Sylvanus Olympio, The life and Tragic Death of Togo’s First President. “From this moment and forever,
Freed from all bondage and restrain
Master of your destiny
Togo, my country, you are free at last

Free to be yourself
To follow your ideas and your inclinations
To choose according to your reason and your feelings
To decide according to your own will
Free at last
With your dignity restored
To prove and affirm your personality.”

Sylvanus Olympio declaring the independence of Togo

It is with these words filled with emotion that Sylvanus Olympio declared the independence of Togo on April 27, 1960. We are going to talk about this man with his peculiar path, his work and his tragic end. All of this made him the first African President to be assassinated on the battlefield against the Franc CFA currency.

Peculiar origins and background

The paternal grandfather of Sylvanus Olympio was a Brazilian slave-owner of Portuguese and Native American descent. His paternal grandmother was a Yoruba princess from Nigeria. From Brazil, his father settled in Togo at age 19 where he became wealthy thanks to commerce. There he met a Mamprusi woman from the country, who would become the mother of the President.

Sylvanus Epiphanio Kwami Olympio was born within a wealthy family in 1902, in Kpando, Togo, under German rule. After the First World War, just like Cameroon, Togo was divided into two parts. The West was under British rule – where the President was born – and the East was under French rule. This action divided the Ewe people under these two entities.

Olympio left for Great Britain at 18 where he obtained his degree in Economics before studying Law in France and Austria. Hired by the multinational company Unilever in England and then Nigeria, he returned to French Togoland in 1932 at a very high position held in the company. This was the very first achievement for a black man. Thanks to his status, he became the President of the Chamber of Commerce in Lomé. It is at this point that his political commitment began.

A long walk to independence

Sylvanus Olympio was a writer for the political newspaper Le guide du Togo. He co-founded an association called Comité de l’Unité Togolaise (Togolese Unit Committee) or CUT in short, which turned into a political movement in order to claim the country’s independence and reunification. He was imprisoned in 1942 by France which was then under German rule, because of his links with the British who were Hitler’s enemies by then.

In 1946, since independences were on the rise in Africa, the CUT officially became a political party and won the elections one after another. Sent by the Ewe people of the two Togo, Sylvanus Olympio went to the UN every year to plea for the reunification of his country. Under the pressure of France, Unilever transferred him to Paris. He was summoned by his employer to choose between politics and his career. He resigned to serve Togo.

France relentlessly sabotaged him and rigged the elections to favor the PTP, a political party ruled by Pedro Olympio and Nicolas Grunitzky, who are respectively Sylvanus Olympio’s cousin and brother-in-law. In 1956, British Togoland chose to unite with present Ghana through a referendum. The dream of reunification was shattered. Olympio lost the part of Togo from which he came from. That decision worsened his relations with Kwame Nkrumah. Olympio always opposed the Ghanaian President since he was seeing his continental ambition as an attempt to dominate.

On the left, British Togoland where Olympio was born. On the the right, present-day Togo. To date, there is a fence separating families from each side of the border.

Freely new organized elections confirmed CUT’s domination. Sylvanus Olympio became Prime Minister of the free Togo in 1958. France already exploiting the country without any mercy demanded the reimbursement of 800 million Francs for the expenditures allegedly incurred during colonization.

Olympio, who was very determined to get rid of the French influence, worked with the Togolese for two years and paid the said amount of money to France. On April 27, 1960, the country attained its independence with the native of Kpando as first President.

Sylvanus Olympio’s presidency

Sylvanus Olympio distinguished himself by an amazing management of public funds. The President also held the position of minister of economy. At that point, Togo was a healthy country experiencing its first years of existence. At the political level, he forbade the allied party Juvento and put his political opponents under arrest after reportedly discovering a plot against him. His brother in-law and opponent Nicolas Grunitzsky went into exile in France. The President was accused of being authoritarian.

