Friday, March 18, 2011

Benin 2011 presidential polls

Benin presidential poll latest
Incumbent President Yayi, leading opposition candidate Houngbedji warm up for run-off

As predicted in our analysis of this year’s presidential election in Benin Republic, published in Daily Sun of Friday, 11 March (reproduced below this report); a run-off seems inevitable from preliminary results released by the country’s independent electoral commission, CENA (Centre Electorale Nationale autonome) Wednesday.

Although the principal opposition candidate, Dr. Adrien Houngbedji has taken an early lead with 46.3 of the results so far collated; he will have to square up against incumbent President Boni Yayi to determine who occupies the local Presidential Palace from April, this year. Dr. Yayi polled 44.5 percent of the votes to come second, however; the results are not conclusive. 
President Boni Yayi's poster. PHOTOS: MAURICE ARCHIBONG
Mr. Adrien Houngbedji is candidate of UN, a multi-party coalition; instead of just his party; the PRD (Parti du Renouveau Democratique). Since none of the flag-bearers bagged the mandatory minimum of 50percent of the votes for an outright win, Beninese voters will return to polling stations for a run-off election within three weeks.

It is worth noting that disputes arose over results released for Cotonou’s 8th Council (Huiteme Arrondissement), where speculation is rife the number of votes recorded outnumbered that on the voters’ register. Huiteme Arrondissement includes a densely-populated neighbourhood called Agbontikan. However, it is not clear which of the candidates the result from that area favoured. 
Scene from one of Adrien Houngbedji's UN campaign offices.
Interestingly, 10 of the 14 candidates scored less than one percent each; collectively, with less than 4 percent of the total vote garnered by this octet; they ended up mere also-ran, as we did forecast. Moreover, our position that charismatic Mr. Abdoulaye Bio Tchane (fondly called ABT, who promised Integrite, Unite, Travail; i.e. governance built around integrity, unity and industry, would not make much difference; also proved true with the 5.6 percent of the votes he got. Mr. Salifou Issa came fifth with 1.6percent votes cast. 
While the campaigns were on.
It could be recalled that the 13 March presidential election had earlier been postponed twice apparently due to inadequate preparedness.

Below is my piece on this year’s presidential election in Benin

Benin Presidential election holds Sunday
…Run-off expected

Finally, this year’s presidential election in neighbouring Benin Republic will hold on Sunday, 13 March. The 2011 presidential poll, which had been postponed twice, is the fifth; since this country returned to democracy 20 years ago.

Home to roughly 2million Nigerians and a major trading partner of Nigeria, Benin Republic is also vital to West Africa because it serves as an important link between the eastern fringes of the sub-region to the western frontiers around Mauritania.

Millions of Nigerians and other travellers daily commute between Cameroon, through Nigeria, Cotonou (Benin), Lome (Togo), Accra (Ghana) and on to Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire; therefore, any unrest in Benin could prove debilitating for countless West Africans, who shuttle on daily basis the Littoral Axis of the Trans-ECOWAS Highway.

Fortunately, however, the Beninese people have acquitted themselves commendably during the campaigns. There has been no assassination here and the level of violence virtually inconsequential compared with the norm in one or two other West African nations. In deed, the numerous floats bearing colourfully attired supporters of different parties across Cotonou, Porto-Novo and other settlements in this country evoked a carnival-like atmosphere everywhere.

At Agblagadan, a Cotonou neighbourhood, for example; three different parties’ campaign teams riding in floats and marching in the street ran into themselves; and, unlike in some other country, where cudgels and missiles would have been flying everywhere over such encounter; the parties’ partisans simply tried to do outdo their rivals through louder volume of music and more vibrancy in their chanting and dancing.

The Vuvuzela, South Africa’s gift to the world after a successful hosting of the first World Cup on the continent has also come in handy here. Many parties’ faithful could be seen zooming past on motorcycles and joyfully blowing their “vuvuzela” as they rode along. Also, Nigerian hip-hop music was frequently heard blaring from some of the gigantic loudspeakers mounted on the floats. Such has been the carnival air of the campaigns that you wished the presidential election could be held every year in Benin.
Curiously, almost 4million voters were registered for the 2006 presidential election in this nation of barely 7million population; and, even then; there were complaints that millions could not get on the voters’ register. Psephologists, journalists and independent observers; both local and international, could be seen across this country; and, to record a successful election, various relevant organs; including CENA (Commission electorale nationale autonome), Benin’s equivalent of Nigeria’s INEC (Independent National Electoral Commission); CSP (Commission de Supervision Politique) and LEPI (l’etablissement de la Liste electoral) had since swung into action.

However, there have been complaints; including reported late arrival of electoral materials and inability of many eligible voters to get on the voters’ register. Difficulties in compilation of voters’ register and snags in distribution of voters’ cards were commonly cited. In fact, a newspaper, “l’evenement prĂ©cis” in its 10 February edition, carried a report on page 3; where Mr. Adrien Houngbedji, candidate of UN, a multi-party coalition; condemned alleged serious irregularities.

