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Togo tales: US electoral admiration in Africa

Posted: February 10, 2013 - 12:00am

Seated anxiously, sweaty hands gripping their knees as if ready to pounce, the eyes of the Togolese crowd are fixated on the screen with almost magnetized gazes. Their stares never wander from the screen despite the nervous murmuring of the crowds as they discuss what’s unfolding. Every so often they jump up and erupt in applause as points go in their favor, followed by moans as points go to their opponent. Seated in the back, I chuckle to think how in Africa, watching the US presidential election can be so similar to watching a soccer game.

With the presidential inauguration still fresh in my mind, I can’t help but reflect on my experience witnessing the recent election while overseas in the tiny West African nation of Togo. I have been living here for the past four months through the United States Department of State English Language Fellowship, working on teacher training projects throughout the country. Surprisingly, I have, in fact, had the opportunity to witness the last two presidential elections in Africa, first in Djibouti in 2008 and now in Togo.

I will never forget how obsessively Djiboutians followed the 2008 election. Afterward there was an almost instant change in the way people approached me as an American. Gone were the questions about Iraq, often replaced with a loud “Obama!” and a thumbs-up sign. I also could not help but notice how almost overnight cafés, stores, and restaurants started changing their names to: “Obama Café,” “Obama Gifts,” “Barack Dining.” The election in Togo was no different, and I was extremely impressed by the dedication in which the Togolese followed it. In the months leading up to the election I was hounded by questions from people at work, in classrooms, or even randomly on the dusty streets. My Togolese colleagues were updating me with campaign news even before I had a chance to read it myself!

The election itself was a very special night. The US Embassy opened up its facilities to hundreds of Togolese teachers, students, politicians, businessmen and other citizens to come witness the spectacle with the rest of us Americans. If there ever was proof of how important our elections are to rest of the world, I witnessed it observing the many Togolese who stayed up the entire night (on a weekday no less) to follow the elections from the late start to the very early finish, many of them more nervous and excited than the rest of us.

A Togolese business man approaches me, his bloodshot eyes clearly betraying his weary state at 2:30 a.m., nevertheless he seems completely alert as he earnestly interrogates me on the current results.

“Sir, Sir! Can you please explain to me something? I see that this one candidate has more votes at the moment, does that mean he is winning?”

I had to sympathize with the Togolese because, in all honesty, the Electoral College was a bit confusing even for me, let alone for someone from a country that simply uses the popular vote to choose leaders.

“Well technically, but you should know that they are announcing results by the states in certain regions, and this is a region that favors that candidate, so we can’t say for sure right now”

One could propose several theories for why the Togolese, or anyone outside of the US for that matter, follow the American elections with such fervor. In the case of Togo, you have a country that endured about 38 years living under the dictatorship of President Eyadema Gnassingbe, who didn’t leave office until he eventually died in 2005. The last seven years have been under his son. It wasn’t until 2010 that elections were finally considered “fair” by international observers. In essence they are a population of people who have never experienced an election where the outcome could realistically be altered by the will of the people. For Toho, as with many countries in Africa, the winners of elections are often “assumed” from the beginning. Consequently, I think there is a bit of admiration for (as well as confusion about) the American election process, sentiments which have been expressed by many of my local friends here.

I also think another undeniable fact is that, economic problems or not, the United States is still one of the most influential countries in the world. The US makes decisions that affect people on all sides of the globe, and those people are well aware of it. For Togo it may be the amount of aid given to their country, or perhaps what types of exports we’ll buy. Due to this reality I think the Togolese, like everyone else in the world, follow the US elections not only wondering what the outcome will mean for the US, but more importantly what that outcome might mean for them. Our future affects their future, and if there is one point I will take away from this experience, it is how this unavoidable truth should never be lost on us.

“It’s official. Barack Obama has been reelected President of the United States of America!”

As the wee hours roll in, so do the results. The sleepy and exhausted room suddenly erupts in spirited applause, and energetic cheers from the Togolese. As the US Ambassador takes the floor to give closing remarks on the electoral process, I can’t help but remember the text message I received from a Djiboutian friend the morning of the 2008 elections: “Congratulations USA! Today the whole world gets to be American.”

• Philip Dierking is a former Juneau resident. He is currently living in the West African country of Togo on a US State Department English Language Fellowship. He can be reached at: phil.dierking@gmail.com. This article represents his personal point of view and not that of the Dept. of State

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