[Version Française.] LOME - Togo’s memories of the June 22nd taxi-drivers’ strike and the riots that exploded in Lomé are very fresh. During those June demonstrations, Togo’s security forces attacked two journalists, seriously wounding one and breaking the other’s camera equipment.
While such violent demonstrations and the roughing up of journalists are commonplace in Togo, no one expected that an officer of the French army - transferred to the General Staff of the Togolese Armed Forces (FAT) - would publicly approve such repression.
The latest incident took place on Tuesday, August 10. Jean Pierre Fabre, the candidate of the UFC political party, organized a National Extraordinary Congress to select the party’s new staff and national representatives. Fabre’s political rival and the national president of the UFC, Gilchrist Olympio also called for an extraordinary congress. The sitting government declared Fabre's congress to be illegal and sent the Togolese security forces to the district of Nyekonakpoè in Lomé to put an end to the proceedings.
And exactly as it happened on June 22nd, the clash between the soldiers and the partisans – this time the supporters of Jean Pierre Fabre - exploded into riots. The security forces proceeded as usual, using tear gas, chasing, beating and arresting the protesters and even passersby.
In this overheated atmosphere, observers were shocked to see French officer lieutenant colonel Romuald Létondo, who was transferred by the French Minister of Defense to support the Administration of the Togolese Armed Forces (FAT), alongside the security forces!
With intimidation and threats, lieutenant colonel Létondo, whose mission in Togo will end in 15 days, harassed journalist Didier Ledoux, a contributor to the local daily paper Liberté, who had taken a picture of Létondo while covering the riots.
“Do you want us to break your camera?” Létondo vehemently demanded of Ledoux.
"You know who I am?” the officer continued. “I am the advisor to the Chief of the Staff of the Togolese Army. Do you want me to call the RCGP just to make your lives miserable?” [Editor’s note: The RCGP is a feared commando regiment of the Presidential Guard, known to be very repressive.]
“Remove the photos. Is it that complicated?” shouted the officer.
50 years after Togo’s independence, such threats and arrogance by a French “colonial” officer against a journalist recalled days and attitudes that supposedly had been relegated to history.
The security forces, witnessing the encounter, rushed in and subdued Ledoux. Ledoux protested that he was just doing his job.
“I don’t care,” answered the white officer. “Put him in the lockup, ” he ordered the security team.
After the intervention of some other journalists, Didier Ledoux agreed to erase the pictures and was freed to go. As Ledoux left, he reminded the French lieutenant that he “could not get away with such a thing in France”.
Unfortunately for this officer, but fortunately for the press, a video was taken of this encounter.
The question in the minds of the journalists who witnessed the event is why a special advisor to the Chief of the Staff of the Togolese Army was taking action against a public demonstration at all. That is typically the role of the police and security forces.
“Why was he giving orders, as shown by the video?” asked R. Kedjagni, who works with Ledoux at Liberté and who reported on the event.
Apparently, being in a conquered, colonized territory, the officer has the right to do whatever seems right to him, Kedjiagni commented in his report.
The security forces were not there for security but perhaps instead for intimidation, and the French officer was there for advice and supervision, suggested another journalist who did not want to be named.
It was reported that shortly after the confrontation with Ledoux, the same French officer ordered the security forces to aggressively disperse a group of young people who tried to damage his car as he forced his way through a large gathering of protesters.
On Tuesday night, the French Embassy in Togo issued a press release stating, “The vehicle of a French officer, member of a cooperative military mission, was hit with stones thrown by protesters.”
“After having brought the facts to the attention of a police detachment that was close to the gathering, the officer did not want any photographer to take pictures of him.”
Members of Togo’s press corps quietly worry about what would have happened to Didier Ledoux if the French officer and the security team had caught Ledoux alone.
This very scenario happened to me on June 22nd. It was my misfortune to be caught alone, with no eyewitness journalist colleagues around. These same security forces – minus the French officer - broke my Canon camera.
Being a journalist in Togo is dangerous enough when the international community holds Togo’s leaders accountable. It will get much worse if France allows its transferred soldiers to harass journalists in its former African colonies.