Motorbike taxis take centre stage ahead of Benin vote

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If you need to take the political temperature in Benin, just hitch a ride on a motorbike.

In this West African state, tens of thousands of motorcycle taxis work the streets, playing a crucial part in political debate and election campaigns.

Their unusual role has returned to the spotlight ahead of presidential elections on Sunday. Election tensions have gripped the country, unleashing protests in opposition strongholds that have left two dead and five injured.

In the economic capital Cotonou, a dozen "zemidjan" -- "Take me quickly," in the local Fon language -- parade around a busy neighbourhood, escorting a motorcade blasting music and slogans in support of President Patrice Talon who is seeking re-election.

But in recent days, motorbike drivers have also filled up rallies for the two other candidates, Alassane Soumanou and Corentin Kohoue, who are little known to the general public.

"The zemidjan are those who bring a festive atmosphere to the campaign, they accompany the electoral motorcades, they distribute flyers, they wear campaign paraphernalia with the logos or names of candidates," said political analyst Expedit Olougo.

And, Olougo said, when they take people around the city, the chatty drivers "will do everything in their power to persuade their customer to vote for their preferred candidate."

Every morning, the most politicised of them gather around a well-known newsstand located behind the city's university hospital, where they read all the headlines they can find.

Later in the day, they gather again and listen to a news review broadcast on a popular radio show, leading to lively debates.

Lying between Togo and Nigeria on the Gulf of Guinea, Benin has often been praised as a vibrant multi-party democracy an often troubled region.

But these days, critics say the country has veered into authoritarianism.

Since Monday evening, clashes have erupted between protesters and security forces in opposition bastions, where many accuse the president of having rigged the election in advance.

- No real campaign -

"On this side of the road, on the right, you have those who support President Patrice Talon," said one motorbike driver, Edah Modest. He's among them because Talon "has built new roads and stopped police corruption."

"Over there, you have the opposition," he added, showing about 20 zemidjan parked on the left side of the road.

Those ones oppose Talon who has "ended democracy" and "made life harder for poor people" they say.

Several are wearing shirts with the name of former president Thomas Boni Yayi or former prime minister Lionel Zinsou, both living in exile.

The two sides bicker and argue, accusing each other of being "illiterate" and "taking money from candidates".

Candidates are reputed to have dished out cash to ensure support from zemidjan.

"During the campaign, all the parties have a budget for them, to pay for the motorcades, to pay for them to fill up rallies and promote their candidates," a former campaign official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But this year, some zemidjan are annoyed.

"This isn't a political campaign, this is a joke," said a 28-year-old motorbike driver who asked to be identified as Emmanuel.

"Before, we used to have dozens of candidates, and it was great," he said.

"But now we have only three, and Patrice Talon already knows he's going to win."

The 2021 campaign is also a financial disappointment for many.

The zemidjan are "losers in this election," said Olougou. "There's no competition, and so the financial opportunities are limited."

Before they would take money from all sides, said Emmanuel the driver, but at the end of the day, they would also campaign for the candidate they most wanted as new leader.

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