I was a student at the Université du Bénin in Togo in 1983. With typical and, I think, admirable American disrespect for authority, my fellow exchange students and I enjoyed calling the president of Togo “Stevie,” because he had changed his name from Etienne (French for “Steven”) to Gnassingbé, to sound more African. Our Togolese friends did not find it funny. It wasn’t that they were offended. They were afraid when they heard us talking like that and told us of ditches where the tortured corpses of the president’s critics appeared overnight.
According to my sources, the legends about Eyadéma Gnassingbé were officially encouraged. One, the story of the plane crash, was the subject of an entire comic book that I read when I was in Togo. In the comic, the president of Togo figured as a superhero with metaphysical powers. It was meant to be taken literally.
It’s true that Eyadéma survived a plane crash in 1974. It’s also true that he credited his survival to his own mystical powers. In the comic book, the plane was sabotaged, and his survival was definitely the miraculous result of his personal magic. In a national monument built to commemorate the incident, Eyadéma’s statue towers over images of the heroic officials who apparently didn’t have enough magic of their own and died in the crash.
A vast black Mercedes limousine trolled the market streets of Lomé scooping up pretty teenaged girls for the president’s use, and they usually ended up dead.
It’s also true that Eyadéma was a leader of the coup that unseated Sylvanus Olympio, the first president of Togo. At the time of the coup, Eyadéma was called Etienne Eyadéma, and the legend is that he personally machine-gunned Olympio at the gates of the American embassy in Lomé, where the then-president was seeking asylum. By the way, that coup followed a common pattern in sub-Saharan, post-colonial Africa: colonial powers establish trading relations with coastal tribe (in Togo’s case, the Ewe). Colonial powers assert administrative control over a large inland area, making the coastal elite a minority within the colonial borders. At the time of independence, the coastal elite takes over. (Sylvanus Olympio was Ewe.) The army is dominated, numerically, by inland tribes. (In Togo’s case, they included the Kabye.) The soldiers get fed up and stage a coup. (Eyadéma was Kabye.)
One day, I was walking through the market with a Togolese friend when he told me another story about Stevie. I had pointed out to him a very pretty girl selling chocolate bars. The girl was about 13. She balanced an enameled tin platter on her head. The platter bore a perfect pyramid of scores of identical chocolate bars in white and red paper wrappers. And the grace note was the girl’s matching white and red dress. She had made herself into a lovely advertisement for dark chocolate. Clever and pretty. But it only reminded my friend of the legends about Eyadéma’s sexual powers. He said that a vast black Mercedes limousine trolled the market streets of Lomé scooping up pretty teenaged girls for the president’s use, and that they usually ended up dead, not because of any abuse beyond presidential rape, but as a mere side effect of the great girth of his manhood.
Stevie died in office. At the time of his death in 2005, he was the longest serving head of state in all of Africa. His son, Faure Gnassingbé, took over and is still president.