SHEPHERDSTOWN – A ceremony held last week to honor a visitor proclaimed to be the King of the West African nation of Togo drew clergy from around the region, a small crowd, Shepherdstown’s mayor and a police protection detail.
But an important question remains surprisingly difficult to resolve – is the visitor, Francois Ayayi Ayi, in fact the King of Togo?
The ceremony Sunday night was held at Asbury United Methodist Church to present Ayi with an “Ambassador of Peace” award from the Universal Peace Federation. The Universal Peace Federation is an organization created and run by the Unification Church, whose members follow the teachings of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon.
Ayi arrived in a white stretch limousine, carrying a wood and gold scepter-like rod.
He was greeted by Mayor Jim Auxer, who remarked that he had never met a king before.
Ayi was escorted by two Shepherdstown police cruisers and, after entering, several law enforcement officers continued to serve as a protection detail throughout the ceremony, which lasted over two hours.
The award was to honor Ayi for “his outstanding humanitarian efforts in Africa, America, Europe and around the world.”
But Ayi’s actual political status has been a source of controversy for years.
In 1996, after Ayi held a fundraiser in Houston, Texas, a firestorm erupted. The dinner had been sponsored by state Delegate Mike Chisum to the tune of $500.
But State Department officials denied that Ayi was in fact a Togolese royal. Rich Appleton with the department’s Togo desk then told the AP: “The guy is very, very good at spinning stories.”
He added: “For him to say this stuff seems an exaggeration at the least. There is no kingdom, and there’s no king.”
Then in 2000, controversy erupted again after Ayi had been officially received by dignitaries from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
The Rev. Gordon White, who Ayi lists in a pamphlet he distributed as his teacher at a Bible College in Togo, was quoted in the Sun Sentinel as saying: “It’s a scam. He’s no more king than I am,” and “He’s perpetrating a total fraud.”
White told the paper that Ayi had simply been a villager in Togo, and had only begun claiming to be a king after White had helped him come to the United States.
Ayi continues to claim that he is a bona fide king.
“It’s kind of like the Queen of England,” explained Rebecca Basford, Ayi’s Martinsburg-based personal assistant. “She is the queen, and she has some authority, but she is not the government of England.”
Asked to provide some documentation to prove Ayi’s status as king, Basford points to Ayi’s website – kingayi.com – which contains a video that appears to show a coronation ceremony held in a Washington, DC hotel with several Togolese princes in attendance, and Dr. Richard Halverson, the former Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, offering prayers.
One document sent by Basford to demonstrate Ayi’s authenticity appears to be a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Togo to Washington, D.C., and that refers to Ayi as “King of the Guin.”
Alix Marduel, a doctor with a charity active in Togo, explains that the meaning of “king” is not the same as most Americans’ immediate conception.
“The king title is (used) for head of the village … They usually have a crown, even when the village is small,” Marduel wrote in an email.
Auxer and Shepherdstown Police Chief David Ransom said they had been informed that a king would be visiting the town only about 45 minutes before Ayi arrived.
“I went out and welcomed him on behalf of Shepherdstown,” said Auxer.
Auxer and Ransom said that the police providing the protection detail were not being paid overtime, and some had volunteered their time.
“We didn’t incur any expenses or anything,” Auxer said.