The Swedish Prisoner of the Gnassingbé Dynasty
After eight years in prison, and as many of gruesome torture, 75-year-old Issifou Seidou’s health is deteriorating. The Togolese naturalized Swedish citizen was captured when visiting his native country and accused of treason. Blankspot’s Martin Schibbye is the first journalist to be granted an interview with Issifou Seidou.
I whisper the name of the person I wish to see, as I squeeze down on a wooden bench in the crowded visitor’s cell. Within these old brick walls, the air is stagnant.
The sun is blasting in through the only window here, secured by six rusty bars, I have to repeat the name several times, a little louder with each time, and the guard is startled when he understands whom it is I’m here to see. Then he turns around, opens the door to the old colonial prison’s inner compartments, takes a deep inhalation and yells: “Seidou, Seidou, Seidou!”
The name of Sweden’s least known prisoner of conscience (POC) is repeated by other inmates further inward through the dark corridor, past their cells, until at last the echo rings quieter and quieter into silence. Other inmates, who watch me, some with a grin, squat on the floor, waiting for or chatting with their visitors.
The prison guards study me curiously, before they secure the lock to the visitor’s room. Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to walk straight into the city prison to visit a man who is accused of trying to oust the country’s president, I think, and lean back on the sun-warmed prison wall.
From the corner of my eye I see how prisoners, dressed in soiled T-shirts, come carrying tin buckets with food. The fabric of my shirt is sticking to my sweaty body. I’ve been in Togo, under the radar, for a week. Met with the opposition and activists for democracy, in secret. In order to enter the prison, I’ve been forced to give them my passport and the warden has explained to me that I have 24 hours before they Google my name. When that happens, I want to be gone.
From afar I hear a mumbling that grows into louder and louder voices: “Il arrive! Il arrive! Il arrive!”
Suddenly the door is flung open and in steps the 75-year-old Issifou Seidou, dressed in a blue, white and black striped shirt. The visiting cell goes silent. The guards back up, almost respectfully. Seidou’s handshake is firm, and he’s newly shaven. He says hello to everyone on the room. You can tell by the tone of his voice that he was once an officer. He slowly sits down on the hard wooden bench and loosens his feet from the brown leather sandals he’s wearig. On his wrist, a silver-colored watch, and between the top-two buttons in his shirt, is an ink pen.
“How are you?” I ask cautiously and squeeze his hand.
“The torture is the worst,” he says and holds up wrists, scarred with big, dark gashes.
For sixteen months, Issifou was kept in a cell without light and with only a bucket.
He holds his hands together and raises them up toward the cells, barred window.
“They tied my hands together, like this, and strung me up by the window, and let me hang there, night after night after night,” he tells me, removes his glasses and wipes his eyes.
Because of the torture, he can’t see all that well, and his back aches from the years of sleeping on a hard cement floor. But most pressing, he says, is his heart, and his breathing difficulties.
“I will die if I don’t get care soon,” he says in Swedish, with an accent revealing he’s from the western part of the country, Örebro. “Nobody who is sick in here survives.”
On a map, Togo looks like a toothpick squeezed in between Ghana and Benin. In the past it served as a buffer zone between the interests of different colonial powers; its history as complex as its strategic location. Since Eyadéma Gnassingbé took power in a military coup in 1967, Togo is one of the oldest dictatorships in Africa. It is also one of the least known countries on this vast continent.
In the Gambia and Burkina Faso, presidents have come and gone, but in the Togolese Republic, as it is also called, time has been at a standstill. At least on the surface.
When Eyadéma Gnassingbé died in 2005, he had held power for 38 years— at the time, the second most long-lived dictator, after Fidel Castro. Gnassingbé’s successor is Faure Gnassingbé, his son.
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Issifou Seidou was the firstborn of a large family and grew up in Tjamba, a village in the northern region, where Islam is more prevalent than down by the coast, in the south. His father was the village Imam.
Some of Issifou’s first, and harrowing, memories were the French fighter planes flying low over his village. He will never forget the sight of the silver “birds” in the sky and decided early that he would become an officer—to get up there, in the air.
During this time, the mid 1960s, France recruited soldiers from the northern regions of Togo, to fight in the Algerian War of Independence. When Issifou joined the army in 1966, Togo had won its independence, but the first democratically elected president, Sylvanus Olympio, had also been overthrown in a military coup, lead by Eyadéma Gnassingbé.
