Thinking Citizen Blog — West Africa (VII) Togo

Thinking Citizen Blog — Monday is Foreign Policy Day

Today’s Topic: West Africa (VII) Togo — Ghana to the West, Benin to the East, Burkina Faso to the North

This is the seventh in a series on West Africa, a region with 380 million people (about 200 million of which live in Nigeria). Togo, is a small country (only twice the size of Massachusetts) with a population of 8 million. Its capital, Lome, in on the Gulf of Guinea, a region once known as the “Slave Coast.” It is one of the poorest countries in the world with a GDP per capita of only $682. French is the official language, the language of formal education, and the main written language. The most widely spoken languages are Ewe in the south and Kabiye in the north. Togo became the German “protectorate” of Togoland during the “Scramble for Africa” of the late 19th century and remained so from 1884 to 1914. At the end of World War I control was passed to France (2/3rds) and Britain (1/3rd). The British part was made part of Ghana. The French part became “French Togoland” which gained its Independence in 1960. Chaos ensued. What emerged was the one-party dictatorship of Gnassingbe Eyadema which lasted 38 years (from 1967 to 2005) — at his death he was the longest serving African ruler. He was succeeded by his son Faure Gnassingbe who is still in power. Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.


1. Geography: Ghana to the West, Benin to the East, Burkina Faso to the North. Very narrow: Its coastline (along what is called the “Bight of Benin” is only 32 miles! Its capital and largest city, Lome is on the coast. The average width of the country is 72 miles! (But remember that at its widest point The Gambia, surrounded by Senegal, is less than half of that (at 30 miles).

2. Demographics: the population of 8 million is up from 1.4 million in 1950. The major ethnic groups are Ewe (32%) concentrated in the south and the Kabiye (22%) largely in the north. The religious split is roughly: 37% Christian and 35% Voodoo and animism, 20% Islam. The capital of Lome has a population of 1.5 million. The second largest city is an order of magnitude smaller — Sokode (115,000).

3. Economics: one of the poorest countries on earth with per capita income of $682 compared with $2149 for Nigeria, $4736 for South Africa, and $6558 for Botswana. Subsistence agriculture is the norm. Coffee, cocoa beans, and peanuts account for 30% of export earnings. Cotton is the most important cash crop.

SYLVANUS OLYMPIO (1902–1963) — the first president of an independent Togo

1. From a prominent Togolese family, Sylvanus attended the London School of Economics and after graduation worked for Unilever, where he rose to general manager in charge of Togoland in 1929 and becoming general manager of their entire African operations in 1938.

2. After World War Two he played a leading role in the struggle for independence and in 1958 was elected Prime Minister. He served until 1961 and then, after independence was elected with 90% of the vote. He served as President until his assassination in 1963.

3. This was the first assassination by a military coup in the history of the decolonization of Africa.

NB: Etienne Eyadema Gnassingbe, the sergeant who led the coup, would claim credit for having personally fired the shot that killed Sylvanus Olympio. Olympio was succeeded by Nicholas Grunitsky (see fifth link). Meanwhile, his assassin rose to colonel in the ranks of the army and plotted a second coup. After which he would deny that he ever fired the shot that killed Olympio.

ETIENNE EYADEMA GNASSINGBE (1935–2005) — assassin and dictator for 38 years

1. Eyadame Gnassingbe ousted Nicholas Grunitsky in a second (but this time bloodless) coup in 1967. Who was Eyadame Gnassingbe? Well, first, just to clarify, he was born with the Christian name “Etienne” (Stephen) but later adopted the Kabiye name of “Eyadema” (which means courage). His father’s name was Gnassingbe.

2. In stark contrast to Olympio’s aristocratic origins, Etienne was born into a poor family in a remote village and joined the French army as soon as he could. He served for 10 years seeing service in both Indochina and Algeria in the 1950s. Some have described him as a “mercenary for the French.” He returned to Togo in 1962 and joined the army there. He was a sergeant at the time of the coup.

3. How did he stay in power so long? The best explanation I could find was this: “Eyadema had been a personal friend of the French president, Jacques Chirac. He had remained in power for 38 years thanks to a couple of coups, systematic electoral fraud, the faithful allegiance of an army packed with supporters and members of his Kabye ethnic group, solid foreign support (especially from France), and adroit management of access to Togo’s meagre economic resources.”

NB: “Eyadéma had an extensive personality cult including, but not limited to, an entourage of 1,000 dancing women who sang and danced in praise of him; portraits which adorned most stores; a bronze statue in the capital city, Lome; wristwatches with his portrait, which disappeared and re-appeared every fifteen seconds; and a comic book that depicted him as a superhero with powers of invulnerability and super strength. In addition, the date of a failed attempt on President Eyadéma’s life was annually commemorated as “the Feast of Victory Over Forces of Evil.” Eyadéma even changed his first name from Étienne to Gnassingbé to note the date of the 1974 plane crash of which he was claimed to be the only survivor.”


I first taught African history at Knox College from 1982–4. The more I learn, the more eager I am to learn more. But also the more questions I have. What would Africa look like today if it had never been colonized by the West? What would the population be? What would life expectancy be? What would the standard of living be? Are these important questions to ask? If so, what are the best answers ever given? Experts — please help.


Nicolas Grunitzky

Languages of Togo

Togo | Location, History, Population, & Facts

Here is a link to the last three years of posts organized by theme:

PDF with headlines — Google Drive


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