Sylvanus Olympio developed strong relations with Nigeria, Benin as well as the United States, England and Germany. In 1962, he approved the establishment of the Central Bank of Togo in order to create a national currency; an idea that would cost his life.

France’s hostilty towards Olympio

Sylvanus Olympio at Palais de l’Elysée in Paris with Jacques Foccart, the father of Françafrique, the underground and extremely powerful network that seeks to maintain France’s interest in Africa by any mean necessary.

In line with the plans of French President De Gaulle and Jacques Foccart, founder of Françafrique, former colonies gained their independence under an economic, military and cultural yoke. Sylvanus Olympio was not the person who would accept such new order. He was a proud African and Togolese with his Brazilian and Nigerian origins. He was educated in English and German. He also married a Togolese woman whose father was German and Polish. Moreover, he was close to the Americans. He was the antipode of Presidents Léon Mba of Gabon or Senghor of Senegal, who politely said, were great admirers of France. Olympio was in no way impressed by France.

Determined to annihilate the colonial rule over his country to the extent of daring to deny the defense agreements, he was strategically moving his pawns without aggression unlike Sékou Touré of Guinea Conakry. It is right to say that he was slipping out of the claws of Françafrique. His decision to leave the Franc Cfa currency and create a currency in collaboration with Germany was the utmost insult.

Sylvanus Olympio and President Kennedy, Washington
credit “Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston”

In 1962, Togolese soldiers who served France during Indochina and Algeria’s wars returned to Togo. They asked for their reinsertion in the army. They were backed by Jacques Foccart’s envoy in Togo and Henri Mazoyer, who was the ambassador of France in Lomé. Among them, there was Gnassingbé Eyadema. Suspicious of the situation, the President refused to grant what was asked. The pretext was automatically found to undertake a coup d’Etat.

Lomé, from 12th to 13th January 1963

At 11:00 PM, armed men – with Eyadema among them – arrived at the President’s house which was kept by only 2 policemen. It took them some time to take down the heavy entrance door, allowing Sylvanus Olympio to flee with his Bermuda and shirt. He climbed over the fence between his house and the embassy of the United States and entered a car parked in the yard. The attackers fired in every direction and threatened the first lady Dina Grunitzky-Olympio, who told them she didn’t know about her husband’s whereabouts.

Gnassingbé Eyadema, Togo’s 3rd President

The ambassador of France called the US ambassador to ask him if Olympio had found refuge at his end. The US ambassador got to the embassy at night to check the information. He met the mutineers in the street. Then, he met Sylvanus Olympio in the embassy’s yard, entered the building and advised the President not to move whilst leaving him. Phone calls from the embassy of France in Lomé, Paris and Washington were all coming together. The President’s fate was sealed.

At 6:00 AM, the French radio France Inter announced the death of Sylvanus Olympio through a coup d’Etat yet he was still alive. The President left the building, guided by the assailants and the French. He was placed before the gate, bare-footed and then led to the French regiment.

At 7:15 AM, Sylvanus Olympio was surrounded by some Togolese and probably French mutineers. He took three bullets. Who pulled the trigger? Gnassingbé Eyadema would later claim that it was him. He bragged about it in the media around the world before recanting his statement in 1992. Some talked about commander Maîtrier himself, Foccart’s envoy. The father of Togo’s independence died. He was buried in Agoué, Benin, in the African-Brazilians’ cemetery.

Sylvanus Olympio’s dead body

Following his death, the pro-French Nicolas Grunitzsky assumed power for four years before being overthrown through a coup d’Etat by Gnassingbé Eyadema. Since 1967, the Gnassingbé family with now the son Faure Gnassingbé, have reigned over one of the world’s poorest countries. Togo never knew the economic wellbeing its father wanted to give it.

Sylvanus Olympio is the first President, on a lengthy list of Heads of States who were assassinated during the independence era. He is the second ruler after Prime Minister Lumumba and the first to die for opposing the Franc CFA before Modibo Keita of Mali.

The voice and confidence of Sylvanus Olympio during an interview in the United States:


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