/ 2 May 2019

New look, old ways? Benin’s leader and the authoritarian past

Ranked the 15th wealthiest person in sub-Saharan Africa with a fortune topping $400-million in 2015 according to Forbes
Ranked the 15th wealthiest person in sub-Saharan Africa with a fortune topping $400-million in 2015 according to Forbes, Benin's Patrice Talon presented himself as part of a new wave of can-do African leaders. (Reuters/Philippe Wojazer)

President Patrice Talon of Benin, a multi-millionaire businessman who dresses in sunglasses and sharp suits, presents himself as part of a new generation of modern, finance-focused and ambitious African leaders.

Elected in 2016 by defeating the preferred successor of former president Thomas Boni Yayi, Talon won the top job without a traditional political power base.

“He wants to change attitudes,” his communications adviser, Wilfried Houngbedji said.

But the businessman, who entered politics late after making his money in cotton and ports, has done more than change attitudes.

He has shifted the political rules of the small West African state that had previously been held up as a model for democracy in the region.

Tough new eligibility criteria effectively barred opposition parties from fielding any candidates in last Sunday’s parliamentary elections.

Talon argued the higher threshold would help to consolidate the country’s fragmented parliament, but critics condemned it as a gag that choked democracy.

On the day itself, more than three-quarters of the country’s five million registered voters stayed at home.

Talon, 61, now commands control of the 83-seat parliament.

But it comes at the cost of sweeping away the fervent political climate that had been a hallmark of Benin’s democracy since its shift to democracy in 1990.

To some, the spectres of authoritarian control and political unrest have risen once more.

Protesters have taken to the streets, torching businesses, hurling stones and smashing the windows of government buildings. Police responded with live rounds and teargas. One woman died and another men was seriously hurt, a medic said on Thursday.

Business tycoon 

Three years earlier, it had looked good for Talon, who promised to modernise the country.

Ranked the 15th wealthiest person in sub-Saharan Africa with a fortune topping $400-million in 2015 according to Forbes, he presented himself as part of a new wave of can-do African leaders.

Aides said he was a perfectionist, keen to show he would sweep out corruption and cronyism.

Lowly government officials were dismissed if they turned up late for work, as they had done for years, or if they helped themselves to public cash.

Talon also helped push Benin’s economic growth to 6.8% in 2018, although this was largely due to the forced regularisation of the informal economy.

Since coming to power, he is as much hated by the poor who see him as arrogant as he is admired by the elite who sees him as a visionary.

And the election — widely criticised by rights groups —is a turning point.

The internet was shut down on polling day, which watchdogs denounced as a blatant violation of freedom of expression.

“The wave of arbitrary arrests of political activists and journalists, and the crackdown on peaceful protests, have reached an alarming level,” Amnesty International researcher Francois Patuel said in the run up to the April 28 poll.

The vote, according to preliminary results, saw a record low turnout of 22.99 percent — a slump of more than half since the advent of democracy nearly 30 years earlier.

For Talon it was “a referendum in all but name” on his rule, political scientist Expedit Ologou said.

‘Admirer of strongmen’

It is quite a contrast to Benin’s competitive elections, which it had held since leaving behind authoritarian rule almost two decades ago.

Just five years ago, voters could chose from 20 parties.

This time round, only two parties — both allied to Talon — contested seats.

Some critics fear that a parliament entirely loyal to the president will give him power to change the constitution and engineer a way to meet his goal of extending the presidential term.

Arguing in favour of strong leadership, Talon has spoken of prolonging the term from five years to seven, albeit for a single mandate.

One way of understanding Talon, said a political source, is to look at those he admires.

They include Rwandan President Paul Kagame, a strongman who has led Rwanda since 1994, earning a reputation for promoting economic development while repressing dissent.

Kagame was re-elected in 2017 with nearly 99% of the vote, after the constitution was changed to allow him to run for a third term.

In Kagame, Talon found the “charismatic political role model” he was searching for, the source said.