— By Farida from Togo
On February 5th, 2005, the national television of my country, Togo, went blank, only showing an image of the president. The neighborhood went silent, shops closed, lights were turned off, doors shut: there was panic everywhere. This was the first time ever in our country that all televisions stations went blank showing only the picture of the president. Rumours started circulating that maybe he had died. A neighbor came to our house and confirmed the rumors to my father, the president had passed away. Gnassingbe Eyadema was his name, and he ruled Togo with an iron fist for 38 years. He was the most feared person in the country, and at some point he was considered immortal.
Deep in my heart I was relieved because I had longed for so many years to see my country freed from that dictator. I had silently prayed for it every time my father or one of his activists’ friends was jailed and tortured by the military at the command of Eyadema. I wanted to celebrate that moment with my dad, who was sitting in the dark; it was dark throughout the entire capital city because of a power outage For the first time in my life, I saw my dad crying. I was very much surprised because I expected him to be relieved. This was the man who had jailed him numerous times in the past, tortured him for months, broken thirteen of his ribs, 9 of his toes, expelled him from the university for life, and killed several of his friends. I asked, “Dad why are you crying?” and he replied, “All my life, I was hoping that one day, Togo would be freed from this regime and this man will face trial for all the atrocities he has committed. And when I think that he gets to die, and my friends who were killed will never have justice, I feel devastated”. All I could tell him was sorry. At 8pm, the General of the Army appointed the son of the deceased president as the new head of state, even though our constitution states clearly that the president of the National Assembly was to take over when the president dies. Everybody was shocked and confused by this, a military coup, and this was the beginning of a new horror story in Togo. However, thanks to pressure from the opposition and protests, the regime finally accepted to allow the Vice President of the National Assembly take over as president, because the President of the Assembly was exiled to neighboring Benin. Elections were announced for the 24th of April.
The electoral campaign of 2005 was extremely dramatic. The opposition formed a coalition to support one candidate and all predictions were pointing at his victory. Never in my life have I witnessed such vivacity in my country. Every campaign day was a celebration with almost everyone wearing yellow, which was the color of the main opposition party. “Ditia Kpoe Leyi,” was the slogan for the opposition militants, and it substituted as a greeting wherever you went. Then came Sunday April 24th 2005; the very day we believed would forever mark our history, like April 27th did when we got our independence 55 years earlier. Polls were to be opened at 7am, and by 5 in the morning polling stations were already overcrowded. People were determined to vote, and stay to protect their votes. There was lots of excitement and militants were touring polling stations to report on the voting activities and the trends at each station. At 5pm, polling stations closed and the vote counting started. At the station in my neighborhood, people gathered outside the school classrooms that served as voting rooms to hear the polling agents give the results. The screamings that came with the announcement that the opposition candidate, Bob Akitani, was the winner of that station, was close to the screaming that followed the victory of our soccer team at the African Cup of Nations qualifications. People were singing and dancing, and people all throughout Lome, the capital, were celebrating the victory of their candidate. Although I was 15 and didn’t vote, I also took part in the celebration. That was without knowing the worse had yet to happen.
As people were chanting victory songs in the whole city, militaries attacked every single polling station, teargassed and arrested numerous people, and seized the ballots. We were all in shock and couldn’t believe what had just happened. Two days later, at night on Tuesday April 26, which was the day before the celebration of Togo’s 45th independence day, militaries were sent in all the opposition stronghold neighborhoods to “neutralize” the youths, as the electoral commission was declaring the son of the deceased president, Faure Essozimna Gnassingbe, the winner of the elections against all predictions. Over 1,000 Togolese people were killed that night. In a country of 6 million inhabitants, that was a huge number. Over 60 thousand people fled the following days to Ghana and over 30 thousand fled to Benin. The city was torn completely and there was smoke, blood, and debris all over the place. On May 3rd 2005, I was reading about the victims of the massacres in a newspaper when I found the name of two students from my high school. One was in his freshman year, like me, and the other was a senior. Like about 1,300 other Togolese, their only crime was to live in a neighborhood tagged as an “opposition stronghold.”
I was angered, sad, and had never felt that helpless in my life. And whenever I imagined that it could have been me, or a sibling of mine, I couldn’t help but cry. That was when I started writing about dictatorship, military repression, and human rights abuse in Togo. I wanted the world to know about us, to hear our stories, to feel our pain and our helplessness. From then on I have never stopped, and as of today I have published over 400 articles on Togo and have become one of the most known activists from my country. When I started blogging in 2009, I never expected my voice to be heard. I was just a 19 year old trying to express her anger against injustice and hoping for change to come. But the more I wrote, the more audience I built as people were connecting to my stories. People will contact me and ask me to write about their stories, because they are afraid to do it themselves. They assumed that I was not afraid of anything, because the multiple threats and attempts on my life never stopped me from voicing my opinion. But the truth is, I too am scared. I am scared of crying just like my father for failing to one day bring justice to my friends. And whenever I think of that moment, I say: “Farida, you must keep going. You must keep going, you must keep going.”
Writing not only gave me a voice, it also made me an opinion leader, and my attempt to reject that leadership role was a failure. I became someone that others wanted to hear from and seek guidance from. Whenever there is a political turmoil in Togo, people will reach out to me to seek my opinion. So I am trying to improve myself so that my words will not create more division, but bring more closure and have an impact for the betterment of my community.