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Column No.6: An ‘escape’ from Togo in retrospect (II)

We happened by a group of at least eight border patrol personnel, so suddenly that it seemed to me they simply materialized right in front…

We happened by a group of at least eight border patrol personnel, so suddenly that it seemed to me they simply materialized right in front of us by way of some arcane spell. Little was said, but much was paid and most of it in naira. After sniffing around us and poking me in the ribs with a gun barrel, they gestured us to pass, which we did incredibly hurriedly, ditto the women. Upon our arrival at the motor park, we were all pleased to see an empty vehicle but were barred from boarding it by a tout who threatened to turn us in to the police. After giving some money to him, and paying off our guides, we got into the car, and began our journey to Lome, Togo’s capital, about 150km away. 

Myself, Abdul-Fattah, Joy and Ngozi were so relieved that we spoke almost nothing to each other until we were approaching Lome, and Joy dropped off to continue to her own destination. The three of us reached the Hotel Du Fevrer almost at midnight, and I called Dr Amba’s room from the reception. He asked me where I was calling from and I told him, much to his amazement, and relief. He came down immediately and sorted out our accommodation, happily calling our worried colleagues to tell them we had arrived safely.

We spent the next morning and afternoon gearing up for the elections and conducting interviews, while getting acquainted with each other. There was representation from African Independent Television (AIT), Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), This Day newspaper, The Daily Independent and, of course, The Guardian. After a hard day’s work, we all retired early to get ready for the following day’s big event: the Togolese election.

Before I proceed, a small re-cap of significant events in recent Togolese history: the Togolese military’s immediate installation of the late Eyadema’s son as President brought about a raging furore. Faure was floated as a presidential candidate, while the choice of Bob Akitami was made by an unusual grouping of several opposition parties, in a surprise move by the normally divided competition. Based on observations made by myself and many other colleagues of mine, the opposition had it locked down, with most areas voting for Akitani. But I precede myself, so I’ll go back to the election. 

Voting began a bit late, but was in full swing by afternoon. Even when a thunderstorm threatened to rain on Akitani’s parade, voters stood in it, drenched to their skin and still eager to vote. Reports of irregularities began to trickle in, as well as stories of violence and arson. By evening, me and my colleagues were hard at work trying to e-mail reports to Nigeria and other places, but could not due to the sudden absence of internet connectivity. Our cellular phones were rendered useless, as international calls proved impossible. An atmosphere of confusion enveloped the lobby of the 5-star Du Fevrer Hotel, further heightened by news of increasing tension in Lome pouring in.

The day after the election started bright and peaceful and I even went on a mini tour accompanied by my friend Akinjide Olatunji, the Head of The Guardian newspaper’s Foreign Desk. Together we toured the beaches which lined the major highway which led to the Du Fevrer. We encountered many an interesting fact, including the revelation that a group of fishermen (boys, actually) we photographed were, indeed, Yoruba. One of them told me his parents came from Nigeria, and that he was born in Togo. After the beaches, we went through the popular central market, all but deserted due to the election. We continued to an area called Zango, which is populated mainly by Hausa people from Nigeria. While Akinjide savoured delicious-smelling Balangu (A type of roasted meat common to Northern Nigeria), I hung out with some residents, who told me that Hausa settlers from all corners of Nigeria were represented there. 

Later, that evening, it became clear that Togo was fast becoming a tension-stricken country, as votes were being counted. Opposition supporters began to indulge in violence, as they felt that results of the vote count would rigged in favour of Faure Gnassingbe. A bus in which me and my colleagues rode around to monitor the counting exercise, was attacked because of the ECOWAS insignia emblazoned on its side. We narrowly escaped a mob by the help of machine-gun-toting armed soldiers who escorted us back to the hotel. Three people were reported dead, and from the heights of the Du Fevrer, I could see black smoke billowing from quite a number of spots. We all slept uneasily that night, and by morning, we (Akinjide and I) had decided to confirm if we would have an armed escort to the border, or not. 

In a few hours, it became clear that everyone was confused and the possibility of an ECOWAS escort became slimmer. Akinjide’s bag was slung over his shoulder, as was my satchel, so we informed Dr Amba of our decision to leave via intercom, and took off for the airport. At the airport, things were just as bleak, so we left and hopped on two Okada bikes. Having told both riders to “take us the border,” they did exactly that, only it was the Togo/Ghana one. I asked my Okada man if they would be able to take us to the Hillakondji border, and he laughed as he told his colleague, who joined in. While I did not find that funny, I could appreciate their attempt at humour during such a dire time. After much begging and persuasion on our part, the two motorcycle riders agreed to take us to the border – some 150 kilometres away. But that wasn’t even the worst part.

Continued next week

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