Formerly called Dahomey, Benin is a West African country with a population of nearly 10 million that borders with Togo in west, with Nigeria in east, with Burkina Faso and Niger in north. Benin won independence from France in 1960 and owns an economy cultivated by agriculture. To reach further familiarity with the process of realizing democracy in Benin and its relations with Iran, we carried out an interview with Dr. Azizou Chabi Imorou, the Ambassador of the Republic of Benin to Iran which is as follows.
AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with Dr. Azizou Chabi Imorou,
Ambassador of the Republic of Benin to Iran
What path has Benin trodden on to win its independence from France?
The independence of Dahomey, this was the former name of Benin, fell within the framework of a global process of decolonization from the former French West Africa. This is a too long and very tedious step to explain here. My understanding of this historical process enables me to tell you that this was possible thanks to several nationalist struggles. First of all, the local farmers or if you like, the rural world, through actions such as boycott of the farming and agricultural wage-earning system established by the colonist or refusal to pay taxes. Then occurred more organized actions which quickly spread over the whole West Africa, especially the long strikes by port-workers and railwaymen between 1936-1938 and in 1947, then finally, the action of intellectuals the majority of whom were teachers. As for the intellectuals, their struggles were through trade unions, « community fellowship clubs », Students associations and especially political parties as from 1944. All these organized actions obliged the French administration to re-examine its policy and give up its colonies including Benin which proclaimed its independence on August 1st, 1960 with as its first president, a committed teacher, late Hubert Koutoukou MAGA.
Benin has faced a number of coups and changes of administration. How do you evaluate the role of Mathieu Kérékou’s approach in realizing democracy in Benin?
Actually, the days after the independence were marked by a political instability characterized by coups. Between 1960 and 1972, the country experienced 12 coups including 5 successful ones, that is an average of one successful coup every over year. The last of theses coups is the one that brought to power on October 26, 1972, late General Mathieu Kérékou who was a Commanding officer at that time. President Kérékou ruled without any power sharing until 1989 thanks to a Marxist military rule he established through the announcement of the Marxist-Leninist revolution. It is important to mention that President Kérékou wanted to establish a people’s revolution in breach of all forms of foreign dependency. But, after a few years of glory, this revolution proved weak towards the end of the 80s due to an unprecedented economic and social crisis which obliged President Kérékou to convene in February 1990, a historical conference which gathered all the dynamic forces of the Nation including the diaspora. During this conference, Benin gave up Marxist-Leninist revolution and adopted multiparty system democracy.
Why did Mr. Kérékou put aside the Marxist ideology after the financial crisis in the country?
I think that in the fullness of time, the Marxist ideology proved limited. Many intellectuals did not know more about it and President Kérékou every time seized the opportunity to remind them that they were « degenerate intellectuals ». In the same time, money embezzlements involving several high-rank officials of the regime were contrary to the ideological options of development. All this immediately resulted in bankruptcy and economic crisis with as consequences several unpaid months to workers. This resulted in strikes and people’s upheavals as well as a generalization of demonstrations against the power, especially in Cotonou. President Kérékou, who is extremely humble, had no other options than to listen to his people and convene a conference to choose another way.
How do you view the effect of the National Conference of Benin in transiting from dictatorship to democracy?
The conference has been an ultimate and original occasion to discuss political issues. Everybody was doubtful about its success. It was not obvious at the beginning that the solutions to the several claims from the workers be found in so little time. It was not either obvious that the dictatorial regime at that time accept the conclusions of the meeting. But, God was with Benin people. Everything was done more peacefully and supremely and we went from dictatorship to democracy overnight, without really changing the actors. All of them spoke and forgave themselves. This is the Benin genius, and the Benin people is proud of that today.
Before convening the National Conference of Benin, was holding such conferences usual in African countries in order to move to democracy?
In Africa, especially French-speaking Africa, Benin has been the first one. This is the reason why it is said to be the laboratory of democracy. Other countries took inspiration from Benin experience in also organizing national conferences with more or less success. It is for instance the case of Gabon, Congo, Mali, Togo, Niger, etc.
Mr. Soglo remained in power until 1996. Why did people have this belief that he had sold the country to the Americans?
These were so excessive criticisms from the opposition to the regime of President Soglo. You know, President Soglo, a brilliant economist, before coming back to the Country, was Administrator at the World Bank in Washington. His stay in the USA shaped his style of government and his very liberal approach of Development. Even in his speeches, one could easily notice a reference to his American experiences. Obviously, upon his arrival to power, the reforms he engaged with the assistance of Bretton Wood institutions, especially the World Bank and IMF enabled the indicators which were in the red, to improve. He was more concentrated on macro-economic indicators. I think the weakness of his reign concerned the social level and his very high inflexibility in the implementation of the reforms engaged. He is himself used to telling the anecdote that, when he was striving to pave Cotonou city streets, and presented this as development indicators, Cotonou populations did not hesitate to say : ‘’are we going to eat paving stones’’ !
Why did people want to reelect Kérékou?
You know, Kérékou is an enigmatic character, a real Statesman. I personally think that he had some qualities that most of his challengers at that time did not have. He was humble, modest, ready to listen to the people and he had good relationships with his collaborators who remained faithful to him even out of power. These qualities, within the Benin context, constitute an appreciated value for any political programme. Kérékou had no political party. He never identified himself as per any region, ethnic group or religion. He used to embody the national unit. This was his main asset which made the people forgive his long years of dictatorship and the economic recession which characterized the end of the 80s. The mobilization of Benin population during the ultimate tribute paid to him in December 2015 is an evidence thereof.
