Benin’s Tycoon-Turned-President Promises A Lot—But Who Will Benefit?

Benin’s Tycoon-Turned-President Promises A Lot—But Who Will Benefit?
Benin's president, Patrice Talon, at the Elysee Palace, Paris, France, April 26, 2016 (AP photo by Michel Euler).

Benin’s two-round elections, held earlier this year on March 6 and March 20, delivered a decisive victory for opposition candidate and cotton magnate Patrice Talon. As in some other Francophone West African countries, the two-round system facilitated a political upset. Talon finished in second place in the first round, with just 23.5 percent of the vote. In the second round, however, he defeated outgoing President Thomas Boni Yayi’s handpicked candidate, then-Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou, with more than 65 percent of the vote. Zinsou quickly conceded, and Benin won international acclaim for the latest milestone in its 25-year-old democracy. Talon has already made numerous minor reforms and announced ambitious plans. These moves may be Talon’s way of testing the waters before taking on bigger reforms designed to address Benin’s economic crises and high unemployment. How the economy fares will be a major determinant in how Benin’s people assess his performance.

Benin’s 2016 election has been described as featuring an unusually high proportion of technocratic and private-sector candidates, but that does not mean that there is a neat separation between politicians and businesspeople in the country. Talon, Benin’s flashy and self-styled “king of cotton,” had never run for office before, but he is no stranger to politics: He was a key financier for Nicephore Soglo, Benin’s first democratically elected president, who served from 1991 to 1996, and for Boni Yayi.

Talon’s relationship with Boni Yayi helped him to expand his cotton business and involvement in imports. The two fell out during Boni Yayi’s second term. Talon spent 2012 to 2015 living in exile in Paris while facing embezzlement accusations at home. So Talon’s decision to seek the presidency was not the sudden impulse of a businessman-turned-politician, but rather the latest chapter in a long-running power struggle among Benin’s elites. For Talon, running for president may have also been a way, in the words of one analyst, of “protecting himself by becoming a major political figure rather than a rich but vulnerable businessman.”

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