-traders: up to now, her potentialities are restricted by under-population.

Th e European slave traders often instigated conflicts between Africans or exacerbated existing rivalries because more warfare meant more prisoners of war that could be sold to the European slave traders. Alexander Falconbridge worked as a doctor on the slave ships and he observed that during periods in which there was a decline in slave trading activities there was also a significant decline in African warfare as well. The slave trade not only increased the amount of warfare in Africa, but the introduction of European firearms ensured that these wars were bloodier and more destructive than warfare traditionally was in Africa. Little Popo was one of the many African kingdoms where firearms and the demands of the slave trade made warfare more frequent and destructive than it had been in the past.

The abolition of the slave trade was followed by the Scramble for Africa, in which most of Africa was conquered and colonized by the invading European powers. Liberia, which was a nation that was established by Africans from the Americas, was not formally colonized by any of the Western powers, although since its formation Liberia was effectively an American colony in West Africa. Ethiopia also escaped being colonized after they defeated the Italians. Togo was colonized by the Germans.

German rule in Togo was brutal. The Togolese people were often forced to labor for little or no pay. Floggings were one of the means that was used to coerce the population into forced labor. After their defeat in World War I, the Germans were forced to give up their African colonies to the victories Allies. German Togoland was partitioned between the British and the French. British Togoland would go on to become part of Ghana and French Togoland became Togo.

French rule was also harsh and exploitative. One incident that illustrates the oppressive nature of French rule occurred in 1932 when the French administration attempted to impose new taxes on the Lomé market women. This sparked widespread protesting from the market women. The protest achieved its aims, but it also demonstrated that unless African people, particularly African women, were protesting in massive numbers then their concerns were of little regard to the colonial governments that ruled over them.

The Togolese people put up fierce resistance against both the German and French colonizers. The Germans fought the Konkomba people in 1897 and 1898 before finally subduing them. The Germans also fought the Kabye in 1900. The Tchokossi did not come into direct confrontation with the Germans. The Germans had actually entered into an alliance with the Tchokossi to assist in defeating the Konkomba and Kabye — this is an example of the divide and conquer tactics that the Europeans used in their conquest of Africa. The Tchokossi would fight the French, however. In that conflict the Tchokossi ruler Nabiema Bonsafo was killed. The Konkomba fought the French colonizers as well and lost about 3,000 warriors in that conflict.

Togo became independent from France in 1960 and Sylvanus Olympio became Togo’s first president. Olympio was the descendant of Afro-Brazilians who returned to Togo. Aside from Togo, Brazilian returnees also settled in Ghana, Nigeria, and Benin. Olympio was assassinated in 1963. Prior to his assassination Olympio was planning to remove Togo from the CFA Franc currency and issue Togo its own currency. Shortly after Togo began taking the steps to print its own currency Olympio was assassinated in a French supported coup. By 1967 Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who was one of the leaders in the plot to kill Olympio, installed himself as the dictator of Togo.

Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s government was a brutal one. Those who dared to speak out where often arrested, brutally tortured, and killed. Perhaps the most well-known of Eyadéma’s victims was Tavio Amorin, a Pan-Africanist political leader who was assassinated in broad daylight in 1992. The assassins left behind identity cards which revealed that the two assassins were police officers. Neither of the assassins was ever brought to justice, however.

Eyadéma died in 2005. The military seized power and installed his son, Faure Gnassingbé, as the new president of Togo. Faure has continued the brutal practices of his father’s government.In 2005, the government of Togo killed hundreds of people — with some estimates putting the number of those killed as being more than 1,000. The Gnassingbé dictatorship, which has been in power for fifty-one years now, is currently the oldest military regime in Africa.

Togo’s history for the last several centuries has been one of constant struggle against injustice and oppression. The people of Togo — who have endured kidnapping, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, starvation, misery, and death at the hands of the European invaders and those Africans that have collaborated with them— are seeking to write a new chapter in their nation’s history.

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.