Benin elects a new president on Sunday amid a wide field of 26 candidates, some of them opposition veterans, others newcomers to the political scene.
The 5 March election is set to spell the end of an era for the two politicians who have dominated political life in the tiny West African nation - President Mathieu Kerekou, who is completing a second consecutive term, and his longtime rival, former president Nicephore Soglo. Both are barred from running by age.
The following are brief portraits of the four candidates considered by analysts to be front-runners in Sunday’s contest.
Aged 54 and born in central Benin, Yayi is a newcomer to the political scene who last month quit his job as chairman of the Togo-based West African Development Bank (BOAD) to join the race for the presidency.
A graduate from a Paris university with a PhD in economics, Yayi worked as an advisor on monetary and banking issues at the presidency during Soglo’s 1991-1996 mandate before taking on the BOAD chairmanship in December 1994.
Married with five children, Yayi is running as an independent with the support of a coalition of groups and small parties.
Not surprisingly his campaign has focused heavily on economic policy, with the accent on the need for growth, better management of state funds and improving conditions for investment in Benin. But like other candidates he has harped on the need for agricultural development, notably in the country’s former key sector, cotton. “My five-year term will be a battle for the improvement of the cotton sector,” he said.
Yayi has also called for more independence for civil servants from politicians, better health and education and gender equality.
A 64-year-old lawyer born in southeast Benin, Houngbedji is a veteran politician and former cabinet minister who will be running for president for the fourth time.
Leader of the Democratic Renewal Party (PRD), Houngbedji spent some time in exile during the almost two decades of Kerekou’s Marxist one-party regime and returned to Benin after the 1990 restoration of political pluralism.
A PhD law graduate from Paris, he began politics as an MP and served twice as Speaker from 1991-1995 and 1999-2003 and in 1996 under Kerekou was given the portfolio for the coordination of government work.
During his campaign, Houngbedji pledged to fight corruption and to breathe new life into economic development. He also promised more decentralisation, a better deal for children and for women, and agricultural modernisation.
But he also vowed to maintain peace in Benin if he won. “Peace is Benin’s heritage,” he said. “It must be preserved at all costs and I feel that I am capable of preserving this peace so dear to our hearts.”
In third place in each race for the presidency up until now, his supporters believe that with Kerekou and Soglo out of the running, he is the natural winner.
A 67-year-old agronomist, Amoussou is a veteran politician who heads the Social Democratic Party (PSD), which has at times been close to Kerekou but appears to have taken an independent turn.
Amoussou was speaker of parliament between 1994 and 1999 and under President Kerekou was appointed minister for planning and development from 1999 to 2005, gaining experience in government as well as grounding in the country’s economic and social needs.
Another old-time presidential candidate, Amoussou is also running for the post for the fourth time. He came in fourth in his previous three tries.
During his campaign, Amoussou said that to take the country forward the people of Benin needed to sign on to a common vision of tolerance, security, justice and peace. “It is very noble to set development goals,” he said, “but these can only be attained in a climate of peace. You only have to look at what is happening in the sub-region to be convinced of this.”
He has pledged not only good governance but more jobs, especially for youths and for women.
LEHADI VINAGNON SOGLO
The oldest son of former president Nicephore Soglo, he is 45 and has the backing of the Benin Renaissance (RB) party founded by his mother Rosine in 1992, and headed by his father from 1994.
Describing himself as “the candidate of the new generation”, Soglo is a graduate in economics and political science who first came into the public spotlight as a presidential advisor during his father’s 1991-1996 stint as head of state. He is currently deputy mayor of Cotonou, the country’s economic capital.
He has pledged if voted president to improve life and to modernise Benin. “To live more decently in Benin; to live in a richer Benin; to live a safer life; to be more present in the world,” is his rallying cry.
Like many of the other candidates he has focused attention on the youth vote, promising better sports facilities and education, as well as free health. Likewise he too has pledged to revitalise Benin’s ailing cotton sector.