After spending a few days in Cotonou, Benin’s largest city and still very much its political and economic heart (Porto Novo, about 40km to the east, is formally the capital), one cannot help but ponder how this West African country of around 11.5 million inhabitants has so successfully avoided the security problems faced by its neighbours.
Despite sporadic reports of terrorist cells crossing over from Niger or Burkina Faso to hide in its sparsely populated national park areas, Benin has faced none of the Islamist insurgencies plaguing those two countries or the wider Sahel region.
And while tensions have increased ahead of legislative elections scheduled for April, with some uncharacteristically well attended protests over President Patrice Talon’s policies (demonstrations in Benin have traditionally been low-key), it remains unlikely that the country will succumb to more sustained instability or political crises on a par with what neighbouring Togo witnessed last year.
Beninese have not hesitated to criticise publicly some of Talon’s more controversial policies, such as taxing internet use, limiting industrial action and, most recently, banning opposition parties from participating in the April elections. But we saw no public demonstrations during our week in Cotonou and even the largest protests were peaceful.
Crime, especially violent crime, is almost entirely absent from Cotonou, in stark contrast to the sprawling metropolis of Lagos, only 2.5 hours’ drive to the east. In fact, while it is completely safe to walk around and drive at night, the most dangerous activity in the city is likely to be crossing one of its main streets: there are no pedestrian crossings or footbridges, leaving the prospective flâneur at the mercy of the myriad zémidjan motorbike taxis, each driving more erratically than the last. Traffic is at its most baffling on Cotonou’s large roundabouts, such as the Place de l’Etoile Rouge, at the centre of which stands the eponymous soviet-style memorial to Benin’s past as the socialist People’s Republic of Benin in the 1970s and 80s.
A number of explanations were put to us over the course of our stay to help explain Benin’s stability. To be sure, a Cotonou-based security analyst told us, policy decisions such as improved policing of the border crossings with Nigeria had helped prevent criminal gangs from launching “raids” against Beninese businesses over the frontier and from smuggling weapons into the country, thereby leading to large decreases in violent crime. But the response we were given most often had to do with Beninese people as a whole: whether expatriate or Beninese, our interlocutors were unanimous in describing them as civil and non-conflictual.
One Beninese journalist I spoke to compared this situation to Togo, where, he said, people would take to the street to protest issues which, in Benin, would hardly raise any public opposition. Case in point: Social Watch Benin, a leading local NGO whose projects include pushing for increased transparency around public spending, told me that they were there to work in partnership with the government in order to promote better governance practices, rather than to try to fight against it.
A search for the factors behind the civility of Beninese society leaves one with more questions than answers. Benin is not a more homogenous country than its neighbours: its citizens belong to diverse ethnic groups and speaking over 60 languages between them. Nor has Benin escaped the historic violence perpetrated against the African continent. An exhibition at the Fondation Zinsou, an art gallery and museum which also provides workshops for local children, shows Cotonou itself was a key outpost in the transatlantic slave trade in the mid-19th century, while much of Benin was once part of the Kingdom of Dahomey, violently annexed by France in 1894 after a two-year conflict.
All this is not to say that Benin does not face considerable challenges. It remains a poor country, with the World Bank estimating that the informal sector accounts for 65% of its GDP, employing 90% of the country’s labour force. Nonetheless, President Talon, a prominent businessman, has made encouraging foreign investment one of his government’s priorities in order to kick-start the economy.
Chief among these appears to be the solving of Benin’s long-running energy crisis, which has slowed electrification efforts in a country where, according to a 2018 US government report, the majority of people still live without power. The lights at our hotel regularly flicked off and then on again as the power grid skipped and auxiliary generators kicked in, but this is naturally a luxury few other businesses, let alone households, can afford.
On an international level, Benin is caught in a three-way contest between the EU, foremost among which is former colonial power France; the US, whose Millennium Challenge Corporation has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to development projects in the country; and China, with its ever-expanding influence on the African continent.
We saw businesspeople, politicians and military officers from all three, as well as from local African partners, passing through the lobby of our hotel over the course of our stay, another reminder that Cotonou remains at the centre of the country’s political and economic life. The large American embassy, across the road from where we were staying, as well as the majority of other foreign diplomatic missions and key Beninese government ministries, have yet to make the move to Porto Novo.
Benin’s stability makes it an attractive destination for foreign business. While it is too early to tell whether Talon’s ambitious investment promotion programme will bear fruit in the long-term, signs of economic development were noticeable in Cotonou, including luxury real estate along the as yet completely undeveloped beachfront and plans for a new Marriott hotel (still very much in their infancy). Furthermore, according to the African Development Bank, Benin’s economy grew at a steady 6% in 2017 and 2018 after recovering from a difficult year in 2015, with the two largest beneficiaries of this growth being the public works and building sectors, growing at 8.5%.
One of President Talon’s key challenges is likely to lie in ensuring that the private investment he is courting benefits the population as a whole, with strong GDP growth and large-scale public works projects partnered with drives to formalise the country’s economy and a widespread modernisation programme for the country’s crumbling or non-existent infrastructure.
In the local Fon language, Cotonou means “by the river of death”. But driving down one of its bustling central arteries, the city strikes the visitor as anything but moribund. Having already grown from little more than a small town of 70,000 in 1960 to a city of over 1 million inhabitants today, it is not difficult to imagine Cotonou soon rivalling the larger urban centres of Francophone Western Africa.