LOME, Togo – The president of Togo, Africa’s longest-ruling leader, died after suffering a heart attack on Saturday and the military named his son as the new head of state.
President Gnassingbe Eyadema, 69, had a heart attack early Saturday in his hometown of Piya in southeastern Togo and died on his way to Europe for treatment, officials said.
Hours later, Togo’s military high command said Eyadema’s 39-year-old son, Faure Gnassingbe, was the West African nation’s new president. The constitution calls for that power to go to the speaker of parliament, but the military said he was out of the country and it was necessary to avoid a “total vacuum of power.”
State television showed images of military leaders, including army chief of defense staff Gen. Zakari Nandja, swearing an oath of allegiance to Gnassingbe, who was the minister of mines and communication. Family names are often reversed in Africa.
Prime Minister Koffi Sama called upon security forces to keep law and order. He also announced all land borders and air space in the nation of 5.5 million people had been closed, along with the international airport in the capital, Lome.
“The armed forces and police must help preserve peace and national security,” Sama said on state radio. “All the country’s political, social, religious leaders must avoid any act likely to plunge the country into anarchy and confusion.”
In Washington, State Department spokesman Edgar Vazquez extended condolences to Eyadema’s family and encouraged the country to embrace a more representative democracy.
“The United States has long encouraged Togo to move toward a full and participatory democracy and it continues to believe that this must be the goal for the people of Togo,” Vazquez said.
Togo’s constitution calls for the speaker of parliament to succeed the president in the event of his death. By law, the parliament speaker must call national elections to choose a new president within 60 days.
Nandja, however, said the speaker of parliament, Fanbare Tchaba, was out of the country and the military had declared Eyadema’s son president to ensure stability. Nandja did not say whether the move was a temporary measure and it was not known where Tchaba was.
“The armed forces of Togo finds itself faced with the evidence of a total vacuum of power in Togo. This is because the speaker of the national assembly is absent, outside the country,” Nandja said. “Therefore, in order not to create a power vacuum, the armed forces of Togo has decided to declare Faure Gnassingbe the head of state.”
Eyadema, a former Togolese French Foreign Legion officer, had ruled Togo since 1967, when he came to power following Africa’s first postcolonial coup in 1963. Only Cuba’s Fidel Castro has been in power longer.
Though last re-elected in a May 2003 vote, Eyadema was considered one of Africa’s last “Big Men” – rulers holding power through patronage, the loyalty of their ethnic and regional groups, and military force. He had survived assassination attempts, a plane crash, international isolation and uprisings.
The European Union imposed sanctions on Togo in 1993 following allegations that security forces opened fire on democracy activists, killing about 20 people. International rights organizations accuse his regime of suppressing the opposition and charge him with widespread rights abuses and most aid to the tiny country remains frozen.
Togo is dependent mostly on commercial and subsistence agriculture and more than one-third of its people live in poverty. With development and economic reform stalled, roads and other infrastructure are crumbling.
In more recent years, perhaps in an effort to rehabilitate his image, Eyadema took part in regional efforts to bring peace to Burundi, Ivory Coast and Liberia.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan “expressed his deep sorrow” for the president’s death, according to a statement from his office, saying Eyadema had “made a significant contribution to the peaceful settlement of disputes in Africa in general and in West Africa in particular.”
Eyadema was believed to have heart problems, but the state of his health was not made public. Two weeks ago, he traveled to Switzerland for what authorities said was a medical checkup.
Dama Dramani, secretary general of the ruling Togo People’s Rally party, described the death as “tragic for Togo.”
Eyadema, a Protestant Christian, is survived by three wives and many sons who hold top government jobs or are prominent businessmen. By tradition in Togo, it is acceptable for men to have several wives.