- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 7, 2007

COTONOU, Benin

When this West African nation ran short of funds to finance its election machinery, voters raised cash, loaned computers, and lit up vote-counting centers with their motorcycle headlights.

The unusual display of people power demonstrated how a Marxist dictatorship once nicknamed “Africa’s Cuba” has become an unlikely leader on Africa’s checkered path to democracy.

Oscar Zinzindohoue, a cloth vendor, said the sight of those sputtering motorbikes gave him hope for democracy. “We didn’t think it was going to happen,” said Mr. Zinzindohoue, 22, smiling broadly.

With the elections last March, tiny Benin has seen three peaceful transfers of power in 15 years. After the peaceful democratic transitions in Ghana, Senegal, Botswana and elsewhere, many analysts say that if Benin can do it, so can others.

“The trend was moving positively, and Benin has a special place in that history,” said Princeton Lyman, head of the Africa program at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

Era of military rule

Twenty years ago, Benin and the rest of the continent were struggling to shake off the Cold War-era military rulers who took power after most of Africa’s European colonies became independent in the 1960s.

With a command economy, coup leaders in charge and few natural resources, the former French territory stagnated, offering little chance of climbing out of grinding poverty.

Seeing that the system couldn’t continue, dictator Mathieu Kerekou called a national conference of civic and religious leaders, farmers and all the political parties in 1990. They insisted on democratic elections and presidential term limits.

Living up to his nickname “the Chameleon,” Mr. Kerekou held elections, lost them and ceded power. He was re-elected five years later, serving until 2006, and two other elected presidents came from outside his political circle. Their banking background helped bring economic reforms that encouraged investment and loosened the state’s command of markets.

As much of the rest of Africa stumbled through wars, overthrows and elections during the last two decades, Benin nurtured tourism, a free press and a stable economy built largely on agriculture and services.

Benin is different from other African countries in many ways. It is small: only 8 million people in a country the size of Pennsylvania. It has one national language, French, and a widespread mixing of ethnic groups that fosters stability.

But Adrien Ahahanzo Glele, a former government minister and now a campaigner for democracy, says Benin shares something important with the rest of the continent: “The people of Africa know now that they want democracy. You can see it in their eyes.”

Poverty persists, the average daily wage is only $3, and population growth swallows many of the economic gains, but new conference centers, small restaurants and banks have mushroomed in Cotonou, the main city.

In the city center, French students on vacation meet by the city’s red-and-white striped church — affectionately known as “the candy cane.” Foreign workers gossip over prawns and red wine on the progress of the soon-to-be-completed West African gas pipeline, which will bring Nigerian gas to Benin.

Benin called ‘Benign’

Their colleagues in troubled Nigeria slip away to Cotonou’s tranquil beaches and have nicknamed Benin “Benign.” The new presidential residence doesn’t even have barbed wire on its low walls.

This land was once an infamous source of slaves for the New World, and there’s a small but steady stream of Americans and Afro-Caribbeans on roots-seeking visits. Memorials of slavery are everywhere — among them, the beachside arch at the Point of No Return showing manacled Africans walking toward the horizon and the Tree of Forgetfulness that captured slaves were marched around three times in the belief it would break their spirits.

As a reward for the elections, U.S. aid to Benin next year is to increase sixfold from the current $15 million. Other donors have also made increases.

Yet Benin’s transformation is far from perfect.

Echoing a widely held belief in Benin, Mr. Glele accused President Kerekou’s government of deliberately starving the electoral commission of funds, hoping it would delay elections.

Instead, he and others raised private donations. One businessman sent in $4,000; other poor farmers could only spare a few dollars, he said.

‘Big man’ politics

Elections alone aren’t enough, said Mr. Lyman at the Council on Foreign Relations. He believes African democracy is still threatened by “big man” politics — leaders unresponsive to the popular will.

Last year, Congo, Chad, Uganda and Togo all held presidential votes marred by violence or widespread accusations of irregularities. Leaders in Chad and Uganda modified their constitutions to overturn term limits designed to end presidencies-for-life.

Oil-rich Nigeria, Benin’s giant neighbor, is to hold elections this April, which should mark the first time a Nigerian government has changed by peaceful election. But campaigning has already been marked by assassinations and bombings.

People in Benin have high expectations of their new president, Boni Yayi. In the market, people are cautiously optimistic, but say only more sales and a better life will convince them that democracy is the right course.

Hassan el Dorr, whose family owns interests in hotels, shopping malls and communications companies, says corruption and inefficiency remain, and substantial foreign investment has yet to materialize. But he feels confident enough to expand, and plans to add 60 rooms to his 70-room Hotel Du Lac.

“The president now has a certain credibility, so there will be more investment in Benin,” said Mr. el Dorr.

“You can’t change a country in a day. There has to be a period of transition,” he said. “But we are learning what democracy is.”

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