Posted on Monday, 11 July 2016 10:29

Benin: An insider's outsider

President of Benin, Patrice Talon. Photo©All Rights ReservedA crushing 65.4% of votes cast in favour of businessman Patrice Talon – who campaigned on a platform attacking the corruption and inertia of the government of President Thomas Boni Yayi – won him the most powerful job in Benin.

Having never held office, Talon campaigned as something of an outsider. But for all his claims, Talon got rich in part by winning state contracts. He has financed political campaigns, and his wheeling and dealing have continued.

Talon and Boni Yayi's relationship has been the subject of great intrigue over the years. Talon won a series of lucrative deals until falling out with the then president and being the subject of poisoning accusations and lawsuits in Benin, France and Switzerland.

Despite the two saying that they have buried the hatchet, some of Talon's first acts in government were to undo decrees that Boni Yayi had signed as his administration was winding down and to stop the hiring of public servants recruited during his predecessor's tenure.

Channelling US presidential contender Donald Trump's campaign, the Beninese election featured a colourful businessman and his rival, Lionel Zinsou, who faced racist and xenophobic attacks for his long career in France and his Franco-Beninese heritage.

Talon is now trying to balance his new-found allies who helped to propel him to victory against Zinsou. Talon came in second place, with 24.7%, in the first round but rallied the third- and fourth-placed runners – businessman Sébastien Ajavon and former regional banker Abdoulaye Bio Tchané – to his side.

Talon has welcomed the erstwhile allies of the man whose legacy he ran against. Naming his new government in April, Talon chose Pascal Irénée Koupaki Boni Yayi's former prime minister – as secretary general in the presidency. Sacca Lafia, an energy minister under the previous government, is now Talon's interior minister.

Talon may not be able to avoid some of the problems of his predecessor. Like Boni Yayi, Talon ran as an independent without formal party backing. While the presidency holds outsized political power, an opposition-controlled legislature can cause problems if Talon is unable to keep his friends on side.

His platform's main policy was to liberalise Benin's economy in order to strengthen economic growth. How far he can go remains in doubt. The government earns much of its revenue from customs at the Cotonou port – which is riven with corruption and is often subject to leadership changes – and so cutting down on fees to boost regional trade could hurt a crucial sector of the economy.

In terms of other critical infrastructure, Talon has inherited a dispute between French conglomerate Bolloré and Beninese-Gabonese investor Samuel Dossou about who will build a rail line to link Cotonou to Niamey, the capital of Niger.

Supporters cheered "King of Cotton" Talon's business experience and he will need it to turn around the performance of another motor of the economy, the cotton sector.

Production has dropped drastically since the state privatised a cotton parastatal – that Talon himself bought up – in 2011. Without state incentives, farmers may continue to abandon the white stuff in favour of other crops.

Farmers and importers are looking to the businessman-in-chief to see how the country can turn around its economy, which is dependent on Nigeria, and make up for the failed promises of development from the previous candidates who promised rapid improvements. ●

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