Motorcycle Riders at Forefront of Benin's Election Campaign

  • Most of 33 candidates woo taxi driver unions to get votes
  • Some of nation's wealthiest businessmen vie for presidency

Basile Togbe’s yellow shirt instantly identifies him as one of tens of thousands of motorcycle taxi drivers that swarm the fume-filled streets of Benin’s commercial capital, Cotonou. Now he’s on the front line of campaign efforts for the March 6 presidential election.

Today his shirt shows the portrait of Abdoulaye Bio Tchane, a former finance minister. Tomorrow, he’ll advertise a different hopeful among the 33 men and women, including some of Benin’s wealthiest people, seeking to replace President Thomas Yayi Boni. Tobge says he can earn as much as 5,000 CFA francs ($8.45) by joining the convoy of a presidential candidate for a day.

Benin’s ’Zemidjans’

Photographer: Virgile Ahissou /Bloomberg

“Sometimes that’s more than my daily income,” Togbe, 35, said as he sat on his parked motorbike. “On top of that, I’m saving on shirts.”

Benin’s estimated 400,000 motorcycle taxi drivers who’re known as zemidjans, “take-me-quickly” in the Fon language, are highly unionized and may play a key role in the vote. Almost all candidates are wooing the unions including the Zemidjan Movement for an Emerging Benin, known by its French acronym Mozebe.

Joining a recent trend in other West African nations such as Burkina Faso, Senegal and neighboring Nigeria, Benin is preparing for political change. Yayi Boni has pledged to hand over power after two terms in office and no one is sure who will win the vote, said Cailin Birch, a political analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“The presidential election is essentially wide open,” she said. “This election will go beyond party politics as a record number of candidates have broken with their parties’ stance to run as independents.”

Among the candidates are Sebastien Ajavon, who amassed millions of dollars in trucking and selling frozen chicken. Others include Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou of the ruling Cowry Forces for an Emerging Benin, formerly the head of French private-equity firm PAI Partners. Then there’s Patrice Talon, nicknamed the “cotton king,” who made a fortune importing fertilizers for the cotton industry. Talon went in self-imposed exile for three years after a prosecutor accused him of conspiracy to poison Yayi Boni, a charge he denied. The charges were dropped in 2014.

Government Favors

After backing Yayi Boni for seven years, the Mozebe union decided last year it was no longer supporting the ruling party because it hadn’t received any favors from the government, according to secretary-general Bonaventure Ahitcheme.

“Teachers obtained a salary increase, artists received subsidies, women’s groups got access to small loans. But we didn’t get anything,” Ahitcheme said in an interview. “That’s why we dropped them.”

The announcement made front-page news for days. The union decided instead to back businessman Ajavon.

Less than a week after the drivers’ union switched allegiance, the government on Dec. 31 said it would make 1 billion francs available to guarantee loans for new motorbikes and spare parts. Authorities have repeatedly said they want taxi drivers to switch to farming because of pollution and traffic density. Cotonou has dangerously high levels of lead in the air and more than 60 percent of drivers suffer from respiratory diseases, according to the United Nations.

“We haven’t seen the color of that money yet,” Ahitcheme said.

In a country with an annual per-capita income of about $800 dollars and few opportunities for a salaried job, politics and money go hand in hand.

The $9 billion-economy relies mainly on cotton exports and trade with Nigeria. Benin is Africa’s fourth-largest cotton producer and has a population of about 10 million. Even if growth is projected to reach at least 5 percent this year, there’s a lack of jobs in the private sector and a high poverty rate, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Togbe said that after the election, he’d like to open a small shop if he can raise credit.

“This work is too risky,” he said. “It’s hard to do this and feed your family.”

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