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Africa's longest-serving leader dies; son vaulted to power

The president of Togo, Africa’s longest-ruling leader, died Saturday as he was being rushed to Europe for treatment of a heart attack, officials said. His son was named the new leader.
Togolese President Gnassingbe Eyadema votes during his country's 2003 presidential election. Eyadema died Saturday as he was being rushed to Europe for treatment of a heart attack. Ben Curtis / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Togo President Gnassingbe Eyadema, whose 38-year repressive rule over this tiny, impoverished nation made him Africa’s longest-ruling leader, died Saturday at the age of 69. The military immediately named his son as his successor.

Worldwide, only Cuba’s Fidel Castro has held power longer.

Eyadema, who claimed sole control in 1967 after aiding in what was sub-Saharan Africa’s first postcolonial coup four years earlier, suffered a heart attack in his southeastern hometown of Piya early Saturday, and died on the way to Europe for treatment, officials said.

Hours later, Togo’s military high command said Eyadema’s 39-year-old son, Faure Gnassingbe, was the West African nation’s new president. The constitution calls for that power to go to the speaker of parliament, but the military said he was out of the country and it was necessary “to avoid a “total vacuum of power.”

State television showed images of military leaders, including army chief of defense staff Gen. Zakari Nandja, swearing an oath of allegiance to Gnassingbe, who was the minister of mines and communication. Family names are often reversed in Africa.

Fears of anarchy
Prime Minister Koffi Sama called upon security forces to keep law and order. He also announced all land borders and air space in the nation of 5.5 million people had been closed, along with the international airport in the capital, Lome.

“The armed forces and police must help preserve peace and national security,” Sama said on state radio. “All the country’s political, social, religious leaders must avoid any act likely to plunge the country into anarchy and confusion.”

In Washington, State Department spokesman Edgar Vazquez extended condolences to Eyadema’s family but also encouraged the country to embrace a more representative democracy.

“The United States has long encouraged Togo to move toward a full and participatory democracy and it continues to believe that this must be the goal for the people of Togo,” Vazquez said.

Constitution calls for new election
Togo’s constitution calls for the speaker of parliament to succeed the president in the event of his death. By law, the parliament speaker must call national elections to choose a new president within 60 days.

Nandja, however, said the speaker of parliament, Fanbare Tchaba, was out of the country and the military had declared Eyadema’s son president to ensure stability. Nandja did not say whether the move was a temporary measure and it was not known where Tchaba was.

“The armed forces of Togo finds itself faced with the evidence of a total vacuum of power in Togo. This is because the speaker of the national assembly is absent, outside the country,” Nandja said. “Therefore, in order not to create a power vacuum, the armed forces of Togo has decided to declare Faure Gnassingbe the head of state.”

Eyadema, a former Togolese French Foreign Legion officer who favored sunglasses and snappy suits, had survived assassination attempts, international isolation over rights abuses, and uprisings.

Eyadema was considered one of Africa’s last “Big Men” — rulers holding power through patronage, the loyalty of their ethnic and regional groups, and military force.

In his last inauguration after an internationally criticized 2003 election, witnesses said Eyadema rose from what was a reclining easy-chair set on a stage to take the oath of office.

Nation crippled by poverty
The European Union imposed sanctions on Togo in 1993 following allegations that security forces opened fire on democracy activists, killing about 20 people. International rights organizations accuse his regime of suppressing the opposition and charge him with widespread rights abuses and most aid to the tiny country remains frozen.

Togo is dependent mostly on commercial and subsistence agriculture and more than one-third of its people live in poverty. With development and economic reform stalled, roads and other infrastructure are crumbling.

In more recent years, perhaps in an effort to rehabilitate his image, Eyadema took part in regional efforts to bring peace to Burundi, Ivory Coast and Liberia.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan “expressed his deep sorrow” for the president’s death, according to a statement from his office, saying Eyadema had “made a significant contribution to the peaceful settlement of disputes in Africa in general and in West Africa in particular.”

Eyadema was believed to have heart problems, but the state of his health was not made public. Two weeks ago, he traveled to Switzerland for what authorities said was a medical checkup.

State radio played mourning music, interrupted by Sama’s comments.

Barry Moussa Barkue, special adviser to the president, said the sudden death was “unbelievable.” He said Eyadema looked healthy and even granted audience to visitors on Friday.

Dama Dramani, secretary general of the ruling Togo People’s Rally party, described the death as “tragic for Togo.”

Eyadema, a Protestant Christian, is survived by three wives and many sons who hold top government jobs or are prominent businessmen. By tradition in Togo, it is acceptable for men to have several wives.