Togo: another country I know nothing about

Togo is not Tonga. I had not thought about either of those tiny nations until, literally, yesterday, when I wrote a post about a Peace Corps volunteer in Tonga. I didn’t know where these countries were, and I’m not sure I knew which was which, or even if one or both of them was a mythical, invented, Wakanda-esque place that occurs only in literature, comic books, movies or bedtime stories. I only became lightly acquainted with Tonga because of my personal connection to that Peace Corps volunteer, and I wondered, as I wrote that post, what other places I was missing out on because I had no perceived connection to them. I find myself embarrassed by my ignorance and ethnocentrism. So today, I’m calling my own bluff and looking into Togo, simply because it sounds a little like Tonga, and because I need to be more curious. Here are some things I’ve learned and impressions I’ve formed — not claiming to be comprehensive:

Basics: Togo’s capital city is Lome. It’s one of the smallest countries in Africa, covering just 57,000 square miles, making it about the size of Georgia. It has a population of about 7.6 million. [That may not sound very small, but remember how big Africa is by comparison: 11.74 million square miles.]

The history of Togo is a familiar, sad story of colonization and exploitation by European powers. Starting in the 1500s, and for the following 200 years, the area was a major trading center for Europeans in search of slaves, earning Togo and the surrounding region the name, “The Slave Coast.

Germany established “Togoland” as a colony in 1884, toward the end of the period of European colonization in Africa generally known as the “Scramble for Africa,” according to Wikepedia. 

More than once, what is now Togo was divvied up and passed around, without permission. In World War I, both Great Britain and France invaded, to vanquish the Germans. They “got” Togoland as reparations from Germany at the end of the war. Later, when they couldn’t agree on joint rule, they split Togoland between themselves. After World War II, citizens of the British sector voted to become part of Ghana. Citizens on the French side opted to become an independent republic of France, and gained independence, as Togo, in 1961.

Unfortunately, Togo’s more recent history is an ugly saga of democracy denied—the kind of story that adds credence to the unfortunate stereotype of corrupt, despotic African leaders. Togo’s first elected leader ran a dictatorship disguised as a democracy—and retained power for 38 years, making him the longest ruling dictator in modern Africa. When he died suddenly, in 2005, the Togolese military installed his son as the head of government. The son was re-elected in 2010 and 2015, in elections that were widely regarded as rigged, sparking violent demonstrations that caused hundreds of deaths and causing as many as 40,000 Togolese citizens to flee to neighboring countries. A legislative election in January 2018 sparked more protests, as 14 opposition parties boycotted the vote. The country’s struggle to democratize has resulted in on-again-off-again sanctions from the European Union and denunciations from human rights organizations.

But it’s not all bad in Togo. Its citizens have a relatively decent standard of living, thanks mostly to the country’s valuable phosphate deposits. Togo is the world’s fifth largest exporter of phosphates, which are used in a huge range of everyday products, such as pharmaceuticals, personal care products, industrial and institutional cleaners.

Also, a nascent entrepreneurial spirit has emerged around the Lome port—one of the largest in Western Africa—where 500,000 tons of mostly European e-waste arrive every year. Local innovators scrounge the piles of dead computers, printers and tvs for parts and precious metals, sometimes MacGyver-ing them into working equipment for resale. It’s ironic, of course, that the same countries that pillaged Togo for centuries are once again exploiting it—this time as a dumping ground for electronics.

The latest news headlines from Togo point to an improving economic picture, sparked by improvements to Lome port. In fact, Lome now hosts West Africa’s leading container port, snatching the position from Lagos ports in Nigeria in the last quarter of 2018. On the flip side, other recent events have echoes to Togo’s past, when slave ships used Lome as a hub. In early March 2019, pirates—whose nationality has yet to be determined—seized a container ship near the port and kidnapped three Romanian sailors.

I wish there was a positive ending to this story. But there’s not. Every year, the BBC conducts a “Happiness Survey,” ranking countries “based on data from the Gallup World Poll and taking into account variables such as the real GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, corruption levels and social freedoms.” In 2015, the study ranked Togo as the saddest nation in the world.