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The War Nerd February 11, 2005
Togo’s Lo-Cal Coup
By Gary Brecher Browse author Email

One of the surest signs that the whole world is going Fag Planet is the pitiful little non-violent squabbles that pass for military coups these days. Even in Africa, coup center of the universe, you just don’t get the good old coup, the kind that used to make politics fun in these tropical hellholes.

I’m talking about jeeps full of young officers in sunglasses screeching to a halt outside the Presidential Palace, shooting the place up and standing the incumbent against the nearest wall, while their drinking buddies from the barracks launch the other classic attack on the one radio station, breaking into the Bob Marley hit parade to announce that the People’s Democratic Something-or-Other has seized power.

These coups used to hit Africa as reliably as droughts. Their golden age was the 1960s, 70s and into the 80s. Before 1960, most African countries were European colonies, and the kind of soldier who stages a coup wasn’t dumb enough to go up against real European troops. But once the whites bugged out, the first thing the locals did was grab all the military materiel they left behind. And the first thing the new officers did was stage a coup. There were coups in Nigeria, Mali, Uganda, Ghana, Ethiopia, Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Congo-Kinshasa, Congo-Brazzaville, Central African Republic, Liberia, Libya and Sudan.

Most of those places never mattered and never will, but some of these coups turned their little colonels into media superstars. Take Khadafi; he came to power in a coup in 1969, when he was only 27, and he’s been hogging headlines (and wimping out on all his revolutionary friends) ever since.

Most of the big, really bloody coups happened outside Africa, for the simple reason that it takes organization to do large-scale killing. The Indonesian military coup of 1965 ended up with about 500,000 dead.

When an African coup hit a really big kill-total, it was usually because it happened in one of the relatively orderly, stable countries. Like Ethiopia: when Mengistu’s commies dumped Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, they inherited a pretty decent army and internal security apparatus, and used it to run a "Red Terror" that saw at least 10,000 "Enemies of the People" put in the ground to help fertilize the coffee bean farms. Not Selassie, though—they were peeved with him, so Mengistu personally strangled him and ordered him buried under a latrine. Not a nice way to treat Jah’s rep on Earth—Mengistu wasn’t a Marley fan, I guess.

Black-African coups generally specialized in drama and big talk, not high casualties. Lots of times, the officers planning the coup took advantage of foreign visits by the head of state to stage their pint-size revolution. It was really easy to do that back in the 60s, when Africa was still considered cool, revolutionary and "developing"—before people realized it was developing like a case of smallpox, not like Singapore.

Back then African dictators were superstars of the commie media, like Che. So when Kwame Nkrumah, the dashiki-wearing dictator of Ghana, went to Hanoi to chill with the revolutionaries in 1966, his officer corps decided to pull off a little revolution. Kwame had no dictatorship to come home to, and ended up one of those depressed ex-dictators who never shut up about their glory days.

The guys who overthrew Kwame had a pretty typical run of it: they lasted five years, then got overthrown by another coup in 1972. This one was a true classic: the Junta tried to bring in "austerity measures" that included cutting some of the Army’s perks. Mistake! The First Brigade, which was stationed in the capital, Accra, got in their jeeps, got out at the government HQ, and declared a revolution—plus reinstatement of ceiling fans and free Scotch for all army officers.

A Colonel with the name of—lemme see if I can get this one right—Ignatius Kutu Acheampong took over. He’d learned his lesson about overseas trips: he only took one in seven years, and that was to Togo, right next door. And he kept it a secret until he was safely back at his desk. Colonel Kutu was overthrown by one of the coolest Coup-meisters in African history, Flt. Lt. Jerry Rawlings.

You’ll notice Rawlings was only a Lieutenant—well, that’s another cool feature of the old-school African coup, the opportunity for even junior ranks to get a turn in the presidential chair. The guy who started a chain of coups in Liberia, Samuel Doe, was only a sergeant when he had himself promoted to President-for-Life. Lt. Rawlings was one of these HDD adrenaline junkies who go crazy without a coup or a war. He was the star pilot of the Ghanian air force—which may mean he knew how to land. He was bored in the peacetime AF, and in May 1979, Rawlings decided the time was right for a coup.

He was wrong. He couldn’t get anybody to follow him and was locked up. Now this is the crucial time for a dictator, so any of you hoping to seize power someday, listen up: what should you do when you capture a hothead young officer who’s staged a failed coup?

That’s right: KILL HIM! KILL HIM NOW!

I don’t know why it’s so hard for people to learn this lesson. You get the same moral from any movie ever made: if you have your enemy at gunpoint, KILL HIM! Don’t gloat, don’t rub it in, just shoot him.

Rawlings’ captors didn’t kill him, and naturally he tried a second coup a month later, breaking out of prison and marching to power with everybody adoring him, calling him "Junior Jesus" and "the Savior." The Savior’s first step was to execute eight former leaders. He and his army buddies supposedly had a habit of ordering political prisoners dragged to their favorite shooting range, where they’d get stoned and practice marksmanship on the unlucky convict.

Meanwhile, Ghana was going to Hell. Nobody minded. Rawlings was entertaining, and nobody in West Africa suffers from high expectations. He was so popular that when he stood for election in 1992, he won by a landslide. He was reelected in 1996. He gained weight and got so respectable that Clinton and Queen Elizabeth came to call. That’s how they did it back in the day.

But today? There’s a little cat-fight going on in Togo right now that they’re calling a coup. But it’s about as exciting and violent as a Fresno City Council meeting.

Togo is the kind of place you used to be able to count on to produce some good coups. It’s right next to Ghana, in a row of West African countries that have the nastiest climate and history in the world. They were created as slave-shipping depots, then passed from one colonizer to another like gang bitches. Togo started out German, but after WW I it was divvied up between the Brits and the French. The Brits merged their part with Ghana, so the little chunk calling itself Togo ended up taking orders from the French.

It doesn’t get much sadder than that.

The stats for Togo are amazing: average yearly income is $310. Even WalMart pays more than that. Life expectancy is 48 for men, 51 for women.

Togo had a good, classic African coup three years after "independence" and another in 1967. The new ruler was Lt. Col. Eyadema, who sounds like a skin disease but must have been a steady player, because he stayed in power till he died last week.

All that’s happening now is that the army wants to put his son, a fat guy named Faure, in power. No killing, no shooting up the radio station, no mobs looting—no fun at all. Faure even promised to hold elections one of these days. What more can you ask?

Let’s not pretend we care what happens in Togo. It’s the kind of place you’d sell your watch to get out of, if you ended up there. And let’s not pretend that making the locals do some lame imitation of an election is going to turn the place into Switzerland. Africa is a mess, and it’s going to stay that way a long, long time.

This is about PR, showing a good look on the evening news. So the other African countries—you know, those shining examples of democracy—have suddenly gone all respectable on us. They’re shocked. They say the inauguration of fat-boy Faure "amounts to a military coup." Well, no, guys—a military coup is a lot more fun to watch. This is just a dictator’s fat son taking over, just like Baby Doc did in Haiti. And this poor fat kid is probably just as nice and weak as Baby Doc was.

He won’t last long. They’ll bring in some high-powered PR guys to run one of those "velvet revolutions" on Togo, just like they did in Georgia and Ukraine. Instead of a few officers with jeeps and rifles we’ll get "democratic" coups where the CIA or the EU pours like a billion dollars into designing election logos and handing out flowers and singing whatever the local version of "Edelweiss" from Sound of Music is.

Somehow pumping all those billions and all that media into these hellholes never counts as a "coup." Because it’s our kind of a coup: big money, no guns, nice ’n ’boring.

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Gary Brecher
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