Lome, Togo In his 36 years as Togo's president, Gen. Gnassingbe Eyadema has survived assassination attempts, a plane crash, international isolation and uprisings. Come today's elections, he hopes to endure the challenge of democracy.
Five candidates have lined up to deny a fourth decade in power to the military-backed Eyadema, Africa's longest-reigning ruler. And some, including the president's cousin, have a fighting chance of winning.
Millions of dollars in international support are at stake for this tiny west African nation. Aid was cut off after Eyadema's forces killed hundreds of people in past attempts at elections in the 1990s.
At stake for the president: His distinction as world's second-longest-serving head of state, after Fidel Castro. Having led what was post-colonial Africa's first coup, Eyadema took over in 1967, when Lyndon Johnson was in the White House.
Today, Eyadema persists as one of Africa's last "Big Men" -- rulers who hold power through patronage, the loyalty of their ethnic and regional groups, and military force.
An African anachronism, Eyadema has hung on fiercely during the post-Cold War wave of multiparty democracy that has swept out many of the continent's other Big Men.
The European Union and leading U.S. institutions did not send election monitors, some saying a free vote was unlikely. But France, the United States and other ex-donors made clear that they'll be watching.
At 67, snappy in gold-rimmed sunglasses and clean-lined suits, Eyadema the campaigner justifies his government in the simplest of terms: It's God's will.
"I never chose a political career. I chose a career in the army. But I was given a different one," Eyadema said Saturday in Kara, center of his northern-based support. It was his final appearance before the vote.
In the crowd of 20,000 people outside, women in Eyadema T-shirts shimmied to songs praising him, while male dancers in plumes rattled gourds and boys walked monkeys on leashes through the throng.
"Eyadema: Togo's treasure," one banner said. "Oh, God, thank You for the gift of Eyadema to humanity," read another.
Eyadema tells Togo's 5.2 million people that he offers stability -- in 21st-century Africa, something safer than the unknown.
Tall, with the nail on his left pinky left to grow aristocratically long, Eyadema swayed back and forth before the crowd as he listed other West African countries bloodied by power struggles -- Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast.
Togo is comparatively tranquil, save for the government's own intermittent, lethal crackdowns on the clamoring democratic opposition.
Internationally ostracized since the 1990s, Togo has seen per capita income fall from $600 in the 1980s to less than $300.
Eyadema rose to power by overthrowing Togo's only democratically elected president, in 1963. A former German colony, Togo had become independent just three years earlier.
The coup organizers killed Togo's then-leader, President Sylvanus Olympio, at the gates of the U.S. Embassy in Lome, the capital, as he sought sanctuary inside. Eyadema denies responsibility for the killing.
Since, the army has followed Eyadema faithfully -- even firing on activists urging reform. The last such violence was during the last attempt to hold elections, in 1998, when soldiers killed hundreds. Vote counting stopped, and Eyadema was declared winner.
Other efforts to drive Eyadema from power over the years have included grenades hurled into his living room and at his motorcade. The year he took power, one of his own soldiers tried to shoot him from nine feet away. And when his plane crashed in 1974, Eyadema -- who blamed the crash on saboteurs -- built a concrete shrine around the wreckage.
Today, Eyadema's most outspoken opponent is Gilchrist Olympio, son of the slain Sylvanus, who lives in exile in Paris. Barred by Togo's courts from running in today's election, Olympio has endorsed ally Bob Akitani, a onetime Togo independence campaigner.
Other top contenders include former Organization of African Unity secretary-general Edem Kodjo and Eyadema's cousin Dahuku Pere, increasingly popular for his reform demands.