Who Was Behind Africa’s First Coup?

Why you should care

Because French meddling in African affairs has left a lasting, debilitating legacy.

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“The night may be long but the day comes. And that big day, so much desired, now has arrived …”

Sylvanus Olympio, the first president of the independent Republic of Togo, was a gifted orator. This was clearly on display when he led the Togolese in the celebration of their independence in April 1960. He gave a fiery speech with ringing phrases like “masters of our destiny.”

Some people did not like his rhetoric, or him, at all. And 33 months later, they struck.

Olympio was never our friend.

Jacques Foccart, former adviser on African policy to the French government

The Atlantic Ocean sends its waves crashing onto the beach of the Togolese capital, Lomé, just as it did on the night of Jan. 13, 1963, when President Olympio was either sleeping or working on a speech he was going to deliver to his counterpart in Liberia, William Tubman. His house was separated from the beach only by a single road.

Versions of this story differ on details. But the main lines are clear.

Olympio, either sleeping or working, is disturbed, shortly after midnight, by a noise outside his gate. There is a heated discussion between his guards and up to 10 armed men in combat fatigues. The guards are quickly overwhelmed and Olympio, sensing danger, instructs his wife and other family members to hide. He leaves the house, climbs a wall and lands on the other side, which happens to be the garden and parking lot of the U.S. embassy. He hides in a car.

Gettyimages 2085337

President of Togo, Sylvanus Olympio, poses at New York International Airport.

Source Express Newspapers/Getty

Meanwhile, the armed men — rebel soldiers, as it turns out — enter the house, find Dina Olympio and ask where her husband is. She doesn’t know. Elsewhere in the city, the coup is well underway: Almost the entire cabinet of ministers is under arrest, and the military camp of Tokoin has been in rebel soldiers’ hands for hours. But where is Olympio?

Still in that car.

The soldiers conclude that the president cannot be far away. Four of them scale the wall and head straight for the car where Olympio is hiding. They pull him out and, as day breaks, demand that he exit the grounds of the American embassy. He refuses, and an irritated officer shoots him three times. The first president of Togo was shot dead at around 7 in the morning. The rebel soldiers eventually put his brother-in-law, Nicolas Grunitzky, in the empty chair.

Who shot Olympio? A sergeant by the name of Étienne Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who was part of the predawn search party. There are other versions of the president’s death, but the identity of the assassin is widely accepted, especially since he admitted he had committed the crime to French and American reporters. The more controversial question: Who guided the rebel soldiers to that car?

And this is where things get murky.

Gnassingbé eyadema, 1972

Sgt. Étienne Gnassingbé

Source Creative Commons

Prior to independence, France ran Togo (a former German colony) as a protectorate. When the independent nation was established, France demobilized all Togolese soldiers. About 30 of them who had been fighting France’s colonial wars in Algeria and Southeast Asia wanted to be part of the new Togolese army. Olympio, a staunch nationalist, would have none of it. One of the snubbed men was Eyadéma.

The French were aware of the Togolese leader’s independent stance. Jacques Foccart, who for decades designed France’s Africa policy virtually singlehandedly from his cellule Africaine in the Élysée, the French presidential palace, later recalled: “Olympio was never our friend. I never had cordial relations with him.”

That was about as ominous as it got in the world of former French African territories, which France still considered its own backyard.

By contrast, the United States declared itself shocked by the assassination. The previous year, Olympio had been “very warmly received,” as the White House statement read following his murder, by an equally dashing John F. Kennedy. Also shaken was the U.S. ambassador at the time, Leon B. Poullada, who had been alerted to what was going on, had gone to the embassy compound and found Olympio hiding in that car. Unwittingly, or so the theory goes, he had called the French ambassador to ask for advice, not knowing that France was behind the coup and thus had given away the Togolese president’s location.

The coup paved the way for a violent dictatorship that lasted decades. Gilles Yabi, a political analyst and founder of the West African citizens’ think tank Wathi, says: “Togo is the only nation in this region that has never had real political change.” Eyadéma eventually took the reins himself in a coup on Jan. 13, 1967, and ruled for 38 years. Power then went to his son Faure, who is currently facing a smoldering popular uprising against what protesters call “50 years of family rule.”

“Faure Gnassingbé is more open than his father ever was,” Yabi continues, “but people are still fearful to take to the streets. They may lose their lives.” Last August, at least 11 people were killed in mass demonstrations. “There is a tradition of repression in the country,” Yabi says.

Elections are due in 2020. Will this mark the end of a half-century of family rule that started with the first military coup in independent Africa? Yabi is cautious: “People have been disappointed before. Yes, there could be major change in 2020 or even earlier. But what is lacking is a political leader with determination and a strategy to make that change.”

It may take more time for a third dawn to break.

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