Monday, January 29, 2007

Africa's Cuba unlikely leader of democracy

Sunday, January 28, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM
"Africa's Cuba" unlikely leader of democracy
By Katharine Houreld
The Associated Press

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

The display of people power demonstrated how a Marxist dictatorship once
nicknamed "Africa's Cuba" has become an unlikely leader of 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 Zinzindohoue, 22, smiling

With last March's election, 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 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
Washington, D.C.-based Council on Foreign Relations.

Change of course

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.

Then-dictator, President Mathieu Kerekou, called a national conference
in 1990 of civic and religious leaders, farmers and all the political
parties. They insisted on democratic elections and presidential term limits.

Kerekou held elections, lost them and ceded power. He was re-elected
five years later, serving until 2006, while the other two presidents
came from outside of his political circle.

As much of the rest of Africa stumbled through wars, coups 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's
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.

Democracy campaigner

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.

Expatriate workers gossip over prawns and red wine on the progress of
the soon-to-be-completed West African gas pipeline, which will supply
Benin with Nigerian gas.

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.

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

Yet Benin's transformation is far from perfect.

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

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

Elections alone aren't enough, says Lyman in Washington, D.C. He
believes African democracy is still threatened by "big man" politics --
leaders unresponsive to the popular will.

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

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