African Anomaly: An Election Up for Grabs

By Howard W. French
March 2, 1996

Wherever President Nicephore D. Soglo has gone the last few days, whether pressing the flesh in roadside campaign stops or dancing briefly during a festival in the coastal city of Ouidah, he has been eagerly greeted by supporters with cries of "five more years."

But what makes Mr. Soglo's run for re-election extraordinary in a continent where 18 or more national elections will be held this year -- the most since thedawn of African independence from European colonialism nearly 40 years ago -- isnot its infectious, feel-good atmosphere. Instead, in contrast to scores of rigged presidential votes on this continent since the late 1950's, no one here is sure what the final outcome of Sunday's election will be. In fact, no one knows whether the incumbent, who faces six rival candidates, will even survive the first round. If Mr.

Former US Congressman Harry Johnson,
Chris Fomunyoh and Tim McCoy
briefing an NDI delegation to the
Beninese election in 1996.

Soglo were to lose, it would be virtually the first time a sitting president has lost power at the ballot box in sub-Saharan Africa, other than the historic election that ended white minority rule in South Africa in 1994.

In countries like Central African Republic, Madagascar and Congo, sitting presidents lost elections only after being stripped of most of their powers. That power is truly at stake is not the only novelty here either. In a continent long bedeviled by ethnic rivalries, Benin has been able to put them aside. Instead, the campaign has focused to a great degree on issues that would seem more familiar to Westerners: The candidates have debated the role of the state in shaping the economy, how much should be spent for social services, and the appropriate role for the president's family in the life of the nation.

"They are all running on fairly straightforward questions," one Western diplomat said. "Privatize, don't privatize, more of this, less of that. It is really rather remarkably about the issues." For its size, this tiny country of 5.5 million people has had a striking record of setting examples for its far larger neighbors. And many observers from both the outside world and elsewhere in West Africa, where a wave of democratization that began at the start of the decade appears to be petering out, are eagerly watching how Sunday's vote will turn out.

In the past 30 years, Benin seems to have been near the head of the political curve for Africa. A military coup here in 1963, led by one of Mr. Soglo's uncles, was one of the first of many army takeovers that transformed Africa's political landscape in the early independence years and for years made Benin one of the continent's most unstable states.

A Marxist-Leninist dictatorship was established in 1972 by Mr. Soglo's principal electoral opponent, the retired general Matthieu Kerekou. That made Benin one of the continent's first communist states. Benin set its latest precedent in 1990 when it organized the so-called National Conference, which peacefully stripped General Kerekou of his powers after 17 years of ruinous, repressive rule. It appointed Mr. Soglo, a veteran World Bank official, as interim Prime Minister, and set the stage for the country's first democratic, multiparty elections in 1991, which Mr. Soglo won. One by one, this country's neighbors -- Mali, Niger, Congo and Central Africa Republic -- began organizing democratic transitions modeled on Benin's experience. Longtime dictatorships were swept from power in all of these countries.

However, the reform process began faltering when governments that were strong allies of France in countries like Gabon and Ivory Coast pre-empted calls for national conferences by holding multiparty elections that international observers widely regarded as rigged.

Since then, many of Africa's elections -- like one last week in Equatorial Guinea that President Obiang Nguema won with 99 percent of the vote -- have been cynical affairs. These votes are intended to give entrenched dictators a veneer of respectability while exposing the leadership to little or no political risk. Other elections, like one just held in Sierra Leone, have taken place in the midst of long-running civil wars and have been watched over by armies reluctant to surrender power to civilians. "In Benin we have democratic institutions that have been functioning for five years, including a Constitutional Court that has already proven its autonomy and an independent electoral commission that is unique in francophone Africa," said Christopher Fomunyoh, director for West Africa of the National Democratic Institute, a private American organization that promotes democracy.

