Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Cowries win Benin election

A coalition led by current President Thomas Boni Yayi has won parliamentary elections in the West African nation of Benin. After the 31 March poll the reigning president's Cowrie Forces for an Emerging Benin (FCBE) won 35 of the 83 seats in parliament and will aim to control the assembly with its smaller allies. The rival Alliance for a Dynamic Democracy (ADD) won 20 seats.

Yayi is a former head of the West African Development Bank who was elected president a year ago. He said wresting control of parliament from Benin's traditional elite is key to pushing through anti-corruption reforms which he claims prompted an assassination bid last month. Yayi leads the Cowrie Party which is named after the shells once used as a currency when this part of West Africa's Atlantic seaboard was known for its export of slaves and voodoo to the Caribbean.

Eighty percent of the seats were overturned, according to observers, indicating that Benin's voters wanted change. The polls marked Benin's fifth legislative elections since the country made the transition to democracy in 1990. It also underscores an influence beyond Benin’s relatively small population of 8.2 million and its weak economic standing.

Yayi won power in March 2006 after winning a run-off election against speaker of parliament Adrien Houngbedji. Yayi had a platform to end corruption and economic crimes, and "reinstate ethics" in state institutions. The election was seen as a key moment in Benin's history as both President Mathieu Kérékou and long-time rival Nicephore Soglo were barred from standing. Both men were over the constitutional age limit of 70 allowing power to transfer to a new generation. Kérékou stood down after ruling for most of the previous 30 years.

Benin is one of the 20 least developed countries in the world. Sandwiched between Togo and Nigeria, it was the former home of the ancient African kingdom of Dahomey. Portugal established a trading post on the coast at Porto Novo in the 16th century but Dahomey conquered the Portuguese and French coastal trading forts of Allada and Whydah to establish its power in the 1720s.

Dahomey was a slave state which traded African slaves for European weapons. The kingdom was notable for a female royal bodyguard, the 2,000 strong 'Dahomey Amazons'. The bodyguard had a reputation for marksmanship. The women could load cumbersome flintlock rifles in 30 seconds and hit targets with absolute precision. The empire they guarded survived almost two hundred years. Eventually it was conquered by France in the 1890s. The French invaded from Senegal using mostly African troops. These former victims of Dahomey’s slave trade were only too happy to bring about the kingdom’s demise. Initially the French installed a puppet king but within ten years they abolished the monarchy and subsumed Dahomey into French West Africa. During this time, the territory took its modern shape with the exploration and extension of French control in the north.

In 1946, under the new French constitution, Dahomey was given a deputy and two senators in the French parliament, and an elected local Assembly with substantial control of the budget. In 1958 Dahomey was granted autonomy as France’s African colony disintegrated. The country became fully independent in 1960. Dahomey was unstable in its early days and suffered military coups in 1963, 1965 (twice), 1967, 1969, and 1972.

The 1972 coup was decisive and established Major Mathieu Kérékou as the leader of a military regime. He steered the country on a Marxist-Leninist path. In 1975 he changed the name of the country to the People's Republic of Benin by presidential proclamation. In 1980 Kérékou went to Libya where he converted to the Islamic faith in the presence of Gaddafy. He also eased his rigid Marxist stance as the decade wore on.

But the economy continued to falter and in 1990 Kérékou convened a National Conference of Active Forces of the Nation to discuss Benin's future. The conference became a public critique of his 17 years of office. He was forced to declare a transitional government and parliamentary elections. Opposition leader and Prime Minister Nicephore Soglo comfortably won the election and became president in 1991. Kérékou won back the post in 1996 and retained the position five years later.

With Kérékou out of the race in 2005, the way was clear for the economist Thomas Boni Yayi to take the presidency. His election campaign mainly focused on economic reform and a pledge to make Benin's dominant cotton industry more profitable. He won 75% of the vote in the run-off election in a resounding victory. His toughest challenge remains in reforming the country's economy, which is too dependent on low-price cotton exports.

Benin is part of the CFA Franc Zone which is the currency of eleven Francophone West African countries. The CFA Franc Zone is the world’s second largest producer of cotton after the US. The crop was formally called “white gold” but is now in decline. All CFA cotton is grown on small-scale farms averaging 1.6 hectares, is entirely rain fed and none of it is genetically modified. However in the US, virtually all cotton is grown on large-scale farms, averaging 220 hectares. Most of it is irrigated, and almost all US cotton is GM. Most important of all, US cotton farmers get an annual subsidy of $2-4 billion keeping the price artificially low with West Africa bearing the brunt.

Like the other members of the CFA Zone, Benin is struggling as a result of low cotton prices. But there is some hope on the horizon. Recently the World Trade Organisation ruled US subsidies have led to overproduction of cotton which is the cause of lowered world market prices. Congress will be considering the implications of this ruling as they negotiate agricultural budget cuts.

Terry Townsend, the executive director of the International Cotton Advisory Committee, believes it is critical that agricultural subsidies be addressed in upcoming trade meetings. “We're seeing a shift in political and public perception of government in a gradual and an inexorable shift away from direct subsidies that distort production and trade,” he said. “The whole concept of subsidies is losing intellectual legitimacy”.

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