Talon wins Benin presidential race as Zinsou concedes defeat

Benjamin Agon
1 / 5

An official of National Electoral Commission tries to sort out votes after the second round of the presidential election in Cotonou, on March 20, 2016

An official of National Electoral Commission tries to sort out votes after the second round of the presidential election in Cotonou, on March 20, 2016 (AFP Photo/Pius Utomi Ekpei)

Cotonou (AFP) - Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou on Monday conceded defeat to Patrice Talon, handing the businessman victory in Benin's presidential elections in a vote hailed as an example for democracy in action.

The tiny West African nation introduced multi-party politics in the 1990s after decades of dictatorship, breaking with a widespread practice of one-party rule common across the continent.

Zinsou told AFP by telephone in the early hours that Talon's electoral victory was "certain," adding that he had called Talon "to congratulate him on his victory, wish him good luck and put myself at his disposal to prepare for the handover."

The head of Benin's independent electoral commission, Emmanuel Tiando, later said that Talon had won 65.39 percent of the vote, with Zinsou on 34.61 percent.

The Constitutional Court will confirm the official result in the coming days, he added.

Talon, in a statement issued on his Facebook page, declared himself "proud of my homeland Benin which has once again shown its attachment to democracy".

Thanking his supporters he said "we are embarking together on a new beginning, one of fraternity, of justice and of shared effort."

Talon also congratulated Zinsou "for his performance in the campaign and for his fair play."

- 'Everything went well' -

Some 4.7 million people were eligible to vote to elect a successor to Benin's outgoing president, Thomas Boni Yayi, who is bowing out after a maximum of two five-year terms.

His departure marks him out from many African leaders who have tried to change their country's constitution to stay in power.

Another exception was Goodluck Jonathan, president of Benin's giant neighbour Nigeria, who last year conceded defeat to Muhammadu Buhari -- a move hailed for statesmanship and discouraging political violence.

The head of a coalition of civil society groups monitoring the Beninese election, Mathieu Boni, said "everything went well" on Sunday and there was "nothing serious to report".

French President Francois Hollande said the election was a tribute to "the strength of Beninese democracy" and pledged his cooperation on development, energy, good governance and transparency "and the fight against terrorism."

- Strong support -

Zinsou, 61, had come out top in the first round of elections held on March 6 but the prime minister, a candidate for Boni Yayi's Cowry Forces for an Emerging Benin (FCBE), was seen as the frontrunner with the support of most lawmakers in parliament.

But 57-year-old Talon, who made his money in cotton and running Cotonou's port, had billed himself as the authentic Beninese candidate and repeatedly attacked his opponent's dual French nationality.

Zinsou, who attended an elite French university and was a speechwriter for the former prime minister Laurent Fabius, has been called "yovo" or "the white man" during the campaign.

He also took a knock when 24 of the 32 other candidates who stood in the first round came out in support of Talon.

- 'A chance for Benin' -

Talon had portrayed himself as a big-spender and a self-made man in his campaign, turning up for the first-round vote in a Porsche, white open-necked shirt, a fitted suit and sunglasses.

From humble beginnings in the coastal town of Ouidah, he rose to become one of the most powerful Benin businessmen and bankrolled Boni Yayi's successful 2006 and 2011 election campaigns.

But he fled to exile in France after being accused of masterminding an alleged plot to poison the president in 2012, and only returned last October after receiving a presidential pardon.

His success and taste for luxury attracted support from many young Beninese, who hope he can create jobs and wealth on a national scale.

Talon is due to take office on April 6 and will face major challenges such as tackling high youth unemployment, corruption and improving health and education in the country of 10.6 million people.

Diversifying an economy that largely relies on agriculture, trade and exports with its neighbour to the east, Nigeria, will also be high on the agenda.