Boni Yayi: Our Friend Next Door
Our neighbours to the West, the Republic of Benin, have just concluded a Presidential election, which has been considered free, fair and peaceful, from the first round, to the run-off which produced businessman Patrice Talon as winner and next President of that country of about 10 million people. Commentators have noted with delight the manner in which incumbent Prime Minister and Talon’s main challenger, Lionel Zinsou, graciously admitted defeat even before the release of final, official results, and congratulated the winner. Zinsou has been compared to former Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan. In a continent threatened by a renewed appetite for sit-tightism by its leaders, it is exciting that some politicians are setting good examples. In the last one year, we have had the example of Jonathan in Nigeria. And now Zinsou, in the Republic of Benin. We hope that there will be more of their kind.
For, indeed, Africa has been raising some anxiety about the prospects of democratic consolidation. In Burkina Faso, the President had to be chased away after 27 years of corrupt and ineffective leadership. In Congo Brazaville, which held its election the other Sunday, President Dennis Sassou Nguesso is sitting tight. The February 2016 election in Uganda saw Yoweri Museveni’s forces brutalizing the main opposition leader, Kizza Besigye. Two women politicians were also stripped naked and publicly humiliated for daring to decamp from the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) to Besigye’s Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame had to change the Constitution so he can have a third term in 2017.
In Burundi, the incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza waged a similar war against the people, leaving over 400 dead, and he remains in office by force. In Equitorial Guinea, Gambia, Cameroon and Zimbabwe, the maximum rulers in power are determined to die in office. The people of the Republic of Benin deserve to be congratulated for further raising our hopes about the power of the people and the prospects of democracy in Africa. They were the true winners. But for me, the hero is the incumbent President, Thomas Boni Yayi. When he steps down on April 6, and hands over power after completing two terms as President, he will be greatly missed by his fans and perhaps derided almost to the same degree by those who have accused him of running a government that promoted cronyism, corruption, clientelism, media repression and official opaqueness. But my bet is on him being well-remembered in the long run, for his services to his nation, the sub-region and the continent. He also did not try to change the constitution or manipulate the process.
Patrice Talon, Yayi’s arch-enemy, who did not pull punches during the campaigns has accused Boni Yayi of creating a “banana Republic” which has become “the laughing stock of the world.” Talon is wrong; he is guilty of that newly discovered disease called Trumpism, named after the first host of the virus: a certain fellow currently seeking to be President of the United States called Donald Trump. Elected President in 2006, Boni Yayi was again re-elected in 2011, and although he faced much opposition, including assassination attempts, he has managed to survive the various intrigues that dogged his Presidency. He has also successfully organized elections and ensured a smooth succession.
Zinsou is a member of the ruling party but there was no evidence that his party or the incumbent President tried to subvert the people’s will, despite Yayi’s undisguised support for him. Domestically, President Yayi may not have fulfilled all the promises he made to the people in 2006 and 2011, but he is leaving behind a country that is much better today than he met it. The Republic of Benin used to be a communist enclave, which has gone through many transitions, from communist dictatorship to a Presidential multi-party system. Under Yayi’s watch, the country’s profile rose. Benin is far from being a banana republic. Yayi gave his country a new bounce, a stronger voice and presence within the international community, and greater stability within its borders.
President Boni Yayi is also Nigeria’s very good friend. Nigeria’s relationship with her Francophone neighbours is a major plank of her foreign policy process. The closeness of those Francophone countries to France and the dominant influence of France in their affairs has always been part of the sub-text of our interaction within the sub-region. Benin is particularly strategic: close to half of its population boasts of historical and cultural connections with Nigeria, making the geographical boundaries, largely artificial. Long before Boni Yayi became President, the relationship with Benin Republic was not always smooth. The trigger areas included ideological differences at the time Benin was a communist enclave under Mathieu Kerekou. During the civil war also, there were allegations that Benin provided a support base for the defunct Republic of Biafra.