Gnassingbé and his men worriedly watched how Sylvanus Olympios strived to become more independent of France, and many officers felt accused of having let Africa down by fighting for the then-colonizer France and its wars.
Despite the turbulent political times, Issifou remembers the first years of independence as a time of happiness and relief.
“There was this kind of mood, the nation was simmering with life, with hope. We had a beautiful country: everything from the savannah to the waves of the Atlantic. We were happy and it was a time for hope,” Issifou recalls with something resembling a smile appearing on his face.
The prison guards shoot us suspicious glances. One of them tells us to stop speaking Swedish. He wants us to speak French so he can understand. We look at each other, obeying the order. On the other side of the visitor’s room is a cell, packed with prisoners, hands are reaching through the bars, and one of them is staring at me with empty eyes. There is music, blaring from crackling speakers. On one wall someone has scribbled: “I was born free.”
To speak of time is painful, says Issifou, shifting on the hard bench, but he wants to tell his story.
“To one day fly over Togo as a pilot is still my dream but now I am too old, my eyesight is too bad to get the license,” he says.
Life in the military suited him. He climbed quickly on the career ladder and eventually became responsible for the president’s security outfit. He served his country and hoped he could stay out of the political conflicts that raged behind the scenes.
In 1985, Togo was shaken by yet another coup d’état and Issifou thought he would manage to stay clear of personal involvement. He felt like he had solid contacts both in the government and among the opposition, and viewed himself as a neutral soldier.
But not much later, he was pegged as one of the suspects of the coup makers and after 24 years of service in the army, he decided to flee to Sweden with his family.
“The plan was always to return to Togo,” he explains.
In Sweden he could give his children a good education so that one day, when they could go back home, they could contribute to a healthy development for both Togo and the African continent.
For a moment, Issifou’s eyes look dreamy.
“I remember the weekends, especially the Sundays, how the whole family and all our friends gathered at our house and I cooked Togolese food for everyone,” he holds out his hands as in an offering. “Sweden, what a country.”
The other prisoners and the guards in the visiting room watch him curiously.
“Sweden,” he yells. “What an amazing country it is!”
The guards nod and Issifou admits that while they had a great life, he never quite felt at home in the cold, Scandinavian country.
“Even if I physically was in Sweden, my thoughts were in Togo, switching life from being an officer to a stay-at-home dad, was quite a change.”
Toward the latter part of the 1990s, Issifou began traveling to Togo’s neighboring countries and during one of his trips, he got a request from President Eyadéma Gnassingbé to come back. It was an offer to start where he left off and work with the security outfit again. The old accusations were said to be forgotten and his expertise was desired.
The president didn’t have to ask twice. Issifou put on the uniform again and returned to a Togo that showed signs of a positive development again. The son of Togo’s first president (who was murdered) ran for political offices. New grassroots movements, demanding constitutional reform, popped up. International beneficiaries, who had been scared off by the human rights violations, were finding their way back to Togo.
On the surface, everything looked great and the image of a re-emerging Togo worked to convince the outside world that things were on an upswing. Then the backlash began. People started disappearing without a trace. Critics of the regime were thrown in jail. Journalists were assaulted.
The president had two sons by different mothers, Kpatcha Gnassingbé and Faure Gnassingbé, and a rivalry between the brothers had always been a factor. Issifou got along best with Kpatcha, the younger of the two, something that would prove to have fatal consequences.
When their father and Togo’s president of 38 years died in February 2005, Faure took power with the help of the military. Both the international community and the people of Togo reacted to the maneuver, and Faure’s claim to power was pushed back and public elections were announced.
The international community gave a supportive nod at what looked like a step toward democratic development. Threats of sanctions from the African Union and ECOWAS, a regional organization of 15 West African nations with the main goal of promoting economic integration, had paid off. But the unrest surrounding the election resulted in thousands of deaths and 40,000 people fleeing Togo.
When the dead had been buried and the votes had been counted, the former president’s son, Faure Gnassingbé, had won the election.
“I’m sharing a cell with the other son, Kpatcha Gnassingbé,” Issifou says and smiles.
