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West Finds a Darling in Africa

Tiny Benin pursues rapid economic and democratic reforms

BENIN, once one of Africa's most coup-ridden countries, is the first nation on the continent to peacefully overturn a dictatorship in favor of democracy.

And it has accomplished the job relatively quickly. Only five years ago this tiny West African nation was on the brink of chaos after nearly 20 years of Marxist-Leninist rule. Banks were broke, civil servants hadn't been paid for two years, there was no budget, and President Mathieu Kerekou was struggling to keep the lid on social upheaval and mend ties with the West.

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And then this tiny West African nation stepped out from under its own cold-war shadow. It held a 10-day national conference in 1989 that ushered in a new era. General Kerekou, who had seized power in 1972, was pushed aside through peaceful dialogue, and a transitional government took over.

As a result, Benin has become a favorite son of the West for pursuing democratic and economic reforms at a pace that far surpasses its more resource-rich neighbors.

Relations with the United States once were so bad that the US ambassador was withdrawn for six years. But this year Benin's new president, Nicephore Soglo, became one of a handful of African presidents to make an official visit to the Clinton White House.

''That visit was an indication of the excellent state of our relationship and the esteem which with we hold this country,'' says US Ambassador Ruth Davis.

Benin receives more US aid per capita than most African countries, Ms. Davis says, including $120,000 per year for military training and $57 million for a five-year education program.

All around Benin are examples where democratic reform is going wrong. To the east, Nigeria's military rulers annulled presidential elections in 1993, and the apparent winner has been in jail for more than a year. Political turmoil to the west in Togo has forced more than 100,000 refugees into Benin.

Benin held elections in 1991 that brought President Soglo, a former World Bank executive, to power. His government of technocrats - with much financial and moral support from the West - has brought Benin to the edge of success.

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Banks now have more cash than they are lending, government workers are paid regularly, fair and peaceful presidential and parliamentary elections have been held, and lively debate and transparency have replaced authoritarianism and corruption.

In addition, through its transition, Benin managed to weather last year's devaluation of its currency, the CFA, which is pegged to the French franc and used by other former French colonies in Africa. It was a hard blow to Benin's impoverished population. Prices on staples such as bread rose dramatically and the value of salaries was slashed in half.

''There is a real gap between what we have gained in terms of democratic liberties and what we have gained in terms of social welfare,'' says Joseph Akoha, a civil servant who teaches English at the University of Benin. He received 92,000 CFA ($400) a month before devaluation. He now earns 140,000 CFA ($280).

''I'm suffering. What is clear is that very few civil servants ... can actually feed on their salaries for more than two weeks because inflation has gone up in real terms more than 55 percent, although official figures would not say that,'' Mr. Akoha says.

The World Bank says inflation rose to 47 percent after last year's devaluation, but even that wasn't too bad considering that countries like Zaire grapple with a four-figure rate.

Officials acknowledge, however, that unemployment is a problem. They have introduced short- to medium-term solutions by employing thousands of young people to repair the nation's roads, schools, health centers, and sewage systems. They are also trying to create a strong business class and lend support to grass-roots nongovernmental organizations and cooperatives.

While officials agree that Benin is emerging as a success in a turbulent region, few can fully explain why this nation has managed to do it and others haven't. ''Benin was drifting into total collapse,'' says Michael Azefor, the World Bank representative in the administrative capital, Cotonou. ''It's ironical, [because the former Marxist government was so weak] that's also the time we could talk frankly with [them].''

A key factor in Benin's progress lies in its leadership under Soglo, who has been able to channel his World Bank experience into Benin's reform. Presidential elections are scheduled for next year. Soglo's defeat by a more political opponent should indicate whether it is the nation that is reform-minded and not just Soglo.

Others are more skeptical. For one, Nigeria's turmoil could spell disaster for all that Benin has struggled to achieve. Nigeria is home to more than 100 million people, compared with Benin's 5 million.

People also worry about unemployment, corruption, regionalism in politics, and a traditional north-south division. A coup plot was uncovered in 1992, indicating that some old wounds have yet to heal.

A sit-in was held recently at the Finance Ministry, and some unions have threatened further action.

''A politician can't really speak in the name of the nation,'' says an unemployed lawyer. ''There are a lot of problems. When you finish with university, you're in the street. With the young people going to university who understand how the system is going, it's going to be a problem some day.''

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