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BET.com
updated 6/9/2005 4:06:52 PM ET 2005-06-09T20:06:52

On the map, Togo resembles a shard of broken glass, shoved between Ghana and Benin in West Africa, a region where slave traders snatched our ancestors. About the size of West Virginia, Togo’s 5 million people are very poor, mostly subsistence farmers who earn about $1 a day.

It’s not a place featured for honeymooners in the Sunday travel sections or even for Black Americans who want an African experience. It is where Kamau Stanford, a sincere brother from Philadelphia went to teach high school students social studies. It’s also where this idealistic young Black man ran into the hard reality of Togo law.

But more than Stanford’s adventure, this also is a story about the struggle of African nations to mature politically, to change rulers in a peaceful, lawful manner, to accept the diplomatic intervention of neighbors concerned about regional stability.

Ruler dies
The story begins in February when General Gnassingbe Eyadema, Togo’s strong-man ruler for nearly four decades, suddenly died. Disregarding the country’s constitution, the general’s military buddies decided to make his son the president and swore him in during a late night ceremony.

But many Togolese, and Africans around the continent, who have seen too many bogus exchanges of power, said not here, not this time. The domestic and international outcry forced the military to back down – a good sign for a country that really had little experience with democracy.

General Eyadema had seized power in a 1967 coup and dissolved the political parties. They were legalized again in 1991 and a democratic constitution took effect the next year. But the façade of democracy differs greatly from the reality of popular rule.

As the BBC reports: “A joint UN-Organization of African Unity panel, set up to investigate Amnesty International allegations that several hundred people were killed after controversial elections in 1998, concluded in 2001 that there had been systematic violations of human rights.”

So, this is the backdrop for the current turmoil in Togo, where a charged political atmosphere contributed to Stanford’s run-in with what passes for law and order there. He went to Lome, Togo’s capital, last year to work in the International School.  At that time, this 30-year-old Howard University grad had no way of knowing that he would end up in prison, handcuffed to a bench and sleeping in a small cell crowded with other men.

“As I awoke this morning, drenched in sweat, having slept in one of the rooms of the concrete “penthouse” (a two-room attic, with a long corridor and two small closets) a room about 10’x10’ with 42 men, I was reminded of slavery,” he wrote in his journal in Lome. “Here aloft in the finest living conditions of the Lome Prison, 42 men slept head to foot with little space in between…. In the other rooms downstairs, where up to 90 men slept in only a slightly large room, I felt what it must have been like for my ancestors leaving West Africa some time ago.  Thank God for the strong ones who made it!”

Turmoil begins
That part of Stanford’s story began on Feb. 11, six days after Eyadema’s death. He was attempting to visit a friend who lived in a gated community. An officer at the gate demanded Stanford’s bag. He was willing to dump out the contents, but he did not want to give up his bag.

“He wasn’t going for it, he wanted my bag,” Stanford recalled about the officer. “When he asked for it again he kicked me down.” Things then got worse.

A truck full of cops or soldiers, it’s hard to tell them apart in many countries, pulled up and Stanford was told to get in the back. The next thing he knew, he was accused of possessing 34 grams of marijuana. Stanford protested that he had never seen the jar of reefer the police produced, but to no avail.

He was taken to a police station where he was handcuffed to the bench. Later, he was taken to a cell and from there he was transferred to Lome Prison. At one point, he confessed to possessing the dope, thinking it was the only way he could get released. “I was scared as sh**,” he said in an interview. “I’ll say anything right now if it means I’m going to get the hell out of here.”

But he changed his mind on that strategy and told a judge the marijuana was not his. His claim of innocence was not persuasive and the judge said Stanford could get three months in prison and a $1,000 penalty. Fortunately, the director of Stanford’s school vouched for him and the social studies teacher from Philly got away with the fine.  That was on a Friday. The next Monday, he left Togo for good.

“I would like to go back to Africa, but I never would go back to Togo….” he said, “because it’s just not worth it.”

Togo is still trying to get its act together, but apparently without much success. Last week, talks failed in Nigeria between the government and the opposition. They tried to form a government of national unity after highly disputed elections were denounced.

Six African heads of state were involved in the talks, a strong sign that Africa is intent on peaceful transitions of power.

But another strong sign that those transitions too often aren’t peaceful is the presence of 32,000 Togolese refugees in Ghana and Benin. The political violence they fled and experience’s like Stanford’s demonstrate that political maturation remains a long process for Togo. Unlike Philly’s slogan, Togo isn’t always a place of brotherly love.

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