COTONOU, 18 April 2011 (IRIN) - Following weeks of disputed election results, Benin President Boni Yayi has re-settled into office, leading analysts and citizens to push him to address what they see as the country's most pressing challenges: electoral and economic reform, forging links with opposition parties, and preparing the country to face the threat of floods as the rainy season approaches.
In late March, the constitutional court declared Yayi the winner of the elections, with 53 percent of the vote, while opposition leader Adrien Houngbedji was stated to have received 36 percent of the vote, leading Houngbedji to allege the results fraudulent. The president was sworn into office on 6 April.
Despite efforts to better organize elections, the results were unclear, and remained contested. Urban Amègbédji, secretary-general of the Africa Obota Centre (AOC), [http://www.ecosoc-afrique.org/cao.htm] which aims to promote transparent elections, democracy and human rights in African states, said there was little consensus on the number of registered voters, of votes, or even the finally tally or whereabouts of polling stations.
"We found ourselves in a situation where we had two heads of state - this was due primarily to poor organization of the elections - and means we must ask how we can look at restructuring the institutions that helped organize these elections... The CENI [Independent National Electoral Commission] must transcend politics, rather than being taken over by it."
CENI, which is widely viewed to be politically partial, must be depoliticized and professionalized, with a law passed to that effect, said Amègbédji,
Following the elections, many Beninois took to the streets to protest the results. But now it is time to move on, said analysts. "An independent arbiter [the constitutional court] has spoken and even if people do not agree with its decision, we need to accept the results and move on," said Cotonou-based political analyst Francis Lalèyè.
To promote stability, the president must forge links with opposition leaders, Amègbédji stressed. "He must reach out to others. so that the pain of a flawed election does not turn into serious frustration and disillusionment for the population."
The president must also focus more on preparing for floods, as the rainy season - usually April to December - is nigh.
In 2010 the worst flooding in 50 years hit Benin, affecting about 680,000 people, and threatening progress on a push to boost agricultural production. [ http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportID=91022 ]
Agriculture accounts for 88 percent of Benin's export revenues and employs 70 percent of the country's workforce, according to the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC).
A Disaster Committee was set up in 2010 to mitigate the impact of future flooding and other disasters, by identifying people living in high-risk areas, and developing evacuation plans in case of heavy rain. The committee has made progress at the central level, said its director, Alfred Sohou, but not district by district.
"Each mayor must understand the risks that their populations face, understand where the risks are highest, and take appropriate measures to protect their people [including moving them to safer locations]. How many mayors are doing this right now? One could even say they are not aware of the problem." Most are reluctant to upset their constituents, he pointed out.
The committee sent instructions several weeks ago to all district heads to start preparing shelter sites for potential displaced people, but thus far they have received little response, he said. Pressure to prepare for disasters must come from the very top, said analyst Lalèyè.
Some tents, mosquito nets and plastic sheeting remain from the international response to the floods in 2010, said Disaster Committee head Sohou, who pointed out that 21 communes (out of a countrywide total of 77) are still under water.
Long term, the government is in discussion with the World Bank on a proposal to extend irrigation canals in the flood-prone department of Mono in the southwest.
Over-reliance on cotton
On other fronts, while the government has undergone significant economic recovery since it transitioned into a democratic government in 1990, Benin's business climate remains unfavourable, according to the World Bank's poverty reduction strategy, with poor infrastructure, a lack of competitiveness, and over-reliance on one crop - cotton.
Cotton remains by far the most lucrative cash crop, accounting for 40 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), while maize, yams, sorghum, beans, cassava, and rice are also grown.
Despite US$460 million of debt having been struck off under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative, the economy remains fiscally weak, according to Lalèyè, and little of this money has been re-targeted to boost ailing basic services. Just 2.5 percent of GDP goes on health care, according to the UN Development Programme.
One third of Beninois live below the poverty line, according to the UN, while Benin comes 134 out of 169 countries on the UN Development Index. Youth unemployment is strikingly high, says Lalèyè, though official figures are hard to come by.
Despite myriad challenges, some say the president is off to a good start, given his strong legal backing which shored up democratic rule, said Father Efore Penoukou, a prominent chaplain who advises politicians on ethics and governance issues. "We should be pleased on many levels. These were the most heavily scrutinized elections in Benin's history... We expected some disagreements and hiccups [in these elections]. but I have been struck by the calls to peace. We must learn lessons from this, and look to the future."