YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – A legendary Catholic bishop who symbolized the tight relationship between church and state across much of Africa, having once served as the leader of Togo’s parliament, has died at 93, triggering tributes from both ecclesiastical figures and civil society in the west African nation.
Archbishop Philippe Fanoko Kossi Kpodzro died Jan. 9 in Sweden, where he had been living in exile for the past three years due to his outspoken criticism of the regime of Togo President Faure Essozimna Gnassingbé, especially a series of disputed elections that have consolidated Gnassingbé’s power.
In power since 2005, Gnassingbé effectively inherited the presidency from his father, a former military officer who governed Togo from 1967 to his death in 2005. When the elder Gnassingbé died, Kpodzro co-organized a peaceful march with other clerics and the country’s bar association to demand a genuinely democratic way forward for the country.
Ever since, Kpodzro led a fierce political campaign against the Gnassingbé dynasty in the small West African country, fighting for democracy and human rights.
In the presidential election that took place in February 2020, he publicly backed Agbéyomè Kodjo, the opponent of Gnassingbé, founding a movement called the “Dynamique Kpodzro,” which is dedicated to battling for democracy and the peaceful transfer of power in Togo.
He not only disagreed with the election results but also personified a brief period of resistance. Like Kodjo, he was forced into exile and subjected to harassment, occasionally being chased out of his hotel room and captured on camera for videos that were posted on social media loyal to the Togo regime.
When he went into exile in 2021, having been extracted from Togo by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, he gave an interview to German television calling on “humanists from all countries” to save Togo.
“Furious, Faure wants to kill me,” he said, referring to the Togolese leader. “My fault is to have led Togo to change, after 54 years of Gnassingbé, father and son.”
His role in the 2020 uprising was merely the latest chapter in Kpodzro’s political activism.
From August 1991 to February 1994 he served as president of a transitional parliament in Togo, having previously chaired a sovereign national conference amid a deep political crisis. It was under his leadership that a High Council of the Republic adopted a new constitution in 1992 which theoretically limits the president to two five-year terms, although Gnassingbé is now on his fourth five-year mandate.
Kpodzro was born March 30, 1930, in Tomégbé, a community in Togo’s Plateau region, roughly 170 miles from the capital city of Lomé. After his primary and secondary education, he enrolled in the Ouidah minor seminary in Benin, before setting out for Rome where he studied theology and philosophy.
As a priest, he taught philosophy at St. Peter Claver Minor Seminary in Lomé. Later, at the Togolese Seminary, he held the positions of Spiritual Director and Professor of Greek, Latin, and English.
He was the Rector of St. Paul Minor Seminary in Atakpamé from 1965 to 1972. He then held the positions of Secretary General of the Permanent Secretariat of African Clergy and National Delegate of Togolese Priests.
Kpodzro was given the Titular See of Bacanaria and named Apostolic Administrator of the Catholic Diocese of Atakpamé in December 1975, before being consecrated as a bishop and named to the Diocese of Atakpamé the following month.
He was named Archbishop of Lomé in December 1992, and he served in that capacity until his resignation in June 2007 at the age of 77.
Kpodzro’s fellow Catholic bishops in Togo have called on the Christian community to pray for the repose of the soul of their longtime leader.
Archbishop Benoït Alowonou, president of the bishops’ conference, invited the people of God to “pray that the Lord will welcome him into his kingdom.”
In a separate note signed Jan. 12, the current Archbishop of Lome, Nicodemus Bénissan Barrigah, paid glowing tribute to his predecessor.
“He was pastor of our Church-family of God in Lomé from December 17, 1992, to June 8, 2007,” Barrigah said. “On behalf of all those involved in the pastoral care of the Archdiocese of Lomé, I offer my sincere condolences to the Kpodzro family, to the Sisters of the Institute of Our Lady of the Trinity and to all those whose lives intersected with his.”
“I come to invite you to intensify our prayers for our Archbishop Emeritus,” Barrigah wrote, calling for a novena of masses for Kpodzro Jan. 14-22, and that his name be mentioned during prayers for the dead during the Eucharistic prayer at Mass from Jan. 14 to Feb. 13.
While the details of his funeral have not been made public, civil society organizations in Togo announced plans to organize an event in his honor on Jan. 19.