Eyadéma, Gnassingbé (Togo)
Gnassingbé Eyadéma was until his death Africa’s longest serving leader, having seized power in a coup in 1967. He allowed opposition parties to operate from the early-1990s but his regime had been accused of corruption and civil rights abuses. Relations with other African states had been strained over his alleged support for rebel forces in Angola.
Eyadéma was born on 26 Dec. 1937 in Pya, in the French-controlled part of Togoland (now called Togo). Given the first name Etienne, he joined the French army in 1953 and served in Indochina, Dahomey, Niger and Algeria over the next 9 years.
In Jan. 1963 he took part in the coup that saw President Sylvanus Olympio killed and replaced by Nicolas Grunitzky. The Ewe tribe unsuccessfully attempted to depose Grunitzky in late 1966 and in the unrest that followed, the military, under the command of Eyadéma, seized control of the government in Jan. 1967. Eyadéma became president and minister of defence.
Eyadéma established the Togolese People’s Assembly (RPT) in 1969, developing a one-party state and winning election to the presidency in 1979 and 1985. Despite maintaining close relations with France, the country’s former colonial power, Eyadéma promoted Togo’s African identity during the 1970s, changing his own name from Etienne to Gnassingbé.
Aiming to stabilize the national economy, he oversaw the nationalization of the phosphate industry in the mid-1970s but by the 1980s the economy was again struggling, amid allegations of state corruption and negligence. Amid rising popular discontent, in 1991 Eyadéma permitted an interim government to take control of national affairs in the build-up to new elections. With the pro-democracy movement gaining momentum, Eyadéma accepted a new democratic constitution in 1992, paving the way for the release of some political prisoners and the legalization of political opposition.
Eyadéma won the multi-party elections of 1993 and 1998, although the legitimacy of both votes was questioned. The EU suspended aid after the 1993 polls because of suspected vote rigging and in 2000 the UN and Organization of African Unity (now called the African Union) began an investigation into the suppression and murder of political opponents during the 1998 elections. The investigation commenced 2 months after Eyadéma had assumed the presidency of the OAU.
In the same year a UN report accused him and Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso of assisting Angola’s Unita rebel group in trading diamonds for weapons and fuel. Relations became strained with Angola and its allies, including Namibia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Domestically, Eyadéma repeatedly suspended parliamentary elections scheduled for April 2000. Elections held in Oct. 2002 were boycotted by the main opposition parties. In Dec. 2002 the RPT-dominated national assembly amended the constitution to allow Eyadéma to stand for re-election in 2004.
Eyadéma died on 5 Feb. 2005 and was replaced hours later by his son Faure.