BENIN’S recent presidential election run-off featured two candidates that could not have been more different. Outgoing prime minister Lionel Zinsou cut a suave image, a Franco-Beninese financier who was last year persuaded by exiting president Yayi Boni to join government, occupying a position that had been vacant for two years.
Six months later, the former head of France’s investment bank was endorsed by Boni as his successor, with the blessings of former colonial ruler France, in which Zinsou is also a citizen.
His eventual conqueror, businessman Patrice Talon, could not have had a more chequered political career even if he had tried. Arguably Benin’s richest man, he looms large in the country’s politico-economic history—where he made his fortune in its mainstay cotton industry and the related shipping.
Talon was accused by the government of trying to poison Yayi in 2012, sending him fleeing to Paris. A year later Benin sought to extradite him, claiming he was involved in regime change attempts. Paris refused, and would later mediate a presidential pardon that allowed Talon back in last year.
The divide could not have been more conducive for a fall-out in many other African countries. Frontrunner Zinsou won the first round as expected, but his two main competitors were not far behind, raising the stakes for the tie-breaker round.
Boni would have been loathe to see Talon win—the tycoon was a major bankroller of his successful presidential election wins, before their sensational falling out—and his propulsion of Zinsou up the ranks was seen as helping stem the eventuality.
His excellent economic credentials aside, Zinsou quickly—and effectctively— found himself painted as an outsider with little knowledge of the country, and who would be a puppet in the hands of his backers. On the continent, the perception that you are an outsider can be a big blow to voters, a tactic that has been used to varying effects in countries such as Zambia and Ivory Coast.
No stranger to controversy in Benin, Talon’s campaign against him was still extremely personal, while in a presidential debate he accused Yayi of running a “banana republic” that was now “the laughing stock of the world”.
During the vote-hunting, the flamboyant Talon was seen in Porches, bespoke suits and stunners in a country with high youth unemployment, as he unabashedly flaunted his wealth.
As it turned out, this flashy image was a vote-getter: young voters bought into his self-made man image, in the hope that he will lift them to the same status.
But Zinsou was still first to concede, calling Talon who had by now consolidated the vote of a majority of the crowded field, to congratulate him, this even before the final results were out.
“The provisional results point to a decisive victory for Patrice Talon,” he told a reporter by telephone. “The difference is significant, (Talon’s) electoral victory is certain”.
Further west, Cape Verde’s ruling PAICV party was dislodged after 15 years in power, losing to the liberal opposition MPD.
Anyone familiar with Lusophone African history will know that liberation movements have generally tended to be immutable objects after they came to power—apart from in Cape Verde.
Threw in towel
But ruling party leader Janira Hoppfer Almada, who had hoped to become the country’s first female prime minister, also threw in the towel gracefully.
“I congratulate the MPD on the victory and I promise from now on to better prepare for the next electoral battles,” the 37-year-old said, ahead of forthcoming municipal and presidential votes later this year.
Voters punished the PAICV for among other issues not doing enough to help victims of a volcanic eruption in 2014 in a country with one of the highest per capita incomes in Africa, but which still struggles with high poverty rates.
The president of the 10-island country, Jorge Carlos Fonseca is a member of the new ruling party. In 2011, he defeated the ruling party’s candidate Manuel Sousa in a tight run off, taking 55% of the ballots but leaving him handicapped in parliament.
The two were contesting to replace president Pedro Pires, who like Boni, was stepping down at the end of his maximum two terms. Pires would shortly win the Mo Ibrahim Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership.
Rejection of defeat
The speedy concessions are welcome: the continent’s recent history is dotted with conflict that stemmed from the refusal of ruling parties to accept election results. Ivory Coast ex-ruler Laurent Gbagbo is in an international court for his role in a civil war that followed his rejection of defeat by Alassane Ouattara in 2010.
Kenya’s near-ruinous unrest in 2007 was stoked by the opposition’s stance that they had won the election against then incumbent Mwai Kibaki, a fallout that also saw its leaders indicted at the International Criminal Court.
Would Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, have stepped down had he lost elections in February? Will Congo’s Denis Sassou Nguesso, looking to extend his 32-year reign, let go if he loses last weekend’s vote?
Or would South Africa’s African National Congress hand over the reins if it were actually voted out of power in 2018 elections?
Benin and Uganda also held their first ever presidential debates ahead of their elections, helping strengthen a trend that has also taken root in countries such as Kenya, even as others such as Zambia, which holds a vote in August, weigh up such public duels.
The two countries—Benin and Cape Verde—sizeable diaspora were also allowed to vote, despite right or wrong perception being that they tend to be sympathetic to the opposition.
The electoral developments in the two West African countries that both only introduced multiparty democracy in 1990 could go some way towards shifting continental electoral attitudes as reactions by many delighted Africans on social media showed, but there is a long way to go.
In lopsided results following second-round ballots in Niger and Zanzibar, the incumbents carried the day—with 92% in the case of the former.
In Tanzania, despite the buzz created by new leader John Magufuli, losers are still not allowed to challenge election results in the courts.
Creating the space for the opposition to fell enfranchised enough to put their grievances to voters will be vital, but it has definitely been a good news week for the continent.