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Togo: Who killed Sylvanus Olympio, the father of Togolese independence?

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: ‘We killed the President!’

By Christophe Boisbouvier
Posted on Thursday, 4 November 2021 15:02

Togo's Sylvanus Olympio at the Élysée Palace, with Jacques Foccart, then secretary general of the Élysée Palace for African affairs, in March 1962. (SIPA)

With the trial of the alleged killers of Burkina Faso's Thomas Sankara’s under since October, we take a look at the destinies of eight African presidents who were assassinated. In this first part of our series, we revisit the death of Togolese President Sylvanus Olympio, which occurred on the night of 12 and 13 January 1963.

This is part 1 of an 8-part series. 

Two things are certain. First, that the attack on the Togolese president’s residence in Lomé began at 11pm; and second, that Olympio was assassinated the next morning, at 7:15am, in front of the gates of the US embassy, from which he had just been removed. Between these two events, eight long hours passed, in which phone calls were made and orders given… Eight hours about which the United States and France know much, yet continue, 50 years on, to remain reticent.

Will we ever know the truth? Witnesses have testified. Documents have been declassified. If the Togolese ask for it, archives will be opened, but it is already possible to reconstruct the main events of that night.

Slippery like Unilever soap

In 1963, who is it that wanted to get rid of the father of Togolese independence? The French. For de Gaulle and Foccart, his adviser on African affairs, Olympio was the prototype of the surreptitiously anti-French head of state.

First, because of his origin. Born in Lomé in 1902, under German colonisation, and educated at the London School of Economics, the man was multilingual (German, English, French, Portuguese, Yoruba) and had long worked for the Anglo-Dutch company, Unilever. Until 1960, Olympio was an embodiment of the multicultural country that the French had not been able to colonise in their usual manner – between 1919 and 1960, Togo’s guardianship had been entrusted to France by the League of Nations, and later by the United Nations. Just after independence, in May 1960, Togo’s first president told Agence France-Presse (AFP): ‘’I will do my best to ensure my country can thrive without France.’’

Olympio inspired distrust in Foccart because he was elusive – like Unilever soap. Unlike the Guinean Sékou Touré, he did not openly oppose France. He had gone to see de Gaulle in Paris in March 1962. However, 10 days earlier, he had been received with great respect by the Americans. John F. Kennedy had even come to Washington Dulles International Airport. This explains Foccart’s sneer the day that he welcomed Olympio on the steps of the Élysée Palace. ‘’Sylvanus Olympio was not one of our friends,’’ he would later say. “With him, my relations were never as cordial as those I had with Nicolas Grunitzky [the man who succeeded him after the coup].’’

In early 1963, Olympio even considered leaving the franc zone (CFA), and creating a Togolese currency backed by… The Deutsche Mark. Togo, through its balancing policy, risked offering a model of emancipation to all former French colonies. Ultimately, according to Paris, Olympio was more dangerous than Sékou.

In addition to the French, a few dozen Togolese also had serious reasons for wanting to get rid of their president. They were former soldiers of the French colonial army (First Indochina War, Algerian War) who had just been demobilised by Paris. They demanded that they be integrated into the very small Togolese army (less than 1,000 men). Olympio, who was suspicious of them, refused. Among these half-soldiers were Chief Warrant Officer Emmanuel Bodjollé, 35, leader of the 12-13 January operation, and Sergeant Etienne Eyadéma, 28.

Both were Kabyes from the north of the country, while the president was an Ewe from the south. What’s more, several Togolese dissidents, both southerners and northerners, were imprisoned in Lomé at the time, with chains on their feet; they had no love for Olympio either.

On Saturday, January 12, at 11pm, a commando of six men, probably led by Bodjollé himself, attacked the presidential residence – a villa surrounded by pines, about 150 meters from the Atlantic Ocean. Sylvanus and his wife, Dina, were already in bed. The residence was only guarded by two policemen. As the assailants talked among themselves and then took several minutes to break down the heavy front door, the president had time to put on a pair of beige Bermuda shorts and a shirt, go downstairs barefoot, climb out a window, cross the garden and climb the wall between his home and the US embassy. He found a Buick parked in the gravel yard and climbed in.

The shots were too far apart to be fired against a fleeing man.

