Misanet.com / IPS, 22 February - The campaign for Benin's 4 March presidential elections has begun with a bang with the first female candidate for president criss-crossing the country trying to drum up support for her candidacy. Marie-Elise Akouavi Gbedo, a lawyer and a divorced mother of two, is the only woman among the 17 presidential contenders.
Her candidacy is a first in West Africa, where politics is traditionally a male affair. Gbedo practices law in Cotonou and is a political activist. She made her political debut when President Mathieu Kerekou appointed her Minister of Commerce, Crafts, and Tourism from May 1998 to June 1999.
In June 1999, Kerekou dismissed her from the post after she tried to help resolve a scandal resulting from a business deal between SONACOP, the state-owned petroleum merchandising company and a private company. SONACOP was under the supervision of Gbedo's ministry.
It is believed that it was her forced departure from government which made her determined to end business as usual for Beninese politicians. Since then, she has appeared frequently on television and national radio, commenting on the problems of the current administration. Her candidacy for president, therefore, came as no surprise.
Some of the issues uppermost on her agenda are corruption and racketeering at the highest levels of government, social injustice, and poor management methods. "When I look at our government, the ruinous state of our country, the rampant corruption which is bankrupting our progress, I feel I have no choice but to step in. The management of our country's resources is ineffective. Worse, we have no long-term policies to guide it," she said at a rally last weekend.
It is, however, still not too late, she says, and calls on her countrymen to vote for her. "I'm an upright woman, an honest mother with children who is going to work with you and for you," she said. "I can tell you here and now that the principles which govern my actions are flawlessly moral, and that I have an uncompromising respect for the Constitution, and an independent judiciary ... It's time to save face, and together, you and I will do it."
Her slogan is "Huenusu", a term which means "It's time" in the local Fon language. "It's time for women to rise up, it's time for Benin to come out of its underdeveloped shell, and finally, it's time for Marie-Elise Akouavi Gbedo to become president," she says.
Her candidacy has received mixed reviews from the public. She has strong supporters who swear by her. The majority of them are men, who say they like her courage and feistiness. There are also those who think her chances of winning the presidency are slim, because as a newcomer to the Beninese political scene she is unlikely to garner many votes.
Ironically, most of Gbedo's detractors are women, who constitute almost 52 percent Benin's population. They especially don't like her "Europeanised" behaviour and the fact that she is a divorcee. "A woman without a husband cannot run Benin," declared Lise Dagba, a private secretary in a ministerial office in Cotonou.
- I have a lot of sympathy for her, but I won't vote for her, she added. "In the house I live in, I'm surrounded by women who go to the market every day and talk about it afterwards. I can tell you that in general, she is not liked by women, because she is divorced and because of her emancipated ways."
Some Beninese women's groups, however, are wholeheartedly behind her and believe that she would represent Beninese women well. "She has the distinction of being the first woman candidate in a Beninese presidential election. I also know that she has what it takes to do the job. If her speeches are convincing, she'll get a lot of women's votes," said Honorine Attikpa, the president of Dignite Feminine (Women's Dignity), a non-governmental organisation (NGO).
Attikpa hopes that all Beninese women will mobilise to support Gbedo's candidacy so that women who come behind her will not be discouraged.
There are few people who will admit they are rejecting her candidacy simply because she is a woman. Beninese society appears to have accepted the notion that it is time for women to try their hand at the highest levels of government.
On 4 March, Gbedo will face all the Beninese political regulars, including Kerekou, the country's current president, who, except for a brief stint in the opposition between 1991 and 1996, has held power since 1972. Another of her opponents is Nicephore Soglo, who was president between 1991 and 1996.
Seasoned observers of the political scene believe that the battle for the second round will take place between these two men, who are each playing out the last of their electoral cards. Gbedo and the other candidates may be relegated to being arbitrators in that contest.
By Michee Boko, IPS