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Benin’s President Seeks Second Term After Scandal

Benin’s President Thomas Boni Yayi will seek a second term in office in an election on March 6 after a year marred by a Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors of the equivalent of 5 percent of the West African nation’s gross domestic product.

The country’s 3.5 million registered voters will choose between Boni Yayi and 12 other presidential candidates. A second round is scheduled for March 13 if none of the contestants gets 50 percent of votes.

Whoever wins will need to help the country recover from the worst flooding in 50 years, which killed at least 46 people and left 150,000 homeless. The victor will also need to restore confidence in the financial system after the collapse of ICC Services in June affected almost 2 percent of the population. It had savings of 155.6 billion CFA francs ($331 million), according to the International Monetary Fund.

Boni Yayi’s “campaign has been marred by the pyramid scheme and to a certain extent the question is whether the voters hold him responsible,” said Jennifer Seely, a political scientist who researches Benin at Earlham College in the U.S. state of Indiana. “So many people were impacted by it economically it can’t help but reflect badly on the president.”

The 58-year-old Boni Yayi appeared in photographs with officials from ICC Services before it collapsed. He denied knowledge of the scheme.

‘Planning to Invest’

“If I received the officials of the ICC Service company, it was just because they told me they were planning to invest in the country’s economy through many development projects, and then needed government support to achieve them,” Boni Yayi said in a Jan. 29 speech declaring his candidacy in Cotonou.

Three officials from ICC Services have been jailed and Interior Minister Armand Zinzindohoue was fired over the issue. Some investors have been repaid, said Mathias Hounkpe, a political scientist who works for Benin’s Parliament.

The country, which borders Nigeria, Niger, Togo and Burkina Faso, was inundated by heavy rains in September and October. The floods cut the outlook for growth this year to 3.4 percent from 4.4 percent, Finance Minister Idriss Daouda told the Washington-based IMF in a letter published on the lender’s website Feb. 25.

Growth in 2010 was 2.5 percent, hindered by a slow recovery from the global economic crisis, the fund said. Inflation was “subdued” at an average 2.1 percent last year, it said.

Building Roads

Boni Yayi, a former head of the West African Development Bank and deputy director of the Dakar, Senegal-based Central Bank of West African States, has sought to emphasize his government’s efforts to build roads and mechanize agriculture in a country where GDP per capita of $745 exceeds the sub-Saharan African average of $624, according to the World Bank.

The leader’s main challengers include Adrien Houngbedji of the Parti du Renouveau Democratique, who was defeated by Boni Yayi in a runoff in 2006. Houngbedji also ran and lost in 1991, 1996 and 2001 and will need to expand support from his base in the country’s southeast, said Ambroise Zinsou, an analyst with Social Watch Benin, a human rights and anti-corruption group.

The president is also opposed by Abdoulaye Bio Tchane, who replaced Boni Yayi as president of the West African Development Bank and stepped down from that position in January after announcing his presidential bid. He has promised to increase economic growth to 8 percent annually.

Benin, which has had three peaceful transitions of presidential power since moving from a Marxist 1991, is unlikely to experience the violence that marred elections in West African neighbor Ivory Coast last year and Nigeria in 2008, said Earlham College’s Seely.

“Benin has a good, vibrant democracy,” she said. “They are very aware of the problems their neighbors have had and they don’t want to go down that path.”

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