The report hints at possible disenfranchisement of over 1.5million voters through the inability of such prospective voters to register to vote. Evidently, issues like these compelled a shift of the election, which was earlier due to hold on Sunday, 6 March.

Given the crises that trailed last November/December elections in Ivory Coast as well as the one in Guinea two years ago; there could be apprehension in some quarters over the outcome of next Sunday’s presidential election in Benin Republic. However, it is doubtful this election would spark any serious strife; for, Beninese remember very well the hardship countless Togolese suffered, following post-election violence in the late Gnassingbe Eyadema’s country.

It could be recalled that thousands of refugees that fled Togo were camped by the United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Beninese town of Come; and, millions of Beninese, who saw first-hand some of these victims and heard their tales of woe would be wary of doing any thing that could land them in similar plight.

This year’s presidential poll in Benin has been made more exciting because it features a unique realignment of forces. Unlike 2006, when as many as 26 candidates were in the race; there are 14 flag-bearers this time.  Even with this much fewer 14 candidates, it is widely believed that the poll will result in a run-off; like several others before it. Where the 13 March exercise proves inconclusive, a re-run by the two leading contenders must take place in two weeks, going by the Constitution of the Benin Republic.

Incumbent President, Dr. Boni Yayi, is in the race; which features only one female candidate in the 14-man pack. The sole female candidate is 57-year-old Ms. Akouavi Marie-Elise Christiana Gbedo, a one-time minister of commerce, industry and tourism in the late 1990s under the Mathieu Kerekou presidency. Ms Gbedo was also in the 2006 presidential race, and it could be recalled that while campaigning as an independent candidate, she had practically urged then outgoing President Kerekou to prosecute all political office holders, whom she alleged had plundered the national economy; before handing over power on 6 April of that year.

Though widely respected as a distinguished adjudicator, intellectual and feminine rights activist; it is doubtful she would make much impact, given the political weight of those she is up against. But, it would be wrong to write her off; for, going by the constitution, Ms Gbedo has two more presidential elections in which she could run before clocking 70 years. Septuagenarians and older folks are barred from contesting for Benin Republic’s highest political office.

Other candidates in the 2011 presidential election in former Dahomey include Abdoulaye Bio Tchane (ABT), Cyr Kouagou, Issa Salifou, Joachim Dahissiho, Kessile Tchalla, Janvier Yahouedeou, Victor Topanou, Joseph Biokou, Jean Yves Sinzogan and Lagnide Christian. Janvier Yahouedehou also ran as an independent candidate in the 5 March 2006 presidential elections in Benin. As before, he promises to build a modern, professional and transparent administration, if elected.

On his part, charismatic ABT promises (“Integrite, Unite, Travail”); i.e. governance built around integrity, unity and industry, while Dr. Yayi is being marketed as the candidate of all Beninese (“Le candidat de les tout Beninois”). Truly, with Bariba, Fulani and Yoruba bloods flowing in his veins, Yayi certainly enjoys an advantage here. It is also worth noting that despite being baptised Muslim, he had later converted to Christianity. However, in this nation, where state religion is voodoo; it is hard to say to what extent his conversion might count in this election. 

Having been president for four years already, Yayi is also reminding prospective voters that his experience is an advantage (“Notre experience, notre force”). However, Mr. Houngbedji’s camp is calling on Beninese to opt for change, even liberation; (“Maintenant Avancons”), as their posters say. But, for presidential candidate Issa Salifou, the future is now (“l’Avenir c’est aujourd hui”).  

Benin Republic comprises 12 Regions: Alibori, Atacora, Atlantique, Borgou, Collines, Couffo, Donga, Littoral, Mono, Oueme, Plateau and Zou; and, the 14 candidates come from seven of these dozen political units. Biokou, Houngbedji and Lagnide come from Oueme Region. Salifou hails from Alibori, while Gbedo, Sinzogan and Topano are from Atlantique; Kouagou is from Atacora; and, Dahissiho and Yahouedeou from Zou. However, this time around, the majority of these 14 candidates are likely to again end up simply as also-ran.

Mr. Adrien Houngbedji and Abdoulaye Bio Tchane constitute the leading opposition as far as incumbent President Yayi, who hails from Borgou, is concerned. However, the run-off is most likely going to feature Dr. Yayi and Mr. Houngbedji; even though Mr. Tchane, fondly called ABT, also commands something of a large following. Seen as a possible surprise candidate in some quarters, ABT is a seasoned economist and banker; his chances could, however, be adversely affected by the fact that he hails from the same Donga Region as another candidate, Mr. Kessile Tchala Sare.

