Feared and revered: Patrice Talon, Benin’s ‘King of Cotton’

BENIN’S President Patrice Talon (pictured), re-elected to a second term Tuesday, first came to power in 2016 pitching himself as a successful tycoon who sought just a single term in office.

With 86 percent of the vote in a low turnout, the man dubbed ‘the King of Cotton’ secured another term at the helm of the West African state, after winning an election critics say was already rigged in his favour.

For his opponents the April 11 ballot was another alarming tilt towards authoritarianism under Talon, in what was once a vibrant multi-party democracy.

In January the president backtracked on his one-term promise and announced he would run again.

‘He came to power with a touch of evangelism in politics,’ his communication advisor, Wilfried Houngbedji, told AFP. Later, said Houngbedji, Talon ‘became more realistic.’

With his designer clothes and sports car, 62-year-old Talon argues Africa will only catch up with the rest of the world if Africans themselves believe in it.

‘He wants to change mentalities. He wants to change his country’s history and be remembered,’ said Houngbedji.

‘He’s a perfectionist,’ said one of his close advisors. ‘He can walk into your office unannounced and immediately notice something wrong with the set-up.’

Successful businessman

A man of modest origins from the port of Ouidah, Talon went on to study at Dakar’s science faculty before transferring to Paris’ National School of Civil Aviation (ENAC).

Despite passing the entrance exams, he failed a medical test and was forced to give up his dream of becoming a pilot.

Talon is a Fon — one of Benin’s main ethnic and linguistic groups — and this has helped in his early career.

With businesses in the key cotton sector and running Cotonou’s port, a regional maritime hub, Talon was ranked by Forbes in 2015 as 15th wealthiest sub-Saharan African, worth an estimated $400 million (337 million euros).

He entered politics late and rose to power with no base, no network and as rival to then president Thomas Boni Yayi, a former ally who became a sworn enemy after the old guard politician penalised Talon’s business.

In 2012, Talon, who was abroad at the time, was accused of masterminding an alleged plot to poison Yayi. He was pardoned in May 2014, paving the way for his return to Benin and first election win.

Fast growth

Benin recorded high levels of growth after Talon took steps to formalise the economy. The large majority of the population relies on the informal sector.

But five years after he came to power, while the elite continues to say he is a visionary, the president is often criticised by the political class who sees him as arrogant.

The country’s intellectuals and even some in the private sector have questioned the constant indictments of opposition members and intimation of civil society representatives.

After coming to power, Talon created a special court that critics say has become a tool used to eliminate his biggest political rivals.

‘If you play his game he leaves you alone, but if you go against him, he punishes you,’ one of his former advisors said.

‘Not being popular is a sign of success for him,’ said an ex-advisor, who described him as ‘a man with a strong personality, stubborn and who believes he is always right.’

Talon’s close circle is made of a handful of advisors, many from outside the traditional political sphere or from the diaspora, and his wife Claudine Gbenagnon who yields significant influence.

The president claims to be ‘a natural competitor’ but ‘in reality he hates competition, and in business and politics he has always done everything to oust the competition.’

For Benin observers and experts, Talon was upset by a parliamentary decision to twice reject his plan for constitutional reforms.

One of his former advisors says Rwandan President Paul Kagame made a strong impression on him when they met three months after his 2016 election.

‘He wanted to model his tenure on a charismatic political model and he found it in Kagame,’ said the source.

Comparisons with Kagame, elected in 2000 and re-elected in 2017 with 99 percent of votes, are frequent.

Both Rwanda and Benin have enjoyed fast growth under leaders that have become both feared and revered.



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