Benin’s citizens head to the polls Sunday to vote for a new president in an election race centered on the West African nation’s flagging economic growth, high unemployment, corruption and education. As President Thomas Boni Yayi steps down after serving the maximum two terms, voters must choose between a record 33 candidates to replace him, including a former prime minister and two of the country’s most powerful businessmen.
With Yayi approaching the end of his second term, the ruling Cowry Forces for an Emerging Benin, or FCBE, party has named Benin’s Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou as its presidential candidate. Zinsou, 62, has also been endorsed by two of the country’s leading opposition parties and is one of the favorites in the crowded presidential race, according to Agence-France Presse.
A French-Beninese economist and former investment banker, Zinsou boasts a glittering resume and impressive network of contacts that include Microsoft founder Bill Gates and U.S. President Barack Obama. He worked as a speechwriter for France’s former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius in the 1980s and later served as the head of France’s largest investment fund, PAI Partners, before becoming Benin’s premier in June 2015. Zinsou’s critics, however, point out that he’s the nephew of former President Emile-Derlin Zinsou and is an elite outsider far removed from the realities of life in Benin, a former French colony.
“They have parachuted in to us a colonizer whose mission is to safeguard the economic crimes of Boni Yayi,” Paul Isse Iko, the secretary-general of the confederation of workers' unions in Benin, recently told Reuters on behalf of the group.
Influential businessman Patrice Talon, 57, is running for president following his high-profile fallout with the outgoing head of state. Born in Benin’s coastal town of Ouidah, Talon became one of Benin’s most economically powerful figures, controlling the country’s key cotton industry as well as the port in the nation’s commercial capital Cotonou, according to AFP.
Talon was also a longtime ally of Yayi, financing his presidential campaigns in both 2006 and 2011 — until he was accused of masterminding a plot to poison Yayi in 2012. A year later, Talon was implicated in an alleged plan to launch a coup against the Beninese leader. Six of Talon’s alleged accomplices went to jail, and the embattled businessman fled to France. But Yayi pardoned him in 2014, according to RFI.
Like his rival Zinsou, Talon has pledged to reform Benin’s education system if elected president.
Another prominent businessman is standing for office Sunday. Nicknamed “the king of chicken” for making his fortune in the food industry, Sebastien Ajavon announced his presidential bid in January, saying “the inability of Benin’s political class to unite around a common vision” had motived him, according to AFP. The 51-year-old has promised to reduce youth unemployment through the creation of business incubators, Reuters reported.
Ajavon has reportedly provided financial to support to political candidates in the past. He has secured the backing of the Social Democratic Pary, or PSD, for his own candidacy, which has divided the opposition party with some of its members disagreeing with the endorsement, according to Benin Times.
Other top candidates in Sunday’s race include ex-prime minister Pascal Irenee Koupaki and Abdoulaye Bio Tchane, an international economist. Koupaki, who first entered government in 2006, has held the finance and development portfolios before serving as prime minister. The 64-year-old was previously based in Senegal’s capital of Dakar while working at the Central Bank of West African states.
Tchane, 63, is the former Africa director of the International Monetary Fund and ex-president of the West African Development Bank. He ran for president in 2011, placing third with just over 6 percent of ballots cast. If elected, Tchane has promised to create 500,000 jobs each year during his five-year term as president, according to Reuters.
Benin is one of Africa’s largest cotton producers, and its economy largely depends on subsistence agriculture and trade. Some 80 percent of Benin’s 10.6 million people make their living from agriculture. This reliance has put Benin’s economy at risk in the face of declining commodity prices and falling global demand.
In recent weeks, global cotton prices have plunged over speculation that China will start selling off some of its 12-million-ton stockpile, the Wall Street Journal reported. Benin has also been affected by the economic slowdown in neighboring Nigeria, its key trading partner, because of falling oil prices and Boko Haram’s Islamic insurgency.
Youth unemployment also poses a major challenge for the Beninese government. Unemployment and underemployment are both twice as high among young people as among adults. The most recent statistic, taken from the 2002 census, show that only 33 percent of the country’s youth have are in paid employment. Beninese students lack the necessary training to have a real chance of finding jobs.
“This situation is compounded by the fact that there is no framework for consultation between employers and school officials regarding the teaching methods used in secondary and higher education,” researchers and economists wrote in the 2012 African Economic Outlook for Benin.
Still, Benin’s economy has enjoyed modest growth driven by the agricultural and services sectors and the country’s dynamic construction industry. The finance ministry expects the economy to grow 5.8 percent in 2016, up from 5.2 percent in 2015, according to China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency. But this growth has not been enough to reduce poverty. Some 36 percent of Beninese people live below the poverty line, according to data collected by the World Bank group.
ELECTION RULES & RESULTS
A presidential candidate must secure 50 percent plus one vote in order to win an outright majority in the first round of the election on Sunday. If this doesn’t happen, the top two finishers will head to a run-off election with 15 days.
Logistical issues have occurred ahead of Sunday’s poll, which could affect voter turnout or potentially delay results. As of Friday, voter identification cards had not been distributed in two of Benin’s 12 administrative districts, where almost 700,000 registered voters live.
“I am discouraged and I think many people are in the same boat,” Elie Dossou, a resident of the economic capital Cotonou who has tried and failed to pick up her voter card, recently told Reuters.