Boni Yayi’s presidency came to an end in April 2016. What developments has Benin witnessed in its foreign policies in his terms?
In April 2016, President Boni Yayi completed his term of office.
During his term of office, significant progresses were also recorded in the country’s foreign policy. In 2012, President Boni Yayi was appointed by his peers to ensure the Presidency of the African Union. Since 2013, he has been appointed as active Chairman of WAEMU. Between 2012 and 2015, the country was in charge of the Presidency of the world Coordinating Bureau of the Least Developed Countries (LLDCs). All these institutions enabled Benin to serve as a spokesman for the whole Africa on the occasion of several international meetings such as UN, G8 or G20 summits. The leadership displayed by the President on all these occasions has been appreciated everywhere and up to date, he is still requested for major sub-regional concerns, especially in the resolution of security and conflict issues in Africa. President Boni Yayi also reinforced the cooperation with several friendly countries. The opening of our Embassy here in Tehran, in your big and nice country is a living example thereof.
What are the outlooks with the coming to power of the current President, Mr. Patrice Talon, still as far as Benin foreign policy is concerned?
President Patrice Talon provided for large reforms aiming at ensuring a more important influence of the country as well as the mobilization of foreign resources for its development. A technical Committee is defining strategies towards rendering bilateral and multilateral cooperation more dynamic. The outlooks are rather good ones.
A few years ago, the Middle-East Department of the Foreign Ministry was established in Benin. As an individual how have you worked there, how do you put the position of the Gulf States in Benin’s foreign policy?
Indeed, in July 2012, the President of the Republic issued an Order which deeply reorganizes the running of Foreign Affairs. One of the innovations of this reform is the establishment of a Department in charge of Gulf Countries and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (DPGOCI). This Department addresses issues of cooperation with Persian Gulf countries and the OIC including Benin which has been member since 1982. I have had the honour to preside over this department since its establishment until I entered upon the duties of my office as Embassador. The idea behind creating this department dedicated to the Persian Gulf countries is to make render more effective and varied the cooperation with this part of the world which has in many respects historical and cultural relationships with Africa.
When do the diplomatic ties between Iran and Benin initially date back to? What ups and downs have the relations been through?
The diplomatic relationships between Benin and Iran have been established in September 1983. At the beginning and for a long time, these relationships were essentially political ones. But, during these last years, the cooperation between Benin and Iran extended in several other areas such as economic, commercial, cultural, technological areas. In my opinion, the diversity of the cooperation areas as well as the existence of a legal framework made up of an impressive number of Agreements already entered into between our both parties is a major asset. The main weakness is, obviously, the embargo, especially the economic and financial sanctions Iran is still going through despite the signing of the nuclear Deal.
How much are Iran’s economic potentials known to African countries, esp. to Benin?
This is a relevant question and I think the same question can be raised in both sides. African countries, including Benin do not sufficiently know Iran, neither do they know its economic potentials. What my African brothers know about Iran is more the courage of the brave Iranian people as well as its diplomatic achievements during these last years. In the same time, most of the Iranians do not know Benin and its potentials. On both sides, we have to work hard towards information on the potentials of each of the parties. We will make it by the grace of God and through the meeting we are organizing with Iranian Businessmen. Within the African group, we already had some work sessions with the General Department of Africa to define the strategic actions to be carried out within this framework. In Benin, there are a few initiatives, especially the regular organization by one of your fellows, of an Iranian trade fair on various products very appreciated by Benin people. As media actors, you also have an important role to play through the release of information on Africa, and I thank you and encourage you for this work you have already been doing so efficiently.
Once the sanctions against Iran are lifted, which economic areas do you think are suited for the cooperation of the two countries?
Upon the lifting of sanctions, the areas we consider to be prior ones are the areas which legal framework has already been defined. This is essentially the sectors of energy, irrigation, farm mechanization, infrastructures construction and mining researches. MAPNA Iranian Group is already preparing to build a 2X25 Megawatts electrical thermal power plant in Benin. With the progressive lifting of sanctions, we will also set priority on the promotion of import-export between our both countries.
How are the markets for the offering of Iran products? How fertile do you see the conditions of the markets for Iranian products?
In Benin, we are about 10 millions inhabitants and the fact that we are members of regional groups such as WAEMU and ECOWAS finally means that, to invest in Benin, to trade with Benin, is to start with a big market of about 200 millions consumers. And within these two spaces, the tariff conditions are highly studied. The country has a port which has been modernized during these recent years, the Cotonou Port. There is also an investment code which guarantees for Benin citizens and foreigners the freedom of carrying out any activity authorized by the State and freedom of management and transfer of theirs funds. All this combined with the conditions of stability and security within the country enables to assert that Benin makes available a favorable market for Iranian products and citizens.
What are the most important exported items of Benin?
Cotton is the main export product. We also export cashew nuts for which Benin has 12% of the world production. Pineapple and cassava export has also recorded a net progress during these last years.
Does Benin have potentials of oil extraction?
Recent researches show that Benin has an oil reserve. Prospecting works are still in progress to appreciate the quality and quantity thereof. It is likely that we don’t have oil reserves similar to the ones in Iran. The mining resources which are exploited are gold, iron, limestone.
Considering the position of Benin in sea transits among African states, do you think it can become a bridge between Iran and West African countries?
Thanks to its geographical position, Benin provides a natural access to the sea and to hinterland countries. Thus, Cotonou Port Authority serves as a transit area for the products to the Sahel-Saharan region, especially Mali, Niger, Burkina, Chad and particularly the neighboring Nigeria. It is provided that this regional role of Cotonou port be reinforced with the on-going construction of Cotonou-Abidjan railway loop line.