It seems as if everything that could go wrong for President Thomas Yayi Boni has done so. He heads into 2011 elections facing a united group of opposition parties, a challenge from an independent technocrat, corruption scandals and a weak economy. In October, more than 100,000 people were displaced by floods which inundated land that produces about one-third of Benin’s staple crops.
President Boni has so far lost almost every opportunity to gain political capital in the run-up to the May 2011 elections. An opposition-controlled parliament stymied most of the president’s initiatives. The $190m ICC Services pyramid-scheme scandal in mid-2010 provided fodder for his opponents because Boni had been pictured in promotional material with ICC managers.
The president dismissed interior minister Armand Zinzindohoué in July, accusing him of direct involvement in the scheme which had swindled more than 100,000 people. In mid-August, almost two-thirds of MPs called for the president to be tried for fraud and treason. That same month, the National Assembly voted through a law to hold presidential and legislative elections at the same time, a move that is considered likely to hurt Boni’s chances.
In choosing parliamentary candidates, he will have to alienate some members of his Forces Cauris pour un Bénin Emergent who might otherwise campaign for him. Boni will face at least two serious presidential challengers. One is Abdoulaye Bio Tchané, the president of the Banque Ouest Africaine de Dévéloppement, who offers the same promises of technocratic government and zeal to fight corruption that Boni did when he first stood for the presidency in 2006.
The other main candidate will be Adrien Houngbédji of the Parti du Renouveau Démocratique, who will represent the Union Fait la Nation coalition of Benin’s older political parties. Houngbédji came second to Boni in the 2006 poll, but this time around he has the backing of the Parti Social-Démocrate and Parti de la Renaissance du Bénin, the party of former President Nicéphore Soglo. Disappointment at Boni’s failure to deliver on promises of good governance and rapid growth mean that the presidential vote is almost certain to go to a second round in which alliance-making will be a deciding factor.
The IMF predicts that economic growth will progress at a modest pace of 2.8% in 2010, rising to 3.6% in 2011. The government had hoped to transform the economy, largely based on weakly mechanised agriculture and the West African transit trade, into an emerging market, but it has delayed structural change. Cotton production has dropped dramatically and the privatisation of the state cotton monopoly to the Société de Développement du Coton has not produced the desired results: the 2004 harvest was 480,000tn, while the most recent harvest produced 150,000tn.
The port at Cotonou accounts for about 45% of government revenue, but mismanagement and the frequent dismissal of port directors has led to anaemic growth there. The government hopes that the 2010 decision to hand over management of the Organisation Commune des Chemins de Fer Bénin-Niger railroad system to PIC Network will help revitalise transport. The IMF has criticised delays in implementing reforms.
To address debt problems, IMF analysts guardedly referred to the need for “a strict limit of recurrent expenditures”. Ahead of the 2011 election year, the government awarded bonuses to public-sector workers, strongly raising expenditure in the first half of 2010. The rising civil-service wage bill threatens spending in other areas, like social services and infrastructure, and once again the privatisations of Bénin Telecom and Société Béninoise d’Electricité et d’Eau have been delayed.