Independence Day of Togo: Sylvanus Olympio the visionnaire

From this moment and Forever 

Free from any subject, any hindrance

Master of your destiny

Togo my country, here you are Free

Free to be yourself

To follow your ideas and inclinations

To choose according to your reason and your feelings

To decide according to your own will

Finally free

In the restored dignity

To prove and affirm your personality

 

These are the words pronounced by a great Man called Sylvanus Olympio proclaiming the independence of Togo on April 27th, 1960.

Who was this man??? Let us know about this man who could have changed the destiny of his country and may be the destiny of the African continent for the vision and the dream he had but who will be assassinated by France and allies: This will be the first coup d’Etat in Africa and the first assassinated in his fight against the colonial currency CFA (XOF).

Sylvanus Olympio was born on 6 September 1902 in Kpandu in the German protectorate of Togoland, present day Volta Region of Ghana into a wealthy family. He was the grandson to the important Afro-Brazilian trader Francisco Olympio Sylvio and son to Ephiphanio Olympio, who ran the prominent trading house for the Miller Brothers from Liverpool in Agoué (in present-day Benin).  

His early education was at the German Catholic school in Lomé, which his uncle Octaviano had built for the Society for the Divine Word. Following that, he began study economics at the London School of Economics  under Harold Laski. Upon graduation, he worked for Unilever first in Nigeria and then in the Gold Coast. By 1929, he became the head of Unilever operations in Togoland. In 1938, he was promoted to become the general manager of the United Africa Company‘s, then part of Unilever, operations throughout Africa.

During World War II, the colony came under the control of the Vichy France government which treated the Olympio family with general suspicion because of their ties to the British. He was arrested in 1942 and held under constant surveillance in the remote city of Djougou in French Dahomey . The imprisonment would permanently change his view toward the French and he would become active in pushing for independence of Togo at the end of the war.

Olympio became active in the domestic and international struggle to gain independence for Togo following World War II. Domestically he founded the Comité de l’unité togolaise (CUT) which became the major party opposing French control over Togo.

Olympio’s party boycotted most of the elections during the 1950s within Togo because of the heavy French involvement in the elections (including the 1956 election that made Nicolas Grunitzky, the brother to Olympio’s wife, the Prime Minister of the colony as head of the Togolese Progress Party). In 1954, Olympio was arrested by the French authorities and his right to vote and run for office were suspended.

 

However, his petitions to the Trusteeship Council led to the 1958 elections where French control over the elections were limited, although involvement remained significant and Olympio’s CUT party was able to win every elected position in the national council. The French were then forced to restore Olympio’s right to hold office and he became the Prime Minister of the Togo colony and began pressing for independence.

From 1958 until 1961 he served as the Prime Minister of Togo and also served as the Minister of Finance, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Minister of Justice for the colony. He connected with many of the other independence struggles throughout the continent; for example making Ahmed Sékou Touré, first President of Guinea, conseiller special to his government in 1960. In 1961, as part of the transition of power away from French control, the country voted for a President and affirmed the Constitution developed by Olympio and his party. Olympio defeated Grunitzky with over 90% of the vote to become the first president of Togo and the Constitution was approved.

The French initially treated Olympio with significant hostility during the transition to independence and later, after Olympio became the President in 1961, the French became concerned that Olympio was largely aligned with British and American interests. Olympio adopted a unique position for early independent African leaders of former French territories. Although he tried to rely on little foreign aid, when necessary he relied on German aid rather than French aid. He was not part of the alliances between France and their ex-colonies (notably not joining the African and Malagasy Union) and fostered connections with former British colonies (namely Nigeria) and the United States. Eventually, he began to improve relations with France and when relations with Ghana were at their most tense, he secured a defense pact with the French in order to ensure protection for Togo.

Domestic politics was largely defined by Olympio’s efforts to restrain spending and develop his country without being reliant on outside support and repression of opposition parties.

His austere spending was most significant in the realm of military policy. Initially, Olympio had pushed for Togo to have no military when it achieved independence, but with threats from Nkrumah being a concern, he agreed to a small military (only about 250 soldiers). However, an increasing number of French troops began returning to their homes in Togo and were not provided enlistment in the limited Togolese military because of its small size. On 24 September 1962, Olympio rejected the personal plea by Étienne Eyadéma, a Sergent in the French military, to join the Togolese military. On 7 January 1963, Dadjo again presented a request for enlisting ex-French troops and Olympio reportedly tore up the request.

Olympio largely pursued a policy of connecting Togo with Britain, the United States and other Western Bloc countries. In 1962, he visited the United States and had a friendly meeting with President John F. Kennedy. In many respects, he was a cultural linkage between British and French West Africa and spoke both languages fluently and connected with the elites in both circles.

It was a long and painful journey to independence. In order to obfuscate or block the hopes of emancipation and aspirations for self-government by Olympio and the Togolese people, France requested a payment of 800 million francs from the tiny West African colony with meagre earnings as the cost of France’s colonial administration.

Being a trained economist and international businessman, Sylvanus Olympio quickly understood the game. There is no real independence with “debt trap” and he quickly went to work for two years by putting Togo’s  land and human resources to work in order to come up with the funds to pay France.

Even after paying France this colossal amount and gaining nominal independence, General De Gaulle wasn’t going to let go because he believed all French colonies were France’s property independent or not.

Sylvanus Olympio’s vision of a free and self-determining Togo, free of western interference by putting the people first above all other interests didn’t go down well in Paris. The last straw was his decision to break away from the CFA francs currency which was imposed on France’s colonies in 1945 at gunpoint.

Olympio set out to issue Togo’s own sovereign currency backed by the resources of the country and guaranteed by the German Bundesbank.  Two days before Sylvanus Olympio was due in Paris at the Bank of France to sign the withdrawal agreement of Togo from the CFA francs currency, France, with the help of USA ordered his assassination.

He was handed over to his assassins by U.S. ambassador Leon B. Poullada in Togo on 13th January 1963 and the rest is history.

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Togo & Africa will remember forever the man who thought the unity of Africa is essential. He believed Africa needed to be definitely free, politically, economically etc…

Happy freedom day TOGO images-4

Below an interesting interview of this great Man

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