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August 25, 2010

Opposition Lawmakers Want Benin's President Prosecuted Over Financial Scam

by Scott Stearns

Opposition lawmakers in Benin want the president to stand trial for what they say is his role in a financial scam that has swindled thousands of people.

Nearly two-thirds of parliamentarians in Benin have signed a letter calling for President Thomas Yayi Boni to stand trial for treason and perjury because they say he is part of a massive, well-organized financial fraud that duped thousands of small investors.

Opposition lawmaker Augustin Ahouanvoebla says Mr. Boni has so far escaped justice, but he is confident the president will ultimately have to answer for what he says are crimes associated with the firm Investment Consultancy and Computing Services.

Court appearance

Ahouanvoebla says the opposition wants President Boni to appear before Benin's High Court.  He says the president has used what he calls ploys and back doors to find a way out of responsibility for the scam.  The labor will be painful and the process will be slow, he says, but he is confident lawmakers will get the president to court in the end.

Ruling-party parliamentarian Benoit Degla says President Boni has done nothing wrong.  Because the request for an indictment against the president has already been rejected by the National Assembly, Degla says critics now want to introduce a resolution calling him before the High Court.  Degla says the ruling party believes that motion will fail as well.

Blame game

He says the presidential majority remains calm because there is nothing the head of state can be blamed for.  Degla says opposition leaders are using poor investors who want their money back as an excuse to criticize the president.

Investment Consultancy and Computing Services officials currently under house arrest are accused of stealing nearly $190 million in a country where most people live on less than $2 a day.  The scam promised investors returns of as high as 50 percent in a classic pyramid scheme where cash from new deposits was used to pay earlier contributors, but nothing was really invested.

Victoire Kole says he is a victim and that if the government had been doing its job, it would have known from the outset that this was a scam and could have taken steps to curb it before so many people lost so much money.  He says the government did nothing, and now illiterate people are the victims.  Kole says he invested all his savings with the company and now hopes the government will repay victims.

There are no allegations that President Boni was personally involved in this scam.  Most of the criticism focuses on his hosting Investment Consultancy and Computing Services company officials at the presidential palace and appearing with them in promotional photographs.

Victims

Victims of the swindle say they believed the investments were legitimate because they saw the president, who is a former banker, alongside company chiefs.

Government officials appointed to look into the scandal say Investment Consultancy and Computing Services established an elaborate web of deceit.  

Pascal Koukpaki, Benin's Minister of Development, says the modus operandi of the company structure was quite subtle.  And that is why the government was not able to anticipate the crisis and quickly put a stop to it.

President Boni has responded to the outcry over the swindle by firing his interior minister, who he says was directly involved in the scam.  But that has not placated thousands of bankrupt investors who have demonstrated in the capital demanding that his government help them get their money back.