Unlikely democracy blooms in tiny African nation
By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published January 28, 2007
COTONOU, Benin - When this West African nation ran short of funds to finance its election machinery, voters raised cash, loaned computers, and lit up vote-counting centers with their motorcycle headlights.
The unusual display of people power demonstrated how a Marxist dictatorship once nicknamed "Africa's Cuba" has become an unlikely leader of Africa's checkered path to democracy.
Oscar Zinzindohoue, a cloth vendor, said the sight of those sputtering motorbikes gave him hope for democracy.
"We didn't think it was going to happen," said Zinzindohoue, 22, smiling broadly.
With last March's election, the tiny West African nation has seen three peaceful transfers of power in 15 years. After the peaceful democratic transitions in Ghana, Senegal, Botswana and elsewhere, many analysts say if Benin can do it, so can others.
"The trend was moving positively and Benin has a special place in that history," said Princeton Lyman, head of the Africa program at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
Twenty years ago, Benin and the rest of the continent were struggling to shake off the Cold War-era military rulers who took power after most of Africa's European colonies became independent in the 1960s.
With a command economy, coup leaders in charge and few natural resources, the former French territory stagnated, offering little chance of climbing out of grinding poverty.
Seeing the system couldn't continue, the then dictator, President Mathieu Kerekou, called a national conference in 1990 of civic and religious leaders, farmers and all the political parties. They insisted on democratic elections and presidential term limits.
Kerekou held elections, lost them and ceded power. He was re-elected five years later, serving until 2006, while the other two presidents came from outside of his political circle. Their banking background helped force economic policy changes.
As much of the rest of Africa stumbled through wars, coups and elections during the last two decades, Benin nurtured tourism, a free press and a stable economy built largely on agriculture and services.
Benin is different from other African countries in many ways. It's small: only 8-million people in a country the size of Pennsylvania. It has one national language, French, and a successful mixing of ethnic groups.
But Adrien Ahahanzo Glele, a former government minister and now a campaigner for democracy, said Benin shares something important with the rest of the continent: "The people of Africa know now that they want democracy. You can see it in their eyes."
Poverty persists, the average daily wage is $3 and population growth swallows many of the economic gains, but new conference centers, small restaurants and banks have mushroomed in Cotonou, the main city.
As a reward for the elections, U.S. aid to Benin next year is to increase six-fold from $15-million. Other donors have also made increases.
Yet Benin's transformation is far from perfect.
Echoing a widely held belief in Benin, Glele accused Kerekou's government of deliberately starving the electoral commission of funds, hoping it would delay the March elections.
Elections alone aren't enough, said Lyman in Washington. He said he believes African democracy is still threatened by "big man" politics - leaders unresponsive to the popular will.
Last year Congo, Chad, Uganda and Togo all held presidential votes marred by violence or widespread accusations of irregularities. Leaders in Chad and Uganda modified the constitutions to overturn term limits designed to end presidencies-for-life.
[Last modified January 28, 2007, 00:35:43]
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