Nigeria is Benin Republic’s main export market. But it is also the biggest smuggling route into Nigeria. With the Lagos port not functioning efficiently, and our customs tariffs so high, Nigerian businessmen found solace in the Cotonou port, creating a revenue crisis for Africa’s largest economy, and informal trade link that has not been properly measured. Anything that could be smuggled into Nigeria went through the Cotonou port. It still happens. Across the land border between the two countries, the Beninoise gendarmes constituted themselves into a threat to Nigerian communities. They still pose a threat, but just occasionally now. Due to the factor of proximity, Nigeria’s biggest challenge with its immediate neighbours has always been one of security. Criminals have turned trans-border organized crime into a major source of economic leakage and basic insecurity. There was the case of one Hamani Tijani based in Benin Republic who operated across the border. Nigerian criminals also commit atrocities inside the country and they slip into neighbouring Benin. The borders between both countries have been porous forever.
There are many Nigerians living in Benin Republic and vice versa due to linguistic and cultural affinity. But whereas in Nigeria, we accommodate our neighbours living among us, Nigerians living in Benin Republic have not always had it easy. In one instance, Nigerians in Benin were repatriated in their thousands. What has been demonstrated is that Benin Republic’s closeness to and seeming dependence on Nigeria could pose a threat to Nigeria’s security. For example, petrol smuggled from Nigeria finds a ready market in Benin Republic. In 2003, former President Olusegun Obasanjo had to close down the border between the two countries. Benin’s economy went into instant coma.
In 2006, Boni Yayi assumed office as President. In fairness to him, he took Nigerian-Benin relations far more seriously than did his predecessors. As spokesman to President Jonathan, I had the privilege of watching him closely. President Yayi was always a delightful visitor. He referred to President Jonathan always as his “elder brother”, and his own country, the Republic of Benin as “Nigeria’s 37th state.” He didn’t just say it. He meant it. And he repeated that phrase at every turn. Of course, he wasn’t asking Nigeria to annex his country. It was his way of emphasizing the strategic importance of good relations between both countries.
Throughout his tenure as President, he has managed to build a strong, personal relationship with every Nigerian President, starting with President Obasanjo whom he refers to as “his father.” In his position as Chairperson of the African Union, and as mediator on many issues within ECOWAS, President Boni Yayi always supported the Nigerian interest. No other Francophone country or leader within the sub-region has tried as much to build a stronger relationship with Nigeria. It should therefore not be surprising that under Boni Yayi’s watch, the frictions that used to affect Nigeria-Benin relations were reduced to the barest minimum.
The lesson of this is that country-to-country or government-to-government relations are often influenced by the chemistry between the leaders of the respective countries. Boni Yayi has proven himself to be a great diplomat within the sub-region and a forthright marketer of his country’s interests. It was indeed proper that President Muhammadu Buhari not only attended Benin Republic’s 55th independence anniversary last August but that the government also provided logistics support to ensure the success of this month’s Presidential elections in that country. The principle of reciprocity requires that we support countries, which extend the hands of fellowship and co-operation towards us. The only problem with our foreign policy process is that we often do not know where to draw the line and act in enlightened self-interest. We must keep an eye on Patrice Talon as he assumes office as the President of the Republic of Benin. He seems to have a talent for the melodramatic.
It will be in his interest to learn from President Boni Yayi and seek to sustain a tradition of amity and brotherliness that has resulted in better Nigeria-Benin relations since 2006. Patrice Talon may be tempted to embark on an internal mission of vengeance, and extend that arrogance beyond the borders. His supporters are already suggesting that as soon as Boni Yayi loses his immunity on April 6, Talon who was once accused of being part of a plot to poison President Yayi (he was pardoned in 2014) should take his pound of flesh. The “King of cotton” as he is called, should resist the likely temptation to follow the script of the sycophants who are now getting ready to call the tunes of his Presidency.
The people of the Republic of Benin by voting for an opposition candidate have spoken clearly that they want change. The change that they seek cannot be the humiliation or the harassment of Boni Yayi. They want a different kind of change. Despite post-communist era stability, Benin remains one of the poorest countries in the world. The people want greater prosperity, they want the challenges of energy and infrastructure and access to education further addressed; they want a more productive economy, they want jobs, they want national progress. Focusing on these priorities will move Benin Republic closer to the people’s expectations, and indeed beyond the politics of vendetta which seems to be a growing sore point in Africa’s politics of succession.
By Reuben Abati
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