Togo’s name comes from togodo, which means ‘behind the lake’ in Ewe – a reference to Lake Togo. The country was once on the fringes of several great empires and, when the Europeans arrived in the 16th century, this power vacuum allowed the slave-traders to use Togo as a conduit.
Following the abolition of slavery, Germany signed a treaty in Togoville with local king Mlapa. Togoland, as the Germans called their colony, underwent considerable economic development, but the Togolese didn’t appreciate the Germans’ brutal ‘pacification’ campaigns. When the Germans surrendered at Kamina – the Allies’ first victory in WWI – the Togolese welcomed the British forces.
However, the League of Nations split Togoland between France and Britain – a controversial move that divided the populous of Ewe.
Togo was the first African country to experience a military coup following independence. Olympio, a Ewe from the south who appeared to disregard the interests of northerners, was killed by Kabyé soldiers as he sought refuge in the US embassy.
His replacement was then deposed by Kabyé sergeant Gnassingbé Eyadéma. The new leader established a cult of personality, surrounding himself with a chorus of cheering women, and became increasingly irrational following a 1974 assassination attempt.
In 1990, France began pressuring Eyadéma to adopt a multiparty system, but he resisted. The following year, following riots, strikes and the deaths of pro-democracy protestors, 28 bodies were dragged from a lagoon and dumped in front of the US embassy, drawing attention to the repression in Togo.
Eyadéma finally agreed to a conference, where delegates stripped him of his powers and installed an interim government. However, Eyadéma-supporting troops later attacked the new president’s residence and reinstalled Eyadéma.
Eyadéma now postponed the planned elections, prompting economy-paralysing strikes and violence, in which some 250, 000 southerners fled the country. The president schemed and triumphed his way through elections throughout the 1990s – elections typically marred by international criticism, opposition boycotts and the killing of rival politicians
International pressure on Eyadéma increased at the same rate as aid packages dried up. He consistently reneged on promises to the international community and, in 2003, changed the constitution to enable him to seek a third term.
Following Eyadéma’s death in 2005, his son, Faure Gnassingbé, seized power in a military coup, then triumphed in rigged elections. Some 500 rioters were killed in Lomé, and some 40, 000 refugees fled Togo.
Gnassingbé is now working with opposition leaders, and the Togolese populace accept that that he is an improvement on his father and are willing to listen to his ideas.