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President of Togo 1967-2005
Étienne Eyadéma was born in Pya, Togoland, on December 26, 1935. He joined the French Army in 1953 and subsequently served in Indochina, Dahomey, Niger, and Algeria, and had attained the rank of Sergeant by the time he returned to Togo in 1962.
Eyadéma's thrust into Togolese politics began when President Sylvanus Olympio refused to take 626 Togolese veterans of French wars into Togo's tiny army. On the night of January 12-13, 1963, a group of those veterans, led by Eyadéma, staged a coup that was bloodless until someone shot and killed Olympio. They then installed Nicolas Grunitzky, a civilian, as President. Many at the time believed Eyadéma was the one who fired the fatal shot, and he took credit for it until 1967, at which time he openly denied it and banned the newspaper Le Monde for suggesting otherwise.
Eyadéma spent the post-coup years working his way up through the new Togolese Army ranks and had reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and Army Chief of Staff by 1966. In November of that year a failed coup by members of the Ewe people in southern Togo led to calls for the army to remove Grunitzky and take control of the government. Eyadéma and the army chose to wait until January 13, 1967, when they staged a bloodless coup. The country was run by a National Reconciliation Committee until April 14, when Eyadéma declared himself President and appointed a Council of Ministers. On April 24, just ten days after assuming the presidency, Eyadéma suffered a minor wound when a notebook in his hand deflected a pistol bullet meant for him. The shot was fired by a 20-year-old Corporal in the palace guard. In a message on April 27, Eyadéma blamed Togo's former leaders and political strife. On May 12, he abolished Togo's four political parties. On July 11, he pardoned 32 prisoners who had been jailed by previous regimes.
In 1969, Eyadéma established the Togolese People's Rally as the country's only legal political party. In the mid-1970's, he ordered all citizens to assume African first names, and it was at that time that he changed his own first name to Gnassingbé. The stability he had brought to Togo allowed him to enjoy greater popularity than many other African leaders, and the "personality cult" that grew around him became even stronger after he emerged from a 1974 plane crash unscathed.
Eyadéma's popularity began to wane in the late-1970's, as Togolese began agitating for a move toward democracy. He began making that move by allowing Togolese to vote for President in 1979 and 1985, but he was the only candidate in both elections. In 1991, Eyadéma sought to ease continuing unrest by legalizing political parties, freeing political prisoners, and agreeing to a democratic constitution. He easily won the multi-party elections of 1993, but there were charges of electoral fraud. Those charges were repeated in subsequent elections.
In 1998, Eyadéma began what should have been, under the terms of the constitution, his last term as President. He got the constitution amended to abolish term limits in 2002, and won another term as President in 2003. In early 2005, Eyadéma suffered a heart attack in his hometown of Pya. He died on February 5 while en route to France to seek medical treatment.
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This page was last updated on 02/10/2019.