Africa's longest serving ruler

2003-05-29 10:40

Abidjan - Togolese President Gnassingbe Eyadema, seeking re-election on Sunday, evokes conflicting feelings as Africa's longest-lasting ruler who feted his 36th year in power this year.

For his supporters, the "general" or "boss" as he is widely known in Togo, is the only person who can ensure stability in the west African country.

Not so, say his domestic and international critics, who accuse him of being the dinosaur of African dictators with little respect for human rights, democracy or good governance.

Eyadema, a former soldier in the French army, is 67 years old and apparently in fine form. It is a number he deems lucky, having seized the reins of Togo in a coup in 1967. All official correspondence and documents bear the year of his accession to power.

Eyadema had said in 2001 he planned to retire this year, in line with pledges he made in 1999 under an accord inked in Lome, aimed at ending a decade of tension and deadlock among political parties over voting procedures and fairness.

But more recently he said he had "no intention of letting 'chienlit' (disorder) set in", using a salty French term often utilised by former French president Charles de Gaulle, whom Eyadema remembers with nostalgia.

Eyadema, who rarely appears in public without his trademark sunglasses, argues that the accusations of repression and misrule are a conspiracy.

"Our country is the victim of an injustice born from a combination of allegations and disparagements orchestrated by some Togolese backed by some of our development partners," he said in January 2002.

He says he wanted to let go of power but his people and his entourage persuaded him to make a "new sacrifice" and run for president again, according to a communique by his ruling Rally of Togolese People (RPT) party.

Eyadema has come a long way since his birth on December 25, 1935 in the northern village of Pya.

A farmer's son, Eyadema was a champion wrestler who signed up in the French army and then served overseas on various assignments including neighbouring Benin, the former Indo-China, Algeria and Nigeria.

After reaching the rank of master-sergeant, Eyadema returned to Togo in 1962, two years after the former German colony gained independence.

In January 1963, he took part in a putsch to topple the country's first president Sylvanus Olympio, who was killed and replaced by Nicolas Grunitsky.

Since that day, Olympio's son Gilchrist - who has been barred from contesting the June 1 presidential polls on the ground that his dossier for candidacy was incomplete - became Eyadema's sworn enemy.

Named army chief of staff on November 1, 1965, Eyadema wrested power in a bloodless coup on January 13, 1967. Three months later, he became president, head of government and the defence minister.

He founded the ruling party two years later.

His meteoric rise through the ranks has earned him several enemies, and Eyadema has survived at least seven attempted coups including two involving mercenaries in 1977 and 1986.

He keeps as a relic a notepad with a bullet which failed to reach its target - him.

Eyadema's fortunes changed slightly in 1990 when former French president Francois Mitterand made aid to Africa conditional on good governance and democracy. The Togolese leader was virtually forced to accept "disciplined and controlled multi-partyism."

He introduced reforms but did not follow them up with a true political overhaul, and strikes and stray violence followed.

Then came a national conference which imposed a prime minister on Eyadema. The "transition" ended in December 1991 with armoured cars in the streets of Lome.

Meanwhile, Eyadema was re-elected in 1993 and 1998 in elections contested by an opposition riven by disunity and bickering, and which failed to provide an alternative leadership.

Eyadema's rule seems stronger now than ever, buttressed by a close circle of family and aides who hold top positions.

He is highly likely to be swept to the helm of Togo for another five years - or longer - with the ultimate decision seemingly entirely up to him. - Sapa-AFP