Éwé are the largest ethnic group in Togo, making up more than 1.3 million people (22.3 per cent of the population), and are related to a number of other southern groups, which are sometimes considered sub-groups of the Éwé. These include the Ouatchi, Mina, Adja and Afro-Brazilians who are descended from returnees to Togo from Brazil, primarily in the 19th century. Many are civil servants, merchants and professionals. They practice Christianity and a traditional religion centred on a creator deity.
Though the first president of Togo after independence was a Éwé, after his assassination and throughout the rule of the northern Gnassingbé family of Kabyé ethnicity – from 1967 to the present – the Éwé, related southern groups and northern groups are seen as rivals to the Kabyé, have been largely excluded from power. Éwé are at the heart of political opposition to Faure Gnassingbé and the ruling party and are heavily involved in several opposition parties.
Éwé trace their origins to the Oyo of Nigeria, some of whom migrated to today’s Togo in the 13th century. They accepted such smaller groups as the Mina and Ouatchi that arrived later. Their initial settlements were organized on a local basis, without a strong centre, and the Éwé were susceptible to slave raids into the 19th century. The German occupiers regarded the Éwé as future administrators, and the French administration also used skilled and educated Éwé in the colonial service in Togo and elsewhere in French-controlled Africa. The preferential treatment of Éwé under colonial rule led to resentment in the north, which was much less developed and where fewer opportunities in education and trade were available. Éwé, in turn, were resentful of colonial boundaries that divided them among Togo, Ghana and Benin. During the colonial period, many agitated for a common state, while other groups, fearing Éwé dominance, opposed this goal.
After the post-independence rise of Gnassingbé Eyadéma, a Kabyé from the north, Éwé were systematically excluded from political power throughout his decades-long rule. Nevertheless, they retained their prominence in the civil service, and an important role in Togolese trade, especially with Ghana and Benin. Éwé played leading roles in the political opposition to Eyadéma and to his son Faure Gnassingbé, whom the military installed in power following Eyadéma’s death in 2005. The violence that followed the unconstitutional military installation of Faure Gnassingbé as president in February 2005 pitted the military against the opposition, and thus against many Éwé. Gnassingbé won contested elections later that year in a context of political violence, some of it ethnically oriented, and was re-elected in 2010 and 2015.
Under Faure Gnassingbé, Éwé exclusion from the military remains a problem. The Kabyé-dominated security services were responsible for many of the 2005 cases of abuse. While the Global Political Agreement of August 2006 included plans for military reform and the investigation of the violence in 2005, neither initiative was fully implemented.
Meanwhile, opposition to the Gnassingbé dynasty and to the ruling party continues. The main Éwé-dominated party at the time, the Union of Forces for Change (UFC), is led by Gilchrist Olympio, the son of Togo’s assassinated first president, Sylvanus Olympio. The UFC refused to participate in the government of national unity formed in 2006, but did participate in the October 2007 parliamentary elections. The party took 27 of the 81 seats in parliament but complained of voter fraud. In 2010 the UFC joined Gnassingbé’s government of national unity, a move protested by many of its activists, some of whom split to form the National Alliance for Change (ANC). In the next elections, legislative races in 2013, the UFC suffered a serious loss of support and the ANC came to the fore; it has been among the most active of opposition voices since. In November 2017, Gilchrist Olympio announced his retirement.
Updated May 2018
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