This year, 47 people ran for president in Benin, a country with a population of just over 10 million. In other words, a nation with less than half the population of New York State had more presidential candidates than any U.S. presidential election in history. Large candidate pools In Benin are not unusual. In the 2011 presidential election, 14 candidates placed bids. But the 2016 election, with four times that number, was a packed field even by Benin’s standards.
The final vote came down to two —Lionel Zinsou, a biracial French-Beninese economist, and a Beninese millionaire, Patrice Talon. Zinsou won the first round of elections with nearly 30% of the vote, followed by Talon’s strong second. But when the remaining candidates unanimously endorsed Talon, Talon’s victory was imminent. Talon would eventually win the election by a landslide.
It is easy to forget that a new president represents more than plans and strategies. In Benin, a favorite was decided even with a noticeable lack of discourse about policy during the campaign. It is not because the people of Benin are impervious to practical matters, but a president is taxed with representing the people and that includes all the things implied by representation—be it ethnic identity or political ideals.
It makes sense for citizens of a country that has only been free from French colonization since 1960 to want to be represented by a person who looks like them, who shares more than half of their ethnic background.
During the campaign season, Zinsou was perceived as an outsider. Bias in favor of Talon was evident everywhere on the streets of Cotonou, Benin’s largest city. But some Beninese people welcomed the European influence they assumed that Zinsou would bring to the office.
Edith Dovonon, 43, runs a six-room guesthouse in Abomey, Benin, a mid-size city three hours north of Cotonou. She believed that Zinsou’s position as an outsider made him better suited to fight political corruption.
“People don’t want someone who seems like he’s trying to control things for Europe,” she told me.
“He’s mixed and he seemed to come out of nowhere, but I think he can fix corruption, create jobs for young people, and put kids in school.”
Dovonon’s conviction is the end result of a complex process of racial identification in a nation where the politics of identity have always bled into electoral politics.
I sojourned to Cotonou to escape winter in NYC and take advantage of the opportunity to write about the election. Benin seemed like a calm sanctuary compared to the circus presidential election and shameless denial of racism in the US. As a matter of fact, my family in Nigeria was more interested in the US election than in Benin’s, even though Lagos is a mere 77 miles from Cotonou. True, US elections always garner international attention, but in Benin’s election there was no Hillary and certainly no Trump.
The election fell short of American standards of political drama and it completely contradicted the media stereotype of civil unrest in African presidential elections, but Zinsou was still a biracial man running for president in a West African nation that had only been independent from colonization since 1960.
Would qualification alone make him the right person for the office or would his race play a role in the election?
Born in Paris to a French mother and a Beninese father, Zinsou is described as a yovo, meaning white person or foreigner. He spent most of his life in France, and made a name for himself as an economist and professor. Zinsou was not a complete stranger to the country’s politics, however. He is a member of a family who has been involved in Beninese political and cultural life for decades. In 2005, his family founded the Zinsou Foundation whose most public undertakings include a chain of museums throughout Benin.
Late last year, he was appointed Prime Minister by then-President Boni Yayi. A few months later, he announced his presidential bid. Because Zinsou is half-French, to many people, it seemed like a flashback to a time of French governance. Furthermore, President Yayi created the position of Prime Minister specifically with Zinsou in mind. When Zinsou announced his presidential bid after becoming Prime Minister, it seemed like a move in a plan that had been in place all along.
Further complicating matters, Zinsou’s family is from southern Benin. Only three of the nation’s 13 presidents were from the south, and political tension has historically haunted those three presidents. The first was overthrown in a coup and the second–Zinsou’s uncle–only held office for a year before meeting a similar fate. In Benin, North and South are more than geography; they signify ethnic background and identity.
Each of Benin’s 42 ethnic groups, no matter where it is located, has its own recognizable place and identity. Each also occupies a unique place in the nation’s cultural consciousness. The Fon people, for instance, are largely located in southern Benin, yet their language, Fon, is spoken or understood throughout the entire nation.
Where does a person of European descent fit into the cultural consciousness of a West African nation, and the ethnic and geographical politics of north and south? They are oyinbos in Nigeria; obronis in Ghana; yovos in Benin and Togo; toubabs in Senegal… the list goes on. These are not quite racial slurs in the Western sense. The words may be said without malice and children say them freely. Sometimes even non-African blacks, like African Americans, get the label.
The fact that Zinsou’s race likely impacted his chance of winning the election is not a poor reflection on Beninese people, or a unique phenomenon, as we see even in elections in the United States. Humans have judged each other by appearance for millennia. Studies have shown that similar physical appearance is a factor in friendship. Appearance tells us whether a person can be trusted, and whether a person can be trusted frequently comes to down to the question of familiarity. Do the person look like someone I have seen before? Do they look like me? If you subconsciously recall a positive experience with someone who resembles the person in question, your trust is primed. If the person resembles you or your relatives, the odds that they will have your trust are even higher. This is the most basic form of prejudice and no one of us is exempt.
But what about the factors beyond race and ethnicity?
Talon won this election by a margin of 65% despite his past involvement in political scandals, most notably an assassination attempt on President Boni Yayi in 2012. He was exiled for two years following the attempt.
Talon’s supporters are willing to overlook that involvement with political corruption, and claim that his appeal goes beyond his heritage. He is a successful entrepreneur and they expect that he will bring his wealth and business sense to the office.
One of his supporters, Gauttier Amadassou is one of the founders of Eco-Benin, an eco-tourism travel non-profit with sites throughout Benin. In 2007, Amadassou’s group organized a national round-table that they hoped would lead to the government implementing a strategy for eco-tourism. The round-table was successful, but it took four years for the government to respond. Amadassou hoped Talon’s business acumen, openness to working with NGOs, and savvy would help more than Zinsou’s outsider appeal.
“Last week I was at a meeting with the Tourism Ministry and they are very open to work with all the partners like us, so we will send them our proposals,” Amadassou said in May. “I hope he helps the businesses and develop rules for business. This is very important to develop the economy. So yes I am positive about the future.”
For Amadassou and many other voters, Talon earned the vote because he is from Benin and shares a common experience.
“Talon is a businessman. Business is what makes the country work. And he is from Benin. I think that is good,” he said.
It is difficult for a candidate to be elected without voters feeling this sense of shared identity. The best politicians go to great lengths to emphasize or even contrive it. And even when it seems like a stretch, supporters bend over backwards to identify with their favorite candidate.
As it is in Benin, so it is in the United States. Working-class people who will vote for Trump identify with him as a person “who tells it like it is,” no matter the fact that his background contrasts sharply with theirs. No matter what the contrivance, voters must see themselves in their chosen candidates. A candidate who bears the mark of similar identity makes devotees feel that they are seen, and by virtue of being seen, perhaps they will be heard once the person is in office.
That is what the people in Benin knew when they cast their vote this year – when a man who had been implicated in an assassination attempt and who was exiled for two years was proudly welcomed to serve in the highest office in the land. Patrice Talon, a business-savvy entrepreneur, no matter his reputation, was from Benin and that was the most important factor of all.