Chris Fomunyoh speaking
at a Conference on
and Election in Africa,
held in Cotonou, Benin

"This is going to be a true test of whether these institutions can survive and grow, encouraging other countries to take the democratic path established by Benin, or whether there will be a rollback," said Mr. Fomunyoh, who is leading a delegation of 17 observers here. "Whatever happens, Benin will be a determining factor in the intellectual discussion that is already under way about whether democracy can survive in Africa." Since a military coup overthrew an elected Government in Niger last month, Benin has been surrounded by undemocratic neighbors -- from military-ruled Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, to even smaller Togo, where President Gnassingbe Eyadema has ruled with an iron fist and the sympathies of France for three decades. In an editorial this week, L'Horizon, a newspaper here, said of this situation, "The Atlantic Ocean is our only sure neighbor now." For his part, Mr. Soglo acknowledges the enmity his country's democratic turn has earned him. "When I went to Japan for the coronation of the Emperor, another African leader, who I will not name, said to me: 'You are Soglo, the one who is creating so much disorder for Africa."

Chris Fomunyoh and conference
organizers Francois Kedomedi
and Taofiki Aminoc of Benin.
In an interview today in the National Palace here, Mr. Soglo, 62, said: "I have grown used to the insults." What is more, the President contended, neighboring countries that he would not name have been arming and training troublemakers and sending them to Benin in the last year. He said that he suspects it was such outside agitators who fired an anti-tank weapon at a newly built international conference center in November, just days before Benin was to hold a biannual summit of French-speaking nations there. Rather than back down, Mr. Soglo has made a campaign theme both of the country's democratization under his leadership and -- an even greater novelty -- his record in implementing a classic program of World Bank-style economic reforms.

In many other countries where such reforms have been carried out, come election time, the leaders -- from Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe to Jerry Rawlings of Ghana -- have sought to distance themselves from the liberalizing prescriptions of international lenders and to renew their nationalist credentials. Road-building and other new construction have taken off during Mr. Soglo's tenure, transforming Cotonou, which had been a desolately sandy and potholed place.

"Soglo paid the functionaries and the functionaries, for once have been doing their work," said Francois Agbodo, a restaurant-owner in Ouidah. "Before, nobody got paid and nobody worked." But Mr. Soglo's critics have also seized upon economic issues in their campaigns. Mr. Kerekou, for example, whose socialist model during his years in office was widely considered here to have been an economic failure, has nonetheless gone on the attack, appealing to national pride to say that Mr. Soglo's privatization of bankrupt state companies has gone too far. To many observers, it appears that Mr. Kerekou's popularity derives mostly from the respect he earned for gracefully retiring from power at the demand of the 1990 National Conference and living modestly ever since. Mr. Kerekou is believed to enjoy strong support in his native northern Benin.

Mr. Soglo's other main rivals, like Adrien Houngbedji, a former National Assembly president, have concentrated their criticisms on the need for social services, which these candidates say have been forgotten in the pursuit of an economic growth rate that is officially estimated at about 6 percent. Others have harped effectively on the high profile of Mr. Solgo's wife, Rosine, who enjoys a degree of influence that many compare to Hillary Rodham Clinton, and of other members of the President's family, who are often seen at official functions or who frequently do business with the state. Mr. and Mrs. Soglo often appear at state functions wearing twin outfits. The President raised eyebrows, diplomats say, at the Francophone Summit here, when he introduced his wife to 40 heads of state and government before mentioning the French leader, Jacques Chirac, whose country financed the gathering.

Along with Mr. Kerekou, Mr. Houngbedji is widely considered among the most likely candidates to survive the first round and to face Mr. Soglo in a runoff two weeks later. For some observers, however, the combination of Mr. Kerekou's high name recognition and regional support and Mr. Houngbedji's effective introduction of social issues as a campaign theme make it uncertain that the President himself can survive the first round. The President's party, Benin Renaissance, lost control of the National Assembly last year. "What is so refreshing here is that anything can happen in this election," said one European diplomat of Sunday's vote.