Sylvanus Épiphanio Olympio, born on September 6, 1902, in Kpandu, German Togoland (present-day Volta Region of Ghana), was a Togolese politician and a key figure in the struggle for independence and the subsequent leadership of Togo. He came from the prominent Olympio family, known for their business success, particularly his uncle Octaviano Olympio, who was one of the wealthiest individuals in Togo during the early 1900s.
Olympio's early life was marked by his education at the German Catholic school in Lomé, which his uncle Octaviano had helped establish. Later, he pursued higher education in economics at the London School of Economics, where he studied under Harold Laski. After graduation, he began his career with Unilever, initially in Nigeria and then in the Gold Coast (now Ghana). By 1929, he became the head of Unilever operations in Togoland, and in 1938, he was promoted to be the general manager of the United Africa Company's operations throughout Africa.
During World War II, Olympio was arrested by the Vichy France government, which viewed him with suspicion due to his ties to the British. This experience solidified his commitment to pushing for Togo's independence after the war.
Olympio played a crucial role in the struggle for Togo's independence. He founded the Comité de l'unité togolaise (CUT), a major political party that opposed French control over Togo. Despite arrests and suspensions of his political rights, his persistent efforts and petitions led to the 1958 elections, where his party won every elected position in the national council. Subsequently, he became the Prime Minister of Togo and started advocating for independence.
From 1958 to 1961, Olympio served as Togo's Prime Minister, as well as the Minister of Finance, Foreign Affairs, and Justice. In 1961, Togo held a presidential election, and Olympio emerged as the victor, becoming the first President of Togo. His foreign policy aimed at connecting Togo with Western countries, including Britain and the United States. He maintained friendly relations with U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
However, his presidency was marked by tense relationships with neighboring countries. The relationship between Togo and Ghana, led by Kwame Nkrumah, became strained over territorial disputes, leading to multiple assassination attempts against each leader.
Olympio also navigated complex relations with France. Initially treated with hostility by the French, Olympio later improved relations with them and secured a defense pact to protect Togo.
In domestic politics, Olympio promoted austere spending and maintained a significant amount of authority, leading Togo towards a one-party state. He also faced opposition from within the military, as he resisted increasing military funding and recruitment of ex-French troops.
Tragically, Sylvanus Épiphanio Olympio was assassinated on January 13, 1963, in a military coup. This event marked the first coup d'état in the newly independent African nations and the first assassination of a president during a military coup in Africa. The country went through significant political upheaval in the aftermath.
Olympio's assassination sent shockwaves across Africa, leading to condemnation from several nations. His family remained in exile for an extended period, and his son, Gilchrist Olympio, became a prominent figure in Togolese opposition politics.
Sylvanus Épiphanio Olympio's legacy is that of a pivotal figure in Togo's struggle for independence and early leadership. His contributions, both domestically and internationally, left a lasting impact on the country's history.
Date of Birth: September 6, 1902
Time of Birth:
Place of Birth: Kpandu, German Togoland