Sylvanus E. Olympio (1902-1963), the first president of the Republic of Togo, was distinguished for his pragmatism, brilliance, and moderation. His government was overthrown by the first military coup in tropical Africa, and he was assassinated.
Sylvanus Olympio was born into a very influential Lomé family which had emigrated from Brazil in the mid-19th century. He was educated in Togolese schools, and although a resident of the French area of the Mandated Territory of Togo, he attended the London School of Economics, earning a degree in commerce in 1926. He was immediately employed by the United Africa Company and eventually rose to be its district manager for Togo.
Togolese citizens faced two problems not common to most African territories. In the 1880s Britain, Germany, and France had drawn arbitrary boundaries which divided people of the same tribes. The Ewe were the most affected since they were forced to live in the Gold Coast, Togo, and Dahomey. The mandate system after 1919 further divided Togo between France and Britain. Olympio early associated himself with the Comité de l'Unité (CUT), an association dedicated to Ewe reunification. It also opposed closer links between Togo and the French Empire.
Because of his views, Olympio was interned by the Vichy government in Dahomey during World War II. After his release he resigned from the company and became head of CUT. As president of the Togo Assembly after 1946, and later a deputy to the French Assembly, he was the most articulate spokesman for Ewe unification, appearing a number of times before the United Nations. The Ewe cause was doomed because it was opposed by both Britain and France, and devolution of power to the Gold Coast after 1951 was a further block. In 1956 in a United Nations plebiscite, British Togo voted for union with the Gold Coast.
In 1956 French Togo received limited autonomy, and in the following elections the most cooperative Parti Togolaise du Progrès (PTP) won, and Nicholas Grunitzky became prime minister. Olympio and the CUT protested the election to the United Nations, which refused to recognize the French arrangements until better-supervised elections were completed. The CUT won such an election in 1958, and Olympio became prime minister. Independence was granted Togo in April 1960, and a year later it became a republic with Olympio its president. The PTP was disqualified by Olympio's government, and thus his party won all 51 seats in the legislature.
Olympio, an economist, realized that Togo, small in size and poor in resources, had to proceed cautiously in its development program. He cooperated with France and instituted stringent controls on expenditure. Economic problems were increased by the actions of Kwame Nkrumah. Angered by his failure to absorb Togo in a federation, he closed the Ghanaian border. Dissatisfaction with Olympio's policies began to develop among the young Togolese who disagreed with his pro-French attitude. Olympio also resisted demands of Togolese veterans of the French army to enlarge the 250-man Togo force. On Jan. 13, 1963, these disgruntled soldiers staged a coup and, although not originally intending to do so, shot Olympio as he was trying to reach the security of the U.S. embassy.
There are no good detailed biographies of Olympio or works on the recent history of Togo available in English. For background see Ruth Shachter Morgenthau, Political Parties in French Speaking West Africa (1964; rev. ed. 1967), and John Hatch, A History of Postwar Africa (1965). For the history of Togo under international control and the attitudes of Togolese politicians in the period after 1945 see Claude E. Welch, Jr., Dream of Unity (1966). Some information on Olympio is in Ronald Segal, Political Africa (1961).