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Gilchrist Olympio: ‘Joining the government was the right choice’

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Gilchrist Olympio: ‘Joining the government was the right choice’

Togo’s opposition leader says joining the government of President Faure Gnassingbé has been a major learning curve, because although his party’s top brass had competencies in that they were well educated, “a PhD does not teach you how to run a treasury”.

Gilchrist Olympio is the son of Togo’s first President Sylvanus Olympio. Gilchrist attended the Achimota School and the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (both in Ghana) before going to the London School of Economics and Oxford University in the UK. He is affable and warm, with a soft smile and a largerthan-life laugh, a grandfather-type figure full of anecdotes, casually name-dropping African greats such as former Presidents Julius Nyerere and Nelson Mandela when recounting his early days in politics. Undoubtedly very bright, he started off at the IMF, being one of the first Africans to go there and is a successful businessman in his own right, having set up a number of businesses in neighbouring Ghana. After the last elections in Togo in 2010, he accepted the invitation of the current president to join his government to work together to heal the wounds of the past and put the country back on the road to growth. This was seen, by some in Togo, as a betrayal. New African went to see him to find out more.

Q: You are now playing an active role in the government of national unity, having been in opposition for all these years. Why have you decided to partner with the current government?

A: I don’t think we turned our back on our ideals or that we have changed in any way. Politics has to evolve and we had reached a point where the country was completely shattered and on its knees. We decided that the time had come to review our political action. We know we are a major party in this country, with countrywide support, but following a 30-year struggle, we decided that the best thing [for the country to move on] was for us to find some sort of accommodation.

And in this respect, we spoke to the international community, especially our foreign supporters, to tell them of our intentions, and everybody seemed to think that this was the only way out of a difficult situation in a small country like Togo with no particular resources. And two years down the road, I would say that on balance, we have managed well and are on the right path as a country. And I feel that the planned legislative elections will solve a lot of problems.

Our constitution, like that of France, is semi-parliamentary, it will give a voice to the people to elect their MPs and also a prime minister. The prime minister will be the official head of the government, and he will share executive power with the existing president until we go to presidential elections in 2015.

Q: You hear people discussing “le dialogue national”, mentioning that the country is still divided amongst many different factions.

A: Togo is a bipolar country and there are only two parties in reality. A little like the Republicans and Democrats in America, or the socialists and the right in France. And these two parties in Togo represent 70% of the electorate. All these parties you are talking about, none of them individually or as a group has ever got 5% of the votes. For that reason, when they talk of dialogue we say yes, but you have had over 50 dialogues since 1991. And we are seeing a proliferation of parties. This is why the elections are important to prune the political system down, get us into parties that are more manageable, and launch the main objectives that we all have – economic development, social development, cooperation with the international community and our friends, and get the country going.

Q: You had a comfortable life, you were at the IMF, you were a successful businessman and you were leading a peaceful life. What drove you into politics and what continues to drive you to be in politics today?

A: I have been in business, I have been in academia, I used to teach microeconomics at the IMF Institute. Many bankers who were once my students are now very successful indeed. But I don’t think that is the point. Today we are at a stage where we ought to do whatever we can to help the country. Create what President Barack Obama calls “institutions, not strong men, but strong institutions”. That is what I am trying to do, to set up institutions that will govern this country. I have lived and regularly visited Ghana, and I am happy with the progress they have made. I am happy with what I have seen in Benin and Nigeria and Senegal. We should do the same in Togo, that is my ambition.

Q: So your vision for Togo, what is it exactly?

A: Well, it’s a small country, we cannot hope to be like oil-rich Nigeria, we cannot even hope to be as big as our neighbouring Ghana, which is four times our size and ten times as rich. We see ourselves a little like Luxembourg. We strive to create our niche from which we can develop our country. Luxembourg, the smallest country of Europe, is probably its richest. The port of Lomé is the only deepwater port in West Africa, with the possible exception of Senegal. So if we play our cards right, it can grow and play a similar role as what we see in Rotterdam or Marseilles. Lomé can become an important trading centre in West Africa, bubbling with activity, people trading, manufacturing, re-exporting, and doing business – that’s my vision.

Q: And in hindsight, are you satisfied with the decisions that you have made in the past few years to join the government? Do you think it is the right way for the country to go?

A: We had no choice, you can’t stay outside. It’s been an important learning curve for our own people. Once you are in government you get access to a lot of information. My own people have started learning because for 40 years they have been out of government, they don’t know what to do when it comes to managing a country. We had competencies in that we are well educated, but a PhD does not teach you how to run a treasury. So this has been a major learning curve.

And I travel a lot throughout the country. I have just returned from the north and I will be returning again before the rainy season starts. And I am confident that we made the right choice. Our supporters understand it. It is true that in the capital, which is where you have intellectuals, universities, you will have more discussions and people disagreeing with our choice, but short of bringing in the military to overthrow the government and sliding into that familiar scenario, I think for the good of the country it was a positive step, by the president and by our party.

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