A Peace Corps staffer in Togo during the 1970s develops skills at reading arcane indicators of change in an authoritarian government, and has an unexpected chance to celebrate American independence with a KGB officer. Ed.
In the 1970s, I served for four-and-one-half years as Associate Peace Corps Director for Agriculture and Rural Development in Togo, where I had previously served as a Peace Corps Volunteer for three-and-one-half years. One evening, I went to Le Bowling Club in the capital city, Lomé, to play billiards. There, I ran into a diplomat from the U.S. embassy. We started talking about the latest developments in Togolese politics. I remarked that the Minister of Information was not long for the Cabinet and would be fired and replaced very soon. My diplomat friend scoffed and told me that I was crazy. The embassy, he said, had identified the Minister of Information as a rising star in the Togolese government who was destined for bigger and better things.
Within six months, the Minister was fired. Not long thereafter, I ran into the same diplomat at Le Bowling Club. We sat down and he asked me, "Who told you that he was on the way out?" He reiterated that the Embassy had a number of informants who identified the Minister of Information as someone whose career was in the ascendancy.
"No one told me," I replied. "It was very simple. Remember that the Minister was a journalist. He had been editor-in-chief of the official daily newspaper, Togo-Presse, the only daily newspaper in the country, and was elevated from that position to Minister of Information. He was also one of about a dozen young technocrats who had been tasked by President Éyadéma in the 1968-1969 period to create the single political party, the RPT, or Togolese People's Assembly (Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais). Once he became Minister of Information, he supervised not only Togo-Presse, but also Togolese radio and Togolese television.
"I am a daily reader of Togo-Presse," I continued. "It's a useful tool for keeping up with what is going on in the country if you know how to read between the lines. Under the Minister's tutelage, President Éyadéma's picture continued to be prominently displayed on multiple pages of the paper. There were frequently pictures of the Cabinet Ministers but they were always smaller than the pictures of Éyadéma."
"I observed, however, that the pictures of the Minister of Information in Togo-Presse were noticeably larger in length and in width than the pictures of all the other Ministers, although they were not as large as those of President Éyadéma. His bigger picture was always situated on the page in a more prominent place than that of any of the other Ministers."
"Discussion of the succession to President Éyadéma was and continues to be absolutely forbidden," I reminded him. "It is considered to be borderline traitorous, even if designating a successor was suggested by one of Éyadéma's most loyal supporters to insure a smooth transition if the President died in office. The person would immediately lose his job. He would be lucky if he was not put in jail."
The diplomat rolled his eyes and shook his head.
"You should have been a 'Kremlin-watcher,'" he said.After a while, the deposed Minister went into self-exile in France. There, he gave a candid and revealing radio interview in which he talked about corruption at the Ministerial level in Togo. He described how, once a person was named a Minister in Éyadéma's Cabinet, there was extreme pressure placed upon him to adopt the lifestyle that befits someone of that rank. He needed to have houses - villas grand standing - and luxury cars.
In case anyone wondered how a person whose salary is so low could make such purchases, the process was painfully obvious. A Minister could go to a bank and apply for a mortgage loan to buy a house. It would be granted without question. The Minister would make a symbolic first and second monthly payment on the loan. Then, he would simply stop paying. The same process applied to expensive automobiles and other luxuries. The bank would not dare try to foreclose on the house or recover the the car or otherwise try to make the Minister pay.
Absorbing the losses from this kind of official corruption was a "cost of doing business in Togo." The banks, of course, passed the cost on to all the other customers in the form of higher interest rates and fees.A few years later, Éyadéma as was his practice with his former collaborators who had strayed prevailed upon the ex-Minister to return. In the early 1990s, the regime came under rising pressure from the political opposition, human rights activists, NGOs, foreign governments, and international organizations for its increasing brutality and corruption and for its lack of movement toward a multi-party democracy. Éyadéma gradually re-assembled the "old crowd," the barons du regime who had either retired and/or who had fallen from favor and been replaced by younger men. Éyadéma decided that he was not going to face his adversaries without the company of his closest collaborators in the building of the dictatorship who had benefited so greatly from their association with him.
Independence Day, July 4, 1976 in Lomé
When I returned to my home in Nyékonakpoé quarter at the end of the day, my across-the-street neighbor hailed me as I was getting out of my car.
"Today is your national day!" he said. "And it's the two hundredth anniversary of your country's independence. How can you not celebrate?"
My neighbor was the head of the KGB mission at the Soviet Embassy in Lomé. Like everyone else in Lomé, I knew that he was KGB because he was the only Soviet diplomat who lived outside his embassy's compound. We had never done more than wave to each other in the preceding months, but my bizarre behavior on my own national day gave him the opportunity to break the ice.
He insisted that I join him and his wife for dinner and we passed an enjoyable evening and my most memorable July 4 to date. We began by toasting American independence with Russian vodka accompanied by red caviar. The vodka continued through dinner. Having assiduously avoided acquiring knowledge of any U.S. government business that was "confidential," let alone "secret" (for which I did not have clearance), I wasn't concerned that I would betray any "state secrets" under the influence of the vodka. Rather than prying into U.S. government business, however, my host was very interested to know what the Togolese thought of the Chinese and the Germans.
The Chinese didn't socialize much with Togolese people due to the language barrier, I explained. Their aid teams were typically a dozen rice farmers accompanied by a university language major who interpreted. On the other hand, the Togolese have a long relationship with the Germans. In spite of the brutality of the German colonial period, I continued, Togolese tend to respect the Germans as serious, hard-working, and fair.
The last comment elicited the most animated reaction from my host.
"Bah! Everyone respects people who work hard!" he replied. "But look at this!"
He raised his trouser leg to show me the scars of an ugly war wound that he had received as a 16-year-old defender of his native Ukraine against the invading Nazi Army.
At the end of the evening, we again raised our vodka glasses in toasts.
"We will never, never be the first ones to push 'The Button,'" he assured me with great insistence. "Never."
"And neither will we," I replied. "Never." And we repeated the toasts several times over, as if either of us had the power to affect what our respective nations' governments would do.
I remembered this occasion on July 4, 2005 as I thought of Togo. The dictatorship of Gen. Gnassingbé Éyadéma had ended five months earlier with his death after 38 years in power. His son, Faure, was the inheritor of a regime that had progressed from autocratic to brutal and violent. He called upon RPT Founder Edem Kodjo to be his Prime Minister. This was the same Edem Kodjo who, as Secretary General of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and in his book, "...Et Demain L'Afrique," advocated that the highest priority of a future United Africa must be ... the acquisition of nuclear weapons! At the same time, the power-hungry inheritors of the mantle of the brutal Olympio dictatorship that Éyadéma had overthrown had hijacked the political opposition and presented the country with their own version of the "Nuclear Option."