Benin Republic elections: Stock ahead of the vote
Republic of Benin is in campaign mode as the presidential election, slated for 11 April, draws closer. Despite the relatively small size of the country, and the limited amount of international coverage it receives outside of the electoral period, the run up to the vote has been highly mediatised.
This focus on the country’s elections is largely due to the label it was given during the West’s promotion of multi-partism in the 1990’s as being a beacon of democracy in the region. This label was not without merit, as Benin’s political landscape quickly filled with a multitude of formations, coalitions and activity. The country’s Cold War strong-man, Mathieu Kerekou, who had been in power for 19 years, had the foresight to step down in favour of this new dispensation, and the ability to retake the reins democratically five years later.
While the political landscape flourished, however, in a substantive and real sense, the country’s economy and the quality of life of its citizens did not. Neither did the involvement of old international players who carried on the traditional maintenance of their interests using a different language.
Progress in the developmental sphere
This dichotomy between the vote on the one hand, and the capacity to govern and develop on the other, has created significant challenges for the country to address issues related to its development and the quality of life of those of its citizens without access to the levers of power. Because any attempt at structural change would necessarily be seen as a fault in its illustrious democratic credentials. France, in particular, remains Benin and the Talon administration’s most fervent critic. The recent and abrupt announcement of French deputies having decided to observe the election and the continuous flow of opposition figures from Benin to opposition networks based in the country are strong indications that elements within the French government may be uncomfortable with Benin’s recent track record and the impact that it may have on their interests.
Over the past five years, Benin has made interesting progress in the developmental sphere that has objectively impacted the population in key enabling sectors. Patrice Talon and his Vice-Presidential candidate Mariam Chabi Talata are promising to build on this foundation if they win the next election. Commentators may benefit from taking into their analysis both sides of Benin’s dichotomy in order to illustrate exactly what is at stake in the coming days.
A snapshot of key developments
One of the core actions taken early on in his administration was the launch of Benin’s national integrated development strategy, the Governmental Action Plan 2016-2021 (PAG), also known as ‘Benin Revealed’. The aim of this strategy was to set the country on a strong path towards development in key sectors and to overcome the endemic and structural barriers that have held it back in terms of its ability to legislate, govern and improve the lives of its citizens.
Since then, Benin has established itself as a high performer in the region and, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), it saw the strongest growth amongst fellow states in the West African Economic and Monetary Union last year. Furthermore, the World Bank recognized Benin as a middle-income economy in July of 2020 after decades of wading at the bottom of the rankings.
Significant improvements in the country’s fiscal space have also been made since 2016. The IMF has awarded Benin the highest score related to public financial management annually since 2017 and the country successfully issued Eurobonds in March 2019 and January of this year. In the energy sphere, the country’s energy mix has been diversified; distribution capacity bolstered and rusting colonial-era infrastructure has been modernized. Previous agreements that no longer reflected Benin’s immediate energy needs – such as the Electric Community of Benin (CEB) of 1968 which forced the country to share its energy grid with Togo – have been put to rest in favour of national development.
So far, the country has seen a significant increase in local production capacity through the implementation of both short-term measures and more stable medium-term partnerships with foreign energy players. These reforms have increased rates of grid connectivity by 20% between 2015 and 2020 and positively impacting the quality of life and the operational environment for businesses of all sizes.
The agricultural sphere, which remains the core of the country’s economy – representing around 70per percent of the population’s sectoral activity and the source of the majority of its export earnings – has also seen structural and material improvement. The Talon administration is using an approach based on the creation of regional agricultural development hubs that are determined by local strategic potential. It aims to increase the amount of local value generation across 7 strategic value chains including pineapples, cashew nuts, cotton, soybean, aquaculture and livestock.
Improvement in infrastructure has also played a key-enabling role in driving the Benin’s recent success. Travelling within the country, and abroad, has become less hazardous and economically prohibitive. The renovation of the national airport, the modernization of the Autonomous Port of Cotonou, and the refurbishment of key coastal roads linking Benin to its neighbours has cut down logistical hurdles and allowed the country to bolster its regional and international integration. Twinned with President Talon’s crackdown on corruption, this means that ordinary citizens can travel more efficiently whilst not facing the burden of wayward security and police forces along the way.
With strong economic growth, international accolades and the improvement in peoples’ everyday lives, Benin’s progress is visible, if in its preliminary stages. This progress has focused largely on enabling sectors and the provision of basic public goods and services to the people. According to the Talon-Talata campaign for this month’s vote, their aim is to continue this developmental trajectory in order to increase the population’s access to social and economic opportunities, with a focus on being a strategic partner for young entrepreneurs in the agricultural sector, and to complete the work that still remains to be done in the provision of public goods and services.
With the economics of the Talon administration illustrated, political developments become more intuitive and this may help place them in context. Benin is at a point where it may be able to continue its developmental work, supported by the necessary legislative capacity, which was lacking for decades. The alternative, a return to the previous dispensation, may give those who had interests in its establishment peace of mind, but it may also hold the country back.
Owusu works with the Pan-African Observer. He wrote from Accra, Ghana.
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