Last week the European Union signalled Togo’s rehabilitation among the international community when it announced the resumption of normal relations after a 15-year hiatus.
The resumption of cooperation will give Togo immediate access to a much-needed â,¬123-million in aid money in addition to â,¬41,6-million in previously frozen funds. Significantly, it also paves the way for bilateral donors and institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and African Development Bank to resume engagement and is a further step in the stabilisation of the oil-rich and strategically important Gulf of Guinea in West Africa.
Togo’s Minister for Cooperation and Nepad, Gilbert Bawara, said: “I cannot hide the fact that the resumption of cooperation is really a relief after 14 difficult years.
“Now that we have resumed with the EU the other partners [will be] ready to come and help Togo.”
The EU suspended donor support in 1993 to protest then president Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s oppressive dictatorship. Fourteen years of economic deterioration followed during which ordinary Togolese grew progressively poorer and the country’s infrastructure crumbled.
Eyadéma’s death in 2005 did not mark the end of Togo’s isolation: his 38-year grip on the country was over but, in a move criticised by regional bloc Ecowas and others, the military immediately handed power to Faure Gnassingbé, one of Eyadéma’s dozens of children.
A sham election was followed by popular violence that killed hundreds and forced tens of thousands to flee to neighbouring Ghana and Benin. President Gnassingbé was nonetheless duly inaugurated and, against the odds, the 41-year-old has shown himself a willing reformer.
Implementing changes called for by the international community, Gnassingbé installed a transitional government of national unity and, in October this year, parliamentary elections were unmarred by violence and declared free and fair by observers.
The ruling Rally of the Togolese People party won a comfortable majority, but a successful election was the signal the EU had been waiting for. “The parliamentary elections were a milestone,” said Joao Melo de Sampaio of the EU, adding: “The process goes on.”
Challenges still lie ahead. Observers say that the issue of impunity for human rights abuses must be addressed and control of the economy must be wrested from the hands of a northern tribal clique.
With political change now under way, the focus is set to shift to economic reform. During the Cold War, Togo’s stability and the prosperity afforded by low import duties earned it the nickname “the Switzerland of Africa”, though little of that is evident now among the dusty streets and decaying buildings of the sleepy seaside capital.
Togo’s main industries, phosphate mining and cotton farming, have seen production dwindle in recent years, thanks to mismanagement and lack of investment, but Âdiplomats say both are now ready for growth.
The key to Togo’s economic future will be a restructuring of its foreign debt, which currently equals the country’s GDP, and infrastructure improvements to capitalise on the Port of Lomé and its role as a key regional re-exporter Âserving the landlocked countries of the Sahel to the north.
Togo’s growing stability and emerging democracy are positive signs for the Gulf of Guinea region, but the country still has a way to go.
“Togo is not a democracy; it’s a long way from it,” conceded one diplomat, “but this is a step in the right direction. The system is evolving.”