Interestingly, speculation is rife within some quarters that next Sunday’s election could actually throw up an outright winner in the person of Houngbedji; irrespective of the fact that two other candidates from his region could dim his performance by splitting the voters there.

Already 69 years old, Houngbedji would be 74, and therefore, too old; going by the Benin Constitution, to ever run for president again beyond this election. This is the reason many Beninese think he is handling this one as the election of his life; and, it is worth noting Houngbedji is not only candidate for his PRD (Parti du Renouveau Democratique).

In the 2006 election, Lehardy Soglo, one of the sons of former president, Nicephore Soglo; was presidential candidate on the platform of RB (l’Renaissance du Benin), while Bruno Amossou was flag-bearer for PSD (Parti Social Democrate) and Lazare Sehoueto for Force Cle as well as Kolawole Idji for MADEP (Mouvement African pour Developpment et le Progres). This quartet has withdrawn from this year’s election and thrown in their lot with Houngbedji. In other words, Houngbedji’s chances are now much brighter because he is candidate for the six-party coalition called UN (l’Union fait la Nation).

Moreover, former president Nicephore Soglo has also thrown his weight behind Houngbedji; but, it shouldn’t be difficult to say, who; between Boni Yayi and Houngbedji, is the preferred candidate of Mathieu Kerekou, another ex-president of Benin. Houngbedji could be likened to Nigeria’s late lawyer and activist, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, in some ways. Here is a man, who would not keep silent in the face of tyranny. Like Chief Fawehinmi of blessed memory, Houngbedji trained as a lawyer; and, like Fawehinmi; Houngbedji was never afraid to speak out in defence of the truth, even at the risk of losing his life. Houngbedji, in deed, was a thorn in the flesh of Kerekou in those days, when the latter served as head of government of the then socialist state.

To escape alleged possible assassination, Houngbedji had to flee into exile in Gabon; where he lived for years until 1990, when he returned to join others in pressing for a sovereign national conference that eventually put paid to Kerekou’s dictatorship, finally paving the way to the democratic governance, which Benin Republic has enjoyed, uninterrupted, for over 20 years now.

Subsequently, Aplahoue-born Houngbedji had served twice as President of Benin National Assembly from 1991 to 1995 and 1999 to 2003. A Member of the Academy of Sciences and co-President of the ACP-EU Parliament in 2001; Houngbedji is also recipient of “grand-croix de l’Ordre national du Benin”, the highest honour in his country. It is worth recalling that this is Hougbedji’s fourth shot at the presidency; and, that he came third in the 2001 presidential election. In 2006; he came second. Could he possibly come first in 2011? Only time can tell.

Interestingly, 23 flag-bearers had earlier emerged for as many political parties; but, the constitutional court had disqualified nine aspirants for various reasons. Those barred from running are; Thierry Didier Adjovi, Olivier Agossou Lary-Egoundoukpe, Yacouba Olaniyi Badaru, Phillipe Toyo Noudjenoume, Henri Medrid, Ganseli Hermine Capo-Chichi, Patrice Ago Simenou, Louis Tobossou and Francois Xavier Loko.

Interestingly, Benin’s Constitutional Court (Cour Constitutionnel) has been kept extra-busy because of this year’s presidential election: such has been the contribution of this court in interpreting the laws to determine who was eligible to vie and who was not as well as appraising requests for postponement of the election that media focus had sometimes shifted from the flag-bearers and their parties to the Cour Constitutionnel and its President, Justice Robert Dossou. In deed, former president of Burundi, Mr. Pierre Buyoya, who is leader of an observer mission from the International Organisation of French-speaking states’ (l’Organisation International de l’etat Francophonie); held a meeting with Justice Dossou in Benin last week.

It is pertinent to point out here that whoever emerges victorious in this year’s Benin presidential election would have his hands full. Although Yayi has in many ways positively transformed the state of this country’s infrastructure, a lot more work remains to be done. Cheerily, all the leading candidates are accomplished professionals; also, both Yayi and Houngbedji are doctorate degree holders.

Houngbedji was described throughout his school days by various teachers as an exceptionally brilliant student. By 1967, when he was barely 25 years old, Houngbedji had bagged a PhD in Law from University of Paris. Apart from having served in Benin Supreme Court, Houngbedji also has years of experience as a two-time distinguished Member of Parliament. In deed, many believe he is better connected to members of Benin’s political elite than anyone else.

On the other hand, Yayi who holds a PhD, which he earned in 1991 from University of Orleans in France; had served as Presidential Technical Adviser on Financial Matters in the past and had also, garnered useful experience from working in high-ranking capacity for many years at BCEAO (Central Bank of West Africa).

Clearly, therefore, each man is well qualified to serve as president; and, whoever wins would bring invaluable experience to office. Hopefully, that would rub off positively on the fortunes of the average citizen.
 - By MAURICE ARCHIBONG in Cotonou: +22966757512

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