Friday, January 11, 2008

In Togo, the weight of history falls on January 13

In Togo, January 13 has always been laden with heavy meaning. It was January 13, 1963 when Togolese Army veterans from the French Foreign Legion assassinated the country’s first civilian president Sylvanus Olympio in what many claim marked the continent’s first military overthrow of a civilian government.

On January 13, 1967 one of the participants of that groundbreaking coup d’etat, Gnassingbé Eyadema, ousted the country’s second president Nicolas Grunitzky. It was a post Eyadema held until his death in February 2005.

The military, really the country’s ruling elite, have always celebrated January 13 with pomp and vigor, including a national festival and a grand parade in downtown Lomé. The opposition often boycotted the festivities and instead held a church service for their slain president. After Eyadema’s death, January 13 has become more of a polarizing force for the country.

When one of Eyadema’s sons, Faure Gnassingbé, came to power the opposition stepped up its criticism of the celebration. Faure met the opposition halfway, declaring Sylvanus “the Father of Togolese Independence” and called for a Church service in his honor; however, the military-based festivities went on as planned.

Three years later, Faure – recently elected to his second term and more interested in reforming the government to the approving nods of the donor community – is either in a mood of national reconciliation or better positioned to begin lifting the cult of personality surrounding his father. (Or both?) The government recently announced this year’s military celebration for the January 13 anniversary will take place out of the public’s eye in army barracks and Christians and Muslims also mark the day with a national day of prayer and reflection.

From the Ghanaian Chronicle, where I stole all the other information:

Reliable sources said the decision not to celebrate the 13th of January met with stiff resistance from some die-hard military conservatives who regaled in the 40 year old festival as an occasion for enjoying the fruits of their labour.

But many Togolese independent newspapers alleged that the voices of dissent were later silenced and pacified by President Faure Gnassingbé.

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