After the election, Issifou kept working and things appeared all right, until one day when he was driving through Lomé and discovered that he was being followed. When he told his family, who had stayed behind in Sweden, they pleaded for him to come back to the small town south of Stockholm—immediately.
But he stayed.
The next day, he saw the same car again following him. He pulled them over and arrested the driver. There were consequences for his actions. Issifou was brought in for interrogation and his duty weapon confiscated. He realized the danger, but still did not leave Togo. In his mind, he hadn’t done anything wrong, and fleeing would be the same as admitting that he had.
As a soldier, Issifou remained committed to his post.
A few months later, there’s a three-hour long firefight at Kpatcha Gnassingbé’s house in Lomé. On one side are Togolese army soldiers, on the other—Kpatcha’s security guards. After a ceasefire, President Faure Gnassingbé proclaims that his men had averted a coup attempt. According to the president and his prosecutors, Kpatcha had planned to take power with the help of a group of former military officers.
Others said the younger brother was getting too popular and had become a political threat toward the president. Regardless of what is true, everyone who was close to Kpatcha Gnassingbé automatically became suspects.
One of them was Issifou Seidou.
Issifou stands up and rubs his back, wipes at his constantly running eyes with a white handkerchief and puts on his black sunglasses. The thermometer is approaching 34 degrees Celsius (93F) and it’s soon time for him to be escorted back into the large prison compound, which dates back to the colonial era.
But the guards seem to be in a good mood and despite the fact that the visitation time has long expired, they let him stay and talk to me a little longer. Now that he’s speaking French, they can listen and they seem interested in what he says.
I ask him if he regrets returning to Togo to work on the political arena over staying in Sweden, but before I can finish shaping my question, he interrupts.
“I’ve never ever been engaged in politics. I am no politician; I am a soldier. I lived in Sweden with my family and was invited back by the president to help make Togo a better nation. I have never had political aspirations.”
The visitation room goes silent and the only noise is the thumping base crackling from the speakers. His arrest and the accusations of supporting a planned coup d’état, after eight years, still seem to pain him.
Issifou spins his sunglasses in his right hand, lets his feet slip back out of the sandals, looks out the window and continues: “They accused me of a coup d’état, but tell me, against whom was there a coup?”
Everyone in the visitation room is still quiet. Nobody offers a response. The guards squirm. Issifou repeats the question: “Against whom?”
Everyone stares down on the stone floor.
“See. Nobody here understands why I am here. Everyone who has looked into my case has come to the conclusion that I am innocent and should be released.”
The guards, who earlier listened to Issifou’s stories with great interest, stand up and leave. They slam the door behind them and we hear the clanking sound of the security bolt. Suddenly the conversation became dangerous to witness.
Issifou speaks loudly: “This is nothing but a feud within the Gnassingbé family that has gotten out of proportion. It has nothing to do with politics or any coup d’états. If that was the case, then where is the proof? Where are the weapons? The recruits? The ammunition?”
There are also questions Issifou does not want to answer. He shakes his head at everything that has to do with the development of Togo for the past eight years.
During the spring of 2017, international media outlets published footage of students throwing rocks against police officers in central Lomé. In February, the Army fired at demonstrators, one was killed and several injured. University buildings were torched and law enforcement met the demonstrators with teargas and rubber bullets. They have been accused of police brutality. About all this, he has nothing to say.
“What can an inmate tell you about what happens outside the prison walls? That’s a question for somebody else. I don’t know anything about the politics of it today.”
Instead, Issifou continues to describe what he has seen inside the prison. Cell after cell after cell in different shapes and sizes, keeping various numbers of prisoners. Some of the cells have a toilet bucket; others don’t. Some have light, others are pitch black. But he doesn’t complain.
He is alive.
Many of the men Issifou has met during his eight years here are dead. Due to his illness, he doesn’t have much strength left over for anything but sleeping and reading. In past years, he was physically active, worked out, but now he has stopped all together.
“I’m too sick for any activities, my body can’t take it.”
He describes his cell as a third of the size of the visitation room and when he gestures with his hands as if to draw up the perimeters, a gold wedding band catches the light.
Today the prison is out of water and none of the 1,823 inmates can drink or wash themselves. In the ceilings, there are the markings of where lamps used to hang, and the electrical lines taped to the walls lead nowhere. When the sun goes down, it gets dark inside.
