Togo: a country of strangers?

Making peace in Togo is not a numbers game. Nor is it about searching to find out who was wrong in the past. As the next election approaches it is time to recreate our country’s history and invest in unity and peace, says Mawusse Domefaa  Atimasso.

Read this article in French.

We’re in a high school in Lomé, the capital of Togo. The students have just gone back to school after the holidays and the school is hosting a parents meeting to give a review of the past year and appoint new members of the parents’ committee. The head teacher asks parents to volunteer themselves for committee positions. All the posts are filled, but then a parent stands up and shouts angrily at the director: “how come its only people from the south who get to be on this committee?”

Relations between Togolese from the north and south of the country have never been simple. Tensions and frustrations like this are not just articulated in public meetings; they drive a deep and often violent wedge in the country which can manifest itself in discrimination, inequality and violence. As we approach the next general election, which will be held on March 24th 2013, it is important to reflect on the origin of such tensions and to consider how we can stop them from gaining momentum.

Political conflicts have assailed the whole Togolese population for many years now, leaving deep scars. Peace is always precarious. Conflicts between political parties, economic crisis and widespread illness now set the political agenda over moral values. The backdrop of constant assertions of ethnic identity provokes frustration, inequality and social injustice which hinder the country’s development. To understand how we got to this point, we need to look at the history of our country.

Causes of ethnic tension

In 2008, Togo’s population was estimated to be 5.9 million, made up of people from around 40 communities. These different groups come together to form two larger groupings: the north and the south. The north is primarily represented by the Kabyè, and the south by the Ewe community and its related groups: Ouatchi, Ahoulan, Peda, Mina and Guin and Adja. 

Togo became independent from France on April 27 1960 under Prime Minister Sylvanius Olympio, a Guin (from the south). He was assassinated and the presidency of the country was seized by General Gnanssimgbe Eyadement, a Kabyè (from the north) shortly after. In his book ‘Colonial conquests and integration of peoples: the case of the Kabyè in Togo (1989 – 1940)’, historian Noel Courrier Kakou notes that at the time of colonialism, the Kabyè lived in a social vacuum and were not in touch with other peoples. According to Kakou, the Kabyè were feared by other communities for their warmongering. Their bellicose nature no doubt fed malicious rumours which were spread by neighbouring groups. They were considered savages by the Ewe who, in turn, considered themselves a ‘civilised’ people who had close ties to Europeans. The coup d’état perpetrated against Olympio, and the crimes committed during the rule of general Gnassingbe, only served to reinforce the existing gulf.

Although they only represented around 10% of the Togolese population, the Kabyè managed to slide into most of the country’s high ranking positions and they have never hidden their desire to stay there since. Mindèfreinisme (coming from the kabyè expression “mindè frère” - my dear brother) is a word invented by southern Togolese to describe the principle by which it is enough to be Kabyè to ‘be right’ or to have a good job.

To fight against this injustice and their lack of representation, the Ewe started to denigrate and criticise all the actions of the Kabyè. Today, Kablèto (Kabyè person) remains the preferred insult of the Ewe. If you do something strange or abnormal someone will ask you if you are a Kabyè. If you have a misunderstanding with a Togolese, the first question you will get is, “are you a Kabyè?”

The government is taking action to unite the different communities, such as through the creation of a reconciliation commission by decree on February 19 2009. Yet this commission has done little to ease communal tensions; indeed in many respects it has made it worse. The work of the commission was to publically collect and document injustices committed during and after electoral periods; Togolese began to weigh up the number of times they had been dominated, something that did more harm than good.

Another history

As it stands our history is focused on difference. We need to take out the following formula, which is still celebrated in our primary schools, “this lot from the east,...this lot from the west,...this lot from the north...”, which gives the impression that Togo is a country of strangers. This vision of the past is far too disjointed. What country in the world hasn’t been a 'country of refuge' at one time or another in its history? At the origin of every nation there is often an amalgam of groups from different origins, and only a shared community living on the same land throughout several centuries that adheres to common values will confer on these formerly heterogeneous groups the quality of citizens of a single nation, united and indivisible. 

Creating this vision will prevent future conflicts and, as such, it is a duty of every Togolese citizen. As we approach the next election we need to train community leaders, village chiefs and nobles in conflict management and conflict prevention; in peace-keeping as well as in their responsibilities vis-à-vis the elections themselves. We need them to raise awareness of non-violence in their communities and promote a culture of peace. And to do this we need to be innovative, such as through broadcasting radio shows to reach remote communities. We need to involve all actors, including mass media, in the purging of the "I am from the north, I am from the southmalady. We need to learn to laugh at ourselves (there is nothing like a bit of humour to sort people out).                                                                  

Rather than highlighting our differences, we need to explain to Togolese people what it is that brings us all together in one growing nation, rich and diverse in its peoples and cultures. And as the election campaigns get under way, people need to understand that, whatever their ethnicity, they are not above and beyond the law. For even if the crimes of the past went unpunished the same is not true for those that follow. Most importantly, we need to keep in mind that the rights and duties that fall on us as Togolese citizens are a real asset, and an investment in peace and stability. For as the Togolese proverb says, "novi tikplo me heina o!" (the stick of fraternity never breaks).

This article was translated from the French original by Jennifer Allsopp.

About the author

Mawussé Domefaa Atimasso is a marketing consultant for the MLM network in Togo. Since 2008 she has volunteered teaching English to students in Lomé. She also supports the NGO ‘projects abroad Togo’ through providing national language courses to foreign volunteers.