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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

February 2008

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When British intelligence picked up information on a plot against the president of Togo, in the absence of a British embassy there the UK government asked for American help in informing him. The U.S. ambassador who delivered the warning tells the tale of a muddled message, international intrigue, and how the plot was foiled. — Ed.

Foiling an Assassination Plot in Togo

By Ronald Palmer

AFP story of December 28, 2007, datelined London: British secret services foiled a plot to assassinate the president of Togo in 1977, newly released official documents showed today… [Prime Minister Callaghan was informed] that the United States ambassador in Togo had warned the president of the plot…

I was the American ambassador who warned President Eyadema.

British-Togolese relations were ruptured at that time, so there was no British embassy in Lomé. When the British got word in September 1977 of the involvement of some of their nationals, identified as former members of the elite Special Air Service (SAS), in a plot against Eyadema, they informed the State Department. The Brits knew I had a good relationship with Eyadema and asked if I would deliver the warning.

State’s night action (NIACT) message came crashing in about 2 a.m. local time. I asked that it be translated to French. The British archive, released after 30 years and reported on by AFP, doesn’t indicate that this initial September message was that I rather than Eyadema would be assassinated.

I was ready to call Eyadema at 3 a.m. The telephone operator at the military barracks where he lived got him on the line, and I asked for an immediate appointment. He demurred, suggesting a 6 a.m. appointment instead.

I gave the translated message to him at 6 a.m. He read it with consternation showing in his face. He didn’t question why I should be chosen to be murdered. He concentrated on the difficulties any cross border raid would have in reaching Lomé. I replied that there were indeed obstacles, but I suggested the region between the border with Ghana and the Togolese capital be flooded with security forces.

This was Sunday morning. I was supposed to be assassinated later that day. The residence staff had Sunday off and there were no Marine Security Guards assigned to the embassy, so I thought the most useful thing I could do was to make myself a hearty breakfast.

Then, I went back to bed. I got up at noon and warmed the dish that Appolinaire, the cook, had prepared the previous day. I inspected the gates and the local guards. All was in order, and I went back to sleep. It was dark when I awakened, and I was still alive.

October came. The British gave me another warning via Washington, except now President Eyadema was to be murdered. The message came in the afternoon, and I went to see him. He had his customary bottle of the fearsome Zaire Elephant beer and insisted that I have champagne. I reminded him of my September visit and that nothing had happened. I said there was another message now with him identified as the victim of the plot. He scoffed. I replied it was still a good idea to thicken security forces at the border. He said he would do so.

The day the raid was supposed to take place came and went. Nothing happened. I still took the precaution of remaining secluded in my residence.

There was a startling new development in November. The Swiss picked up a man who, under questioning, admitted he had been a member of a group that had crossed into Togo to assassinate Eyadema. The plot had been to murder him in his vehicle at the corner where the main road passed my residence.

The original September British message had been muddled. Eyadema was the target, not me.

The September plotters had actually carried out a dress rehearsal outside my residence. However, they were spooked by the increased security in the city and at the border, so they called off the plot and fled back to Ghana.

There had been another cross-border foiled plot attempt against Eyadema in October, but the plotters were forced again to abort by the swarming Togolese security forces at the border.

British newspapers had carried accounts in 1977 of the plotting against Eyadema. There was also a story on the subject in the French magazine Jeune Afrique.

The man whom the Swiss had questioned was a Québecois, who returned to Canada. The instigator of the plot has not been found.

The author, a retired career diplomat, served as U. S. ambassador to Togo, Malaysia, and Mauritius during his 32-year Foreign Service career. A member of the American Diplomacy Publishers board of directors, he is now professor emeritus at The George Washington University in Washington, D. C.



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