Meanwhile, the assailants burst into the villa, went upstairs, shot at Dina and the servants, fired point-blank into the closets, and demanded to know where Olympio was. “He’s been downstairs for over an hour. I don’t know where he is,’’ said his wife. All of these facts have been established. They are based on Dina’s testimony, and that of the servants. However, after these events, things become less clear.

There were probably several hours of uncertainty for the coup plotters. Did the president flee by road? Did he take refuge at the American embassy? They did not know, and began to fear for their lives, worrying whether Olympio would succeed in turning the tables on them. At 3:30am, according to the account of his daughter, Sofia, then-US Ambassador Leon B. Poullada received a phone call at his residence, which was about two miles from his office.

Scared to death

Who was calling him? This is where the testimony of Gilchrist Olympio, the son of the deceased, is important. “At the end of 1964, almost two years after my father’s death,’’ he says, “I met Poullada in Washington. He had just left the State Department and was still traumatised. He [talked to] me for three hours and told me that it was the French ambassador, Henri Mazoyer, who had warned him that night that a coup was underway and that the president might have taken refuge [at] his embassy.’’

Incredible, but true. At that time, the US embassy in Lomé was not protected by anyone: no marines, no armed guards, just a night watchman! When Poullada arrived with his vehicle in front of his embassy, he came face to face with putschists who seemed drunk or high, and they threatened him. After an exchange, he managed to enter the embassy grounds. Olympio immediately beckoned him over and told him what had happened.

The American then advised him not to move from the Buick and to wait until he returned with keys to open the building. Was he telling the truth? It’s hard to say. According to Sofia, Poullada did not open the building because he was afraid that the putschists would ransack it. The ambassador did not dawdle. He returned to his residence and called his French counterpart, Mazoyer, to confirm that Olympio was at home. Then he did not move. No doubt he was scared to death.

A young American diplomat, vice-consul Richard L. Storch, was living in a building just across the street from the embassy. At 6:40am, Poullada called him and asked him to keep an eye on what was going on. Storch watched armed men come and go on the street. At 07:10am, he saw a civilian in shorts and bare feet in the middle of the coup plotters. At 07:15am, he went to the kitchen to make himself a coffee. That’s when he heard three gunshots at regular intervals.

“The shots were too far apart to be fired against a fleeing man,’’ he said in the report he wrote the next day. For the first time since independence, an African president had been shot, and his assassins had entered an embassy to catch him. The territory of the United States had been seriously violated. This is probably the reason why, despite the US Freedom of Information Act, that the State Department’s documents are only declassified gradually.

The attack was probably organised and carried out by the military.

Who shot him? In the days that followed, Sergeant Eyadéma boasted to reporters from Le Figaro, Le Monde, Paris Match, and Time Magazine that he had shot the president with his own hands: “I shot him because he didn’t want to move.’’ In 1992, he retracted his statement on RFI. Was it really him? In the absence of a direct witness, we will never know, but the fact is that his claim, made during the first hours of the coup, brought him prestige in the troop and undoubtedly helped him gain precedence over older and more senior comrades during the overthrow of Grunitzky in 1967.

Most importantly, who told the assailants where Olympio was hiding? At 11:30pm or midnight, when the president took refuge in the American embassy, the putschists did not enter the diplomatic compound. Seven hours later, after the telephone exchange between Poullada and Mazoyer, they did not hesitate. However, Henri Mazoyer and Jacques Foccart’s agent in Lomé, Major Georges Maîtrier, had been advocating against Olympio on behalf of these unemployed ex-squad fighters for weeks… In the Françafrique house, there is still a large closet (with lots of archives?) to be opened.

From 1963 to 2010, there was a vendetta between the Olympio and Gnassingbé families. In September 1986, President Gnassingbé Eyadéma narrowly escaped an attack organised in Lomé by a commando infiltrated from Ghana, where Gilchrist, the son of Sylvanus and Dina Olympio, had taken refuge. In May 1992, Gilchrist was seriously injured by a bullet on a provincial road in Togo.

“The attack was probably organised and carried out by the military,’’ said the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), which denounced the “autonomy of action given to Captain Ernest Gnassingbé [a son of President Eyadema]’’. Since 2010, Gilchrist and Faure Gnassingbé, another son of Eyadema who came to power in 2005, have reconciled.

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