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Benin's president Yayi facing growing opposition

Thursday - 8/15/2013, 1:27pm  ET

FILE - In this May 15, 2013 file photo, Benin President Thomas Yayi Boni addresses the media upon arrival for the Donor Conference for Development in Mali, in Brussels, Belgium. A surprise government reshuffle and a growing protest movement have exacerbated political tensions in the tiny West African nation of Benin, where President Thomas Boni Yayi accused the country's richest man of plotting to poison him last year. (AP Photo/Yves Logghe, File)

ROBBIE COREY-BOULET
Associated Press

COTONOU, Benin (AP) -- Benin President Thomas Boni Yayi already has accused the country's richest man of plotting with the leader's niece and personal physician to poison him. Now he's sacked his entire government as he faces a growing protest movement accusing him of seeking to remove term limits set by the constitution.

In this tiny West African country, pressure is mounting and analysts say the sense of uncertainty is deepening as protesters enter their second month of holding weekly demonstrations. The tensions risk undermining Benin's reputation as a stable democracy in a tumultuous corner of the world.

Just last month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry praised the country as "a democratic leader in West Africa." In March, officials here announced they had thwarted a second coup attempt.

The recent government reshuffle suggests Yayi is "panicking," said Lydie Boka, manager of the France-based risk analysis firm Strategico that has been monitoring Benin since 2005, the year before Yayi came to power.

"I think it's something that's only going to continue because the Beninois are not happy," Boka said. "If somebody organizes them the way I see it beginning to happen, this thing is going to grow."

For five consecutive Wednesdays, hundreds of people in the capital have donned bright red T-shirts, caps and headbands to signal their solidarity with the so-called Red Wednesday movement, whose slogan is "Don't touch my constitution." Yayi has talked about the need for constitutional reform but has not laid out any plans to change term limits that would bar him from running again in 2016. However, critics are convinced that is his goal.

The Red Wednesday movement, while tapping into genuine dissatisfaction with Yayi, has an apparent link to last October's shocking allegations that three people close to Yayi had planned to swap his medicine with a toxic substance in exchange for millions of dollars. The plot allegedly unraveled when Yayi's niece told her sister who then alerted authorities.

Benin's prosecutor Justin Gbenameto has accused Patrice Talon, a cotton magnate who once held contracts at the country's port, of orchestrating the plot. A leading organizer of the Red Wednesday movement is Joseph Djogbenou, a lawyer for Talon.

"The movement has reached an unexpected level and I can't help but be satisfied," Djogbenou said.

While the origins of the protests may have much to do with the Yayi-Talon enmity, many of those who have been protesting are genuinely frustrated with the government.

In Cotonou on Wednesday, 32-year-old designer Emmanuel Azansoukpo, wearing a red T-shirt that matched his bright red motorcycle, said he is "sick and tired" of the political class, which in recent years has struggled to combat poverty. Some 36 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the African Development Bank.

"Nothing works here, so Yayi must not return after 2016," he said.

Yayi's defenders say participants in the Red Wednesday movement have been manipulated.

Talon, currently in France, has said in interviews with French media that he fell out with Yayi over the president's insistence on running for a third term in 2016. Yayi, meanwhile, has said Talon was angry over the cancellation of lucrative state contracts.

A judge has ordered the release of suspects held in the poisoning case, although that decision is being appealed. France has asked for more information before ruling on Benin's extradition request for Talon. Last month, France's foreign ministry expressed concern over the treatment of a person accused in the second coup plot disclosed in March. That suspect holds dual citizenship in France and Benin.

The strained relationship between Talon and Yayi is seen as so central to recent political tension that some residents have taken to jokingly referring to their country by a new name: Tayiland. The influence of the two men's falling out could also be seen in a new government announced this week, Strategico's Boka said.

Three top officials close to Talon were dismissed, including the prime minister, whose position was eliminated. Meanwhile, Yayi retained officials who have publicly endorsed the president's push for constitutional reform.

Benoit Degla, the outgoing interior minister who was replaced in the government reshuffle but is not one of those close to Talon, said the protesters' complaints that Yayi intends to seek yet another term are "unfounded."

In a bid to shore up support, Yayi supporters in recent weeks some have tried to organize a retaliatory movement known as White Friday. So far, it has not caught on.

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Corey-Boulet reported from Dakar, Senegal.


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