Friday, March 07, 2008

Togo Togo

(Wednesday 5 Mar 08)
Like Benin, Togo is another narrow long country in West Africa about 600km long and 100km wide in most places. At its southern Atlantic coastline, it was merely around 80km long and we took slightly longer than 1 hour to travel from Aneho on the Togo-Benin border to Lome, Togo's capital which lies right on the country's western border with Ghana.
Both Benin and Togo are small French-speaking nations squeezed between two major English-speaking countries, Nigeria and Ghana. The coastal areas of Benin and Togo thus become a major land corridor for the trade that takes places between Nigeria and Ghana. To the north of Benin and Togo are much larger inland states of Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, which turns the ports of Cotonou and Lome (of Benin and Togo respectively) into major import-export hubs for these landlocked states. Given their roles with respective to their neighbours, both Benin and Togo, in particularly Togo, understood the importance of speedy immigration and customs clearance. In fact, now that we had gone through the borders of 14 West African countries, it was in Togo that we experienced the fastest and painless immigration clearance.
The drive from Aneho to Lome was a breeze. Welcoming coconut trees on white sandy beaches on one side and lush green rice fields on the other. We settled into Hotel Degbava in the heart of Lome, which despite having an attractive beach front and several upmarket hotels that once played host to major international conferences, has dilapidated semi-slum quarters and dirty, unpaved streets in many parts of the city centre.
The country had not fared well in recent times. Togo was ruled by the ruthless military dictator, Gnassingbe Eyadema from 1967 to 2005. His troops were involved in the overthrow and murder of Togo's first president, Sylvanus Olympio, in 1963, in what was Africa's first coup d'etat. (Olympio had his head blew up point blank at the gates of the American Embassy where he tried to seek refuge during the coup.) During the almost four decades of his rule, he cultivated a personality cult, rigged elections and crushed all dissent mercilessly, even resorting to murdering many political opponents.
When Gnassingbe Eyadema died suddenly in 2005, he was replaced by the Chairman of the National Assembly, who had intended to hold elections soon after. Within three months, however, Faure Gnassingbe, son of Gnassingbe Eyadema, seized power in a coup. Hundreds were killed as Faure crushed all protests. As foreign aid died up, the regime has agreed to work with the opposition – led by Gilchrist Olympio, son of Togo's murdered first president - to hold free elections and return the country to normalcy.
We walked around town's huge government ministry buildings and noted the barb wire and barricades, presumably safeguards against the frequent demonstrations and rioting that had occurred in the last decade. We also noticed the presence of China here in the form of a number of Chinese restaurants and general stores, which appears to be larger than in countries like Benin and Niger. Interestingly, a few street vendors tried to sell me China-pirated DVDs and China-made electrical appliances, which I found amusing – trying to sell such products to an East Asian is like trying to sell ice to Eskimos.
Tomorrow, after one month of travelling through 14 West African countries with me, Gordon would leave Togo for Ghana and return to Singapore. I would fly to Bamako, Mali on Friday, and spend two weeks travelling through West Africa's most interesting country in a proper manner.

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