One of the least told interesting stories in African political history is that the independence-winning first president of Togo, Sylvanus Epiphanio Olympio, was born in pre-independent Ghana in 1902.
Olympio was born in the town of Kpando, now a part of Ghana’s Volta region.
Kpando was then part of Trans-Volta Togoland, a German protectorate until France assumed control after World War I. In 1956, the people of this area of just under 8,000 square miles, voted in a referendum under the supervision of the UN to be part of soon-to-be-independent Ghana instead of French Togoland.
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Technically, Olympio and Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, were compatriots. And if that logic is anything to go by, the two men should have found common grounds even if fate did not bring them together.
But Olympio and Nkrumah could not even maintain a relationship bordering on civility. The antagonism was known across the continent.
Nkrumah had always wanted more of Togo, perhaps all of it, to be part of Ghana. This was in line with his dreams of a united Africa. Olympio, who was then in negotiations with French over his people’s independence too, hated the idea of a Ghana-Togo country.
It is fair to argue that Olympio was an Ewe nationalist, a man set on founding a nation for the peoples who currently inhabit Ghana’s Volta Region, Togo’s western and southern regions as well as southern Benin.
These days, discussions on who is a nationalist bring to mind the gore of World War II as well as right-wing fanaticism. But as it would appear, Olympio’s feelings were not totally out place.
International Ghanaian journalist and political essayist, Cameron Duodu noted of the plebiscite that brought about the Volta region: “The British didn’t, of course, bother to ask the inhabitants of the two territories that were to be brought together in a ‘shotgun’ wedding, what their own views of the British plan were. Had the British bothered to ask, they would no doubt have been told that the plan was a diabolical one. For it would segregate forcibly behind separate borders, ethnic groups that had traditionally lived as single entities before the European colonisers came.
“The Ewe people, in particular, were deeply resentful of this division that was imposed on them, which separated many families from one another and thus placed tremendous social hardships on them.”
Togo gained independence in 1960 and Olympio ruled the territory that remained. He never got over the Machiavellianism he believed Nkrumah had pulled in splitting the “Ewe nation”.
Or was it Nkrumah who never forgave Olympio for impeding what could have been the beginning of a United States of Africa? We may never know.
The two men avoided each other on occasions that would have otherwise allowed for dialogue. And Nkrumah went as far as welcoming and housing political opponents and others accused of trying to overthrow Olympio.
Olympio, perhaps realising he was handicapped against a bigger country, sought closer relations with France at the height of the feared Ghana threat.
In 1963, Olympio was overthrown by a militia led by Etienne Gnassingbe Eyadema, a man who had fought on behalf of the French in Algeria.
A significant part of the Togolese population suspected Ghana was behind this. Nigeria also suspected Ghana was behind the coup, with Nigeria’s foreign minister warning of dire consequences for Ghana.
For those who felt and still feel that Nkrumah’s evangelisation for a united Africa could not include murderous coups against heads of African states, the theory centered France as the sponsor of the coup of 1963.
The relationship between Togo and France might have improved shortly before the coup but France’s foremost governmental political advisor on Africa, Jacques Foccart, was no friend of Olympio.
Foccart literally asserted: “Olympio was never our friend. I never had cordial relations with him.” This fed the conspiracy.
International political rhetoric dating back to when Thucydides or Ibn Battuta wrote, has taught us that states seek the destruction of their enemies and the preservation of their friends.
France’s paternalistic and devious relationships with its former African colonies also lend credence to the theory that it did have a hand in overthrowing Olympio.
The supposed French connection to the coup even has it that while running away from the militia, Olympio hid in a car on a property of the US Embassy in Togo. From there, the scared president contacted the US ambassador, Leon Poullada.
Poullada, not knowing what to do, rang up the French ambassador to Togo and asked for directions. It was then the militia got to know where Olympio was hiding; the French ambassador had snitched.
Of course, all of this is without the quality and quantity of evidence that would make the story more than a rumour. It is hard to argue against one who makes the point that France was just a convenient villain for conspiracy theorists.
Both France and Ghana received news of Olympio’s overthrow with measured glee, it has to be said. While Ghana was the first country to recognise the new Togolese administration propelled by the military, France almost immediately invested in the Togolese military, a bone of contention that had existed between the army and Olympio.
In Togo itself, coup leader Eyadema boasted that he had shot the bullet that killed Olympio. Eyadema himself ruled Togo for 38 years, after which his son, Faure Gnassingbe took over in 2005.
These days, Ghana and Togo are good friends too. It is fair to say, the countries have been friendly since both Nkrumah and Olympio were deposed, three years apart.
There is even a submission in the Ghana Law Report from 2003 that noted that Olympio’s son Bonito, fought in Ghanaian courts against deportation in 1969, proving his Ghanaian nationality via his grandmother and father’s birth and baptismal certificates.
But the conspiracies will not die. It is not in the nature of conspiracies to be starved to death by lack of proof.