“If someone falls ill after the guards have closed the gates to the cell blocks for the night, they don’t dare to open them again, even to bring a sick man to the hospital, they have to wait till the sun goes up.”
But it’s not the conditions that are the most difficult.
“What hurts more than my ailments is missing my family,” Issifou says
The daughters, who still live in Sweden, visit him often and bring his grandchildren. They have gotten to know their grandfather as a prisoner.
“It is for them I stay strong. Their medicine, food and deliveries of clothes keeps me alive. But eight years is a long time for a father to be away from his children.”
Sweden does not have an embassy in Togo, but in neighboring Nigeria, which has been the only Swedish link to his family. Since Issifou’s arrest, his daughters have tirelessly worked on his case via their own and French channels. The French Embassy in Togo has been the most helpful. The Swedish Foreign Ministry is aware that he has been tortured and considers it “a serious matter.”
In a meeting with a Swedish diplomat many years ago, Issifou was told that they had met with the president, who had promised to release him.
“As you can see, they haven’t gotten around to that yet.”
During the eight years since he was arrested, it’s not only presidents who have promised his release. The regional ECOWAS demanded his freedom in 2013 and a U.N. committee has established that he is imprisoned illegally and have recommended that the Togolese government release him.
To Issifou it’s not freedom that worries him the most. It’s his health, and he’s put his faith in the French Consul, who has promised to take him to a cardiologist as soon as the prison gives them permission.
“I can’t complain that Sweden isn’t doing anything, but since I am still sitting here, they aren’t doing enough,” he says, rubbing his wrists and dabbing at his forehead with the white handkerchief.
He knows Togo and understands what complications Sweden is up against in order to free him.
“I want to thank the Swedish government for not forgetting about me during all these years,” he says and makes a gesture with his hands. “They talk about my case with Togolese politicians and I can only wish they would put more pressure on them.”
The guard who left earlier is back and bangs his fist against the door, marking that visitation time is over. But Issifou shoots him a long glance and then nods at me to continue with my questions. Both his age and the life he lead before he was arrested give him respect inside the prison.
“I have no idea if I’ll ever be a free man again. I pray for that every day and have been for eight years. Maybe they’ll let me go next year. Nobody knows.”
He locks me with his eyes and adds: “Time is of essence. If I get sicker, I will die here, and it will go fast.”
The visit is over and the guards allow Issifou to follow me to the gates outside. High above the prison, Lomés’ tallest building towers high above, and if the guests at the Radisson Hotel looked straight down, they’d see the roof of the colonial era prison that was built for 600 inmates but today holds 1,823.
“Now, during the rain season, several prisoners die every week. We live with death in here. When I wake up in the morning, a cellmate may no longer be breathing,” he says as we approach the gates.
Everyone we pass greets him. He is a 75-year-old legend in Togolese history, both loved and feared. In a way his case embodies Togo’s politics—if it were only about him, on an individual level, he would have been free a long time ago.
Over the years Issifou has been imprisoned, he’s become a symbol of the change that never happened. Even the more conservative older generation questions how someone can put his own brother in prison—guilty or not. Others say Issifou inspires them, that they see hope in him and the president’s younger brother, Kpatcha.
The arrest of Issifou Seidou became the wakeup call that spired interest in politics. His fate also caused a rift within the Togolese army: where to put one’s loyalty?
We stop by the gates and bid farewell.
“Come back tomorrow and I will tell you more,” he says and adjusts the ink pen between the top button of his shirt.
“Tomorrow, I have to leave the country,” I say and grab his hand.
For a moment it feels like he doesn’t want to let go.
Blankspot is citizen-funded journalism and takes a look at the practices of multi national corporations, political conflicts and human rights around the world, from a Swedish perspective. We haven’t put up a paywall – we want to keep our journalism as open as we can. To contribute, click here.
Martin Schibbye has spent most of his journalistic career reporting from conflict-ridden countries. In 2011, during a mission in Ethiopia, where he and photographer Johan Persson, crossed the border from Somalia into the Ogaden region, to report on the ruthless hunt for oil and how it effected the local population. They were shot and captured by the Ethiopian Army and, thrown in prison for 438 days on false accounts of terrorist acts.