Togo is a thin strip of a country, over 500 km long, but only 50 km wide at the coast and barely reaching 100 km wide elsewhere. Today Lome has little hint of the original German colonial presence. French language and culture are as implanted here as elsewhere in French West Africa. As soon as one crosses the border, the change from anglophone to francophone is immediately evident. The prices increase, the food improves and the gambling stalls show the results of horseraces in Nice rather than football in Bradford. The indigenous culture, on the other hand, is the same on both sides of the border. The people, languages, physical geography, traditional beliefs and climate are exactly the same in Togo as in eastern Ghana. However, in addition to the French influences, one notices a distinct change in the atmosphere. There is a strong sense of underlying tension and anger on the streets of Lome. The market swarms with aggresive hawkers, beggars and souvenir sellers who dog the steps of tourists. Surly policemen man roadblocks on main streets, extorting presents from motorists.
The reason for the atmosphere of discontent is not hard to perceive. Togo's president, general Eyadema, has ruled uninterrupted since his coup in 1967. He has followed remarkably closely in the footsteps of Mobutu who took power in Congo two years before him. Both based their regimes upon vicious repression, paranoid monitoring of all potential opposition, large and corrupt security forces with arbitrary powers, superficial drives for 'authenticity' and african-ness which masked unbridled economic exploitation by foreign capital, elections rigged in laughably obvious frauds and, crucially, Western support in return for staunch political backing during the cold war. However, restrained by a small, relatively resourceless country, Eyadema has never quite emulated the grandiosity of Mobutu's deranged regime. Not for want of trying though. Alongside his Burkinabe counterpart, Compaore, Eyadema was fingered by recent UN reports as a middleman in the laundering of UNITA's 'conflict diamonds'. In terms of basic development, Togo is significantly worse off than its coastal neighbours; what hasn't been looted, Eyadema has often ploughed into ludicrous self-aggrandising projects. His natal village, Kara, has grown from nothing to be Togo's second city in 20 years, much of industry has been located there. Lome's tallest building is the hotel of February 2nd, a massive, shiny, glass and steel, luxury hotel. What does the date stand for? On February 2nd, 1974 Eyadema made his 'triumphal return' to Lome after surviving a plane crash. This expensive 400 room hotel has remained mostly empty since its construction, perhaps not on the Mobutu scale of follys, like the huge marble palaces deep in the rainforest, but you have to give Eyadema marks for trying.
One place where Eyadema has surpassed Mobutu, is in his survival skills. He rode out the wave of democratic protests which swept across africa in the early nineties by simply killing hundreds of opponents. In the post cold-war world, Western countries have had less need for loyal dictators of tiny African nations and less willing to take the PR hit of financing them. Therefore Eyadema has had to turn elsewhere for funds. To Libya. While we were in Lome, there was a massive, Libyan funded refurbishment of the city's hotels and conference centres going on, in preparation for the upcoming conference of the Organisation of African Unity. Gaddafi has for some time been using Libya's oil money to bail out broke African rulers in return for their support of his project to create an 'African union'.
Despite his success in surviving longer than most of his peers, one gets the sense that Eyadema's days are numbered. Benin and Ghana both house many Togolese dissidents and twice in the 1990's the regime barely survived armed rebellions. From what we saw of Togo's armed forces it is hard to imagine them standing up to any large incursion. The presidential palace, on the Lome seafront, is surrounded by a large wall which has guardhouses built into it at intervals of 20 metres or so. Most of these are normally empty since the soldiers prefer to hang around in a bunch together at one corner of the palace, where they can most effectively extort money from passers-by. On one occasion, Deirdre was walking by the palace alone, on her way to meet me. A lone soldier, standing in one of the guardhouses, hissed to draw her attention. She kept going, not overly eager to help ease his boredom. He then shouted and pointed his rifle at her, which caused her to reconsider and stop, especially since a tourist was shot dead by a soldier at this very place, two years ago. Having got her to stop, he proceeded to berate her for not stopping quickly enough, grinning and bradishing his gun in a naked display of power. Eventually he let her go, after confiscating her passport and telling her to come back 2 hours later. This confiscation was a little worrying since passports are very important for us, having to cross so many borders, and, without one, every roadblock and checkpoint becomes very expensive. Therefore, as soon as she met me, we set out at once to try to procure the passport. We walked back to the palace but the guardhouse where he had been was now empty. We continued to the next one, again empty. The third guardhouse also appeared empty except for a semi-automatic rifle resting on the counter. Quelling the urge to grab the weapon and invade the palace, we approached the counter and called out "hello!". We heard a stirring from the ground and, soon after, the soldier appeared. He stood up, yawned, slipped on his wrap-around shades, leaned forward on the counter, grinned at us and burped, releasing a waft of beery odour. Completely ignoring Deirdre, he proceeded to explain himself to me. He had seen her walking by the presidential palace and, concerned lest she should do anything forbidden in such a sensitive area, he had decided to apprehend her. Now, since he had explained this to a man who could look after her, of course we could have the passport back, only would't we think of bying him a beer? Since we were rather busy that day, we decided to short-circuit the process and reluctantly agreed to it. After a small bit of haggling over how much a beer would cost, we secured the passport for 75 cents and continued on our way. This brush with the 'elite presidential guard' led us to think that Eyadema's paranoia about armed rebellions is probably well founded. While they are certainly very brave when confronting unarmed tourists, it is hard to imagine their discipline standing up to much of a threat!