A SO-CALLED cotton king once accused of trying to poison his president could be about to take power in the tiny West African country of Benin.

Cotton magnate Patrice Talon is the main challenger to Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou in the current presidential elections.

The pair are due to face each other in the second round of voting on March 20 after the first round last week failed to produce a clear winner. Preliminary results showed that neither Talon nor French-born Zinsou had the majority of votes for an outright win with the former taking 24 per cent of the vote against the Prime Minister’s 28 per cent.

Another businessman Sebastien Ajavon was a close third but if the preliminary results are confirmed Talon and Zinsou will vie against each other in a run-off on Sunday.


THE results were a blow both to Zinsou and current President Thomas Boni Yayi whose decision to make him prime minister last year was seen as an attempt to anoint a successor. Unlike many of his counterparts in the region Yayi has not tried to change the constitution in order to cling on to power. Leaders in Rwanda, the Congo Republic and Burundi have all changed their constitutions in order to stand for a third term.

Zinsou, who used to head France’s biggest investment bank, has been dubbed France’s candidate by opponents. Benin gained independence from France in 1960 and voters shy away from anyone they believe to be unduly influenced by the French.

The smear has benefited Talon despite the claim he plotted with Yayi’s niece and doctor to poison the president. Talon returned to Benin late last year after fleeing to France when the accusation, which he says is “extremely ludicrous”, was first made. His co-accused were arrested but have since been released.


BENIN may be small but it is seen as a giant of democracy in turbulent West Africa. The country saw the region’s first peaceful move away from dictatorship in 1991 when former president Mathieu Kerekou accepted his election defeat. It meant Benin was the first to introduce multi-party democracy in sub-Saharan Africa and it has remained one of the continent’s most stable democracies.

That’s not to say it has all been plain sailing. Kerekou, a former army major, was re-elected in 1996 and reigned supreme until a US telecommunications company was fined for bribery within Benin. California-based Titan admitted channelling funds into Kerekou’s election campaign in 2001 in an attempt to get a higher price for a project in the country. There was no indication that Kerekou knew about the bribe but he was banned from running in the 2006 presidential elections in any case as he was over the age limit set down in the constitution. It paved the way for Yayi, a political newcomer, to take control. A former boss of the Togo-based West African Development Bank and an evangelical Christian convert from Islam, Yayi was implicated in a pyramid investment scheme scandal in 2010 when more than 200,000 people are believed to have lost their money. The total money lost was £84m in a country where most people live on just over a pound a day.

Despite the corruption allegations, an economic downturn and thousands being made homeless in severe flooding in October 2010, Yayi succeeded in being re-elected in 2011. His challenger Adrien Houngbedji claimed there had been extensive electoral fraud.


WHOEVER wins the forthcoming run-off will not have their troubles to seek. Corruption is widespread and the country remains severely underdeveloped even though it is one of Africa’s biggest cotton producers. It is still one of the world’s poorest countries and land disputes between communities on the border with Burkino Faso have led to violent clashes. Life expectancy for men in the 9.4m population is just 55 years; women have four years more.

Kerekou, who died last year at the age of 82, first came to power in 1972 as the head of a Marxist regime. He agreed to accept multi-party democracy and organised elections and became the first West African leader to concede defeat in an election.

His ideological shift was partly because of widespread protests at the impoverished state of his country’s economy at the end of the 1980s but he also responded to the call to African leaders from then French president Francois Mitterrand to introduce more democracy on the continent. Kerekou ditched Marxism-Leninism as the country’s official ideology at the end of 1989 but lost the 1991election. He returned to power in 1996, beating Nicephore Soglo.

In 1999 he apologised for his country’s role in the slave trade.

Though the leaders of what was then called Dahomey appeared to resist the slave trade initially, a trade agreement was made in 1472 with Portuguese merchants.

By the 18th century, the King of Dahomey was making around £250,000 per year by selling Africans to the European slave-traders, leading to the area being dubbed the Slave Coast. The ending of the slave trade contributed to the area’s decline and the French took over in 1892.