Moves to sell off state assets by Benin’s businessman-turned-president Patrice Talon are causing widespread anger, with critics accusing him of “uncontrolled privatisation”.
The 59-year-old known as “the cotton king” was elected in March last year on a promise to kick-start the economy, which is largely based on farming.
But his liberal reforms have met opposition in the tiny West African nation, which borders giant neighbours Nigeria to the east and Niger to the north.
The latest dispute is the government’s decision to hand over the running of the port in the country’s economic hub, Cotonou, to a private company.
Talon’s office said the move “aims at positioning the Port of Cotonou as a reference model in the sub-region, which entails modernisation work to guarantee better performance”.
The presidency told AFP in an email that the private company will have to fulfil a remit under the supervision of the ministry of transport.
The port in Cotonou is the main driver of Benin’s economy and brings in some 80 percent of the country’s tax revenue.
In recent years it has undergone several changes aimed at improving productivity, such as extending its wharves and installing modern cargo handling equipment.
But it struggles to compete with bigger ports such as Lagos in Nigeria, Abidjan in Ivory Coast or Cameroon’s Douala, which have also modernised.
As a result, Cotonou has seen goods traffic fall from 10.5 million tonnes in 2014 to 8.7 million tonnes in 2016.
Benjamin Steck, a specialist in west African seaports, said Talon “embodies a new generation of African heads of state who share the concept of economic free trade”.
That generation understands that multinationals such as the French group Bollore, which has interests in ports across francophone Africa, “has the capital, the worldwide networks and skills” to make infrastructure more competitive, said Steck.
Huge investment is needed for that but countries themselves do not have the capital, added Steck, from the University of Le Havre, in northern France.
Benin’s presidency meanwhile maintains its ports scheme “is neither a privatisation nor a concession” but unions have voiced fears about their jobs.
Last week they staged a warning strike against what they called “hidden privatisation”. Another protest is planned for Thursday to try to get the government to back down.
Conflict of interest
In the health sector, workers at the CNHU hospital in Cotonou staged a rally on June 8 against the risk of privatising the university medical centre.
Elsewhere, lawmakers and the opposition media have for months condemned the risk of conflict of interest with the head of state’s former business activities.
The magazine Forbes Africa estimated Talon’s fortune in 2015 at $400 million.
Talon has taken a number of decisions in the cotton industry which made him rich and which created tensions with his predecessor Thomas Boni Yayi.
Boni Yayi in 2012 even accused Talon of wanting to poison him, forcing him to flee the country for nearly three years until he was pardoned.
Since coming to power, Talon has lifted state interests in several factories run by the Society for the Development of Cotton (SODECO), of which he was the majority shareholder.
He has delegated management of its subsidiary to the private sector and wound up public companies such as SONATRA, which promoted cotton, and the ONASA national food security firm.
The aim now is “the withdrawal of the state from the productive sector”, he announced at a cabinet meeting on November 30 last year.
Monopolise public assets
The FSP opposition and civil society grouping has called for protests in Cotonou on Thursday against what it says is “uncontrolled privatisation” and “arbitrary redundancies” that have left thousands of people unemployed.
They accuses the government of wanting to “monopolise public assets for its own profit”.
Opposition figures also highlight the case of the import verification programme (PVI), which involves checks on the value of goods coming into Benin via the Cotonou port.
The firm Benin Control, where Talon headed the board of directors, was awarded the running of the scheme in 2011 but Boni Yayi stopped it when the pair fell out.
Shortly after Talon’s election in 2016, the contract was resumed.
Talon, who makes few public statements, has rejected any suggestion of cronyism in rare press interviews.
He maintains he has stepped back from companies in which he was involved.