Benign Benin

After a year in the Wild West atmosphere of Kinshasa, life in Cotonou is definitely Sleepy Hollow. It would be difficult to imagine two more different south of the Sahara countries than the Democratic Republic of Congo and Benin. Congo is vast, Benin is tiny; Congo is lawless and volatile, Benin is peaceful and relaxed; Congo is struggling towards its first democratic election in forty years, Benin has a decade of decent elections under its belt. Why then should this roving reporter for Liberator find himself in a former French colony, tucked into the eponymous Bight of Benin, and quietly sunning itself in between Togo and Nigeria?

It is because Benin's 2006 presidential election is genuinely a landmark moment in the country's democratic history. Mathieu Kerekou, the retiring president, had run the country for all but five of the past thirty-three years and now, under the country's constitution, is barred from standing again. Rumours abounded that his ancien régime would so inhibit the electoral process that it would, by default, remain in power. Every obstacle put in the path of the electoral commission was interpreted as a presidential ploy. Once the idea of presidential manipulation was embedded in the minds of the movers and shakers it was easy to see the unseen hand behind every development.

It was, perhaps, not surprising. After all Kerekou had been a remarkable survivor, moving effortlessly between military coup, Marxist-Leninism (I was amused the other day to come across the "Place Lénine", as yet unrenamed), passionate privatiser and, finally, democratically elected President. However, now in his mid 70s, he appears to have little energy for a final fling at power.

The end of the Kerekou regime threw the election wide open. Ministers, former Ministers and party fixers rushed to stake their places in the lists, so much so that twenty-six candidates eventually drew lots for places on an A3 ballot paper which contained full colour pictures of each one and of his or her logo.

The first list had been even longer, but four candidates were ruled out after the medical examination required by the constitution! The four accepted the doctors' verdict without demur. More significantly, two other candidates withdrew once they knew that a particular independent candidate had been nominated. This candidate, Yayi Boni is an interesting character. Born and brought up in the rural north of Benin, he shone as a student and entered the world of finance, eventually becoming the head of the Bank of African Development - a post he had to resign to stand in the presidential election.

Not a member of a political party, Boni was nominated and supported by a coalition of civil society organisations. In British terms, he's a sort of evangelical Gavin Davies, standing for the top political job as the nominee of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. Having been talked about for months as a possible leader, his nomination was greeted with enthusiasm by a wide swathe of public opinion. Curiously, given that expats have long been aware of Boni's electoral appeal, Benin's political class seemed blind to the dangers he posed to their hegemony. The shock to the system of Boni's first round lead was palpable, so much so that Kerekou summoned foreign ambassadors to his palace to tell them that he would never hand over power to "that amateur Boni" thus feeding the rumour machine with a banquet.

Boni was the only candidate to top one million votes, equivalent to 35% of the votes cast, and his nearest rival - a four time presidential election failure - was over 10% behind.

From where I sat, leading UNDP's electoral assistance team on behalf of the donor community, I had three major political concerns, each of which proved to be unfounded. First, with twenty-six candidates in the field, it was quite possible for a candidate to top the first round poll with twenty per cent of the vote or even less. Second, given that only the first two candidates went into the second round, it would also have been possible for the second and third placed candidates to have been extremely close, thus giving rise to a series of debilitating legal challenges to the admittedly rickety electoral administration. Third, it was also possible that neither second round candidate would have any support in one or more regions of Benin, leaving whole areas feeling unrepresented and unenthused even to vote at all. In the event, although the four leading political candidates polled heavily in their fiefs and often nowhere else, Boni had significant first round support across most of the country.

Despite numerous logistical failings, the first round conformed to African electoral tradition - chaos in the morning and tranquillity in the afternoon, producing a turnout of around 80% of a greatly inflated electoral register The latter contained some four million electors from a population of just over seven million, 46% of whom are under 15 years of age. One can do the basic arithmetic.

I am always impressed by the political sophistication of apparently unsophisticated voters. Despite the complexity of the ballot paper the number of spoilt papers was remarkably low - and if pushed the court would have allowed many of those officiously rejected for very minor infringements. Nor did there appear to be any votes by mistake. The top five candidates secured 85% of the total vote and the remaining twenty-one managed a mere 15% between them.

The other curious thing to us electoral junkies is the relaxed attitude to the count. Even the unofficial result of the first round was not declared until a full week after polling day - and no-one seemed concerned at the delay! What is more, the 2am declaration having been carried live on only one of the three local channels, that and the others then reverted to their interminable music videos. No analysis, no commentary, no predictions, nothing all day, and very little all week!

In the two weeks between first and second rounds of voting the two second round contenders set out their stall for securing the endorsement of the key losing candidates. Amongst them was the current Minister of Planning and Development, Bruno Amassou who won his home area massively but did badly everywhere else. His home vote of 250,000 would, if delivered to Yayi Boni's opponent, have just about bridged the gap between him and his second round opponent.

The problem of such a closing of ranks amongst the political class to keep out the independent was that it would have flown in the face of a massive desire on the part of the Benin people to break away from "the ancien regime". Not surprisingly, therefore, the key power brokers have been dancing on eggshells to try and find a way of squaring the circle of political loyalty and political reality. In the end, as so often in politics, momentum is the most precious commodity going and Boni's expected electoral success will be greeted with satisfaction just about everywhere.

The obvious question not quite on everyone's lips is "does what happen in Benin matter at all?" Curiously it does. Benin may be a small west African francophone backwater but the continent is so starved of consistent electoral politics and of "alternance" that this crossroads election can be added to the short list of Botswana, Senegal and South Africa, as a country that respects its constitution, has an independent electoral commission, and a countrywide electorate well able to select its preferred head of state.

The task now for those of us on the international circuit is to persuade the donor community to invest in the follow up to the election. The weeks after polling day are more important than the weeks before it, but most European countries breathe a sigh of immense relief after a "good" polling day and abandon the field. Elections are the result of democracy not the cause of it, and the gentle development of democratic structures is vital if the values we took for granted in pre-Thatcher and pre-Blair days are to be entrenched in a country like Benin.

17 March 2006