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Benin Prepares to Cast Votes For Peace, Prosperity


On the eve of presidential elections in Benin, prosperity is one of the key issues for the country's four million voters.

It is the day before Benin's presidential election and motorcycle taxi driver Isaac Kounnou, 45, has stopped off to fill up his gas tank.

At a stand that sells gasoline smuggled in from neighboring Nigeria, Kounnou buys two liters, which arrive in old wine bottles, and cost him a little over a dollar.

Like many voters in Benin, Kounnou will go to the polls Sunday with two issues at the forefront of his thoughts: political stability and the economy.

"It's my duty to vote," he says, "and I hope election day is calm. I hope that it leads to peace, so that everyone has enough to eat and live well."

After decades of political turmoil, and years of single party rule, Benin emerged in 1990 as a democratic success story, becoming the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to make a peaceful changeover from military rule to multi-party democracy.

Sixteen years of stability followed, and, despite early worries he might change the constitution to run for a third term, outgoing President Mathieu Kerekou is not standing for re-election.

Kounnou says he respects the president, and is proud of his country's reputation as a bastion of peace in a region plagued by ethnic fighting and civil war. But he says something has to be done about the economy.

A group of a half dozen or so motorcycle taxi drivers gathered around all nod their heads in agreement.

"We're all just getting by," he says. "I start working as seven in the morning, and I don't finish until at least eight at night."

For his 13-hour day, Kounnou earns the equivalent of about $6. It is barely enough to feed his wife and four children, he says.

Economic growth, which the World Bank says averaged almost five percent between 1991 and 2003, has slowed, due to a drop in cotton output and restrictions on exports to neighboring Nigeria. Food prices have risen.

Responding to widespread discontent stemming from rising food prices and high rates of unemployment, especially among young people, nearly all of the 26 candidates in the running Sunday have made the issue of the need for economic revival a key plank in their platforms.

As Kounnou finishes filling his tank, and gets ready to leave, he says political stability and prosperity must go hand in hand.

"I just hope that, whoever is elected," he says, "lives up to all these programs that have been promised, so that the peace remains in Benin."

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