Benin's Ex-President Says His Loss Is a Win

Political, economic reforms hold, despite election outcome

Benin held elections in March. I lost the presidency. Since then, well-wishers have offered me consolation. Their words are appreciated.

My greatest consolation, however, comes from the conduct of my fellow countrymen. They honored democracy with their enthusiastic election turnout, nearly 80 percent. Since we began our democratic journey six years ago, when we left behind a one-party military state, Benin has made great strides.

Ours certainly were not perfect elections. They rarely are, especially in young democracies. There were irregularities in the voting and counting processes. Beninois living abroad were wrongly disenfranchised. The election period was too short to adequately debate ideas. But while these problems need to be noted and remedied, they did not sully the elections.

I am concerned that people outside of Benin have been despondent about the results. Many have viewed our elections as a setback for democracy in Benin. I disagree. While former President Mathieu Kerekou has returned to power, there is a difference now. Twenty-four years ago he came to power by the barrel of the gun. This year, it was by way of the ballot box.

Yes, part of the old guard will be returning to government. And some of them resent the new democratic ways. But they are no match for democracy's strong foundation in Benin. A dozen private newspapers offering all manner of opinion are now a force in Benin. Our constitutional court and electoral commission are strong and independent. Indeed, our country has progressed so far that it is now recognized as being "free" by Freedom House, the political rights and civil liberties watchdog organization. So while the international community's continued watch on Benin is welcomed, our undemocratic past will remain past.

Neither do I agree with the fashionable argument that democracy throughout Africa has peaked. For sure, Africa in general has not met the expectations placed upon it with the cold war's end. It was an exuberant time, as a wave of political revolution swept over the continent and several repressive regimes fell. Setbacks have occurred, but building democratic institutions and norms takes time. A longer-term perspective is needed. And there have been victories too. Benin is one of them.

Many claim that Africa is different. That it is not ready for democracy. Ethnic tensions are pointed to as poisoning democracy. We have ethnic tensions in Benin. We have managed them.

Sadly, these are the same arguments that were used by many African leaders of the early independence years to justify their repressive rule. We have been living with their legacy of economic devastation and political violence ever since. Africa can't afford to be held to a different democratic standard by the world.

Benin's undemocratic neighbors take comfort in these arguments. Some were boosters of my opponent. They have no personal animosity toward me, but they do view the Benin example as a threat to their own rule. They will be disappointed. Mr. Kerekou's win is not the death knell of Benin's democracy.

The key to strengthening democracy in Benin and throughout Africa, of course, is economic development. Illiteracy, poor health, and other ills of poverty are the enemies of democracy. Only by addressing these problems can democracy be solidified and deepened.

To this end, my government fundamentally changed Benin's economy over the last several years. Many companies have been privatized. Price controls have been eliminated. Budget deficits have been slashed. Foreign investors have been welcomed.

These reforms have paid off. In 1989, our public service was on strike, the schools were closed, and the government was bankrupt. Our economy lay in ruins. The government is solvent today, and basic health and educational services are being delivered. Benin's infrastructure is being rehabilitated, the banking system is back in order, the debt burden is falling, and foreign investors are discovering Benin.

Women have played an extraordinary role in our recovery. With women at the helm of the textile trade, to cite one industry, textile exports have boomed. I take no credit for any of this. My government merely unshackled the entrepreneurial spirit of our people. Women are politically active as never before, strengthening our young democracy.

I don't believe that the new government won a mandate to reverse this economic course. While my opponent did make much of unemployment, which is a problem, the Beninois realize that the government can't bankrupt itself as before by providing jobs. Private-sector-led economic growth is the only answer.

And while we can do better, economic growth is a very respectable 6 percent today. I suspect that candidate Kerekou's old-style talk of renationalization was just talk.

My supporters threw their hearts and souls into my campaign. No one likes to lose. The results were disappointing, but the disappointment was temporal. It was an American who called democracy a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people. All the people of Benin were the winners.

*Nicephore Soglo was president of Benin from 1991 until early this year.

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