Benin: democracy, the Chinese way - or voodoo?

Voter with list of candidates in his hand
Image caption Benin voters are given a choice from a list of diverse candidates

Benin is a pluralistic democracy with many parties competing for votes, but there is an argument about whether the western electoral system is the best way to promote economic growth.

Some people suggest that authoritarianism might be better at delivering food on the table, even if it is at the expense of electoral freedom.

They point out that in neighbouring democratic Ghana, economic growth happened under the military rule of Jerry Rawlings.

And then there are those who turn to ancestral methods to make their business successful - by using voodoo.

Path to democracy

As the former French colony of Dahomey, the country gained independence in 1960 and became officially Marxist in 1975.

Establishing relations with China, North Korea, and Libya, nearly all businesses and economic activities were taken under state control, causing foreign investment in Benin to dry up.

The name of the country was changed to the Republic of Benin in 1990 after the abolition of Marxism-Leninism the year previously.

A presidential election in 2006 was considered free and fair and won praise internationally, prompting observers to cite Benin as being a model democracy in Africa.

Mutual 'friendship'

One of the big debates in Benin, and throughout the continent, is over China's role in Africa.

Image caption Black market sales of gasoline and other commodities is rife

Leon Kodja spent 21 years living in China and is now back in Benin with his Chinese wife to help Chinese companies set up.

He says the western suspicion of China is not shared in his part of the world.

"The Chinese are investing, helping African countries, building roads - so many things going on commercially," he asserts.

"They have paid for many things, We have a big stadium here and many road projects."

He points out that China has been helping Benin since the late 1960s out of friendship, and also because China wants to gain raw materials from Africa.

He believes that China's motive differs from that of the French colonialists who ruled this country until independence in 1960.

"France was here as a colonial power - they were here to rule. China has been here to help to us get liberated from colonial powers," Mr Kodja says.

He acknowledges that the Chinese government is extremely repressive and the people have no say in who governs them, but says: "We have a mutual respect so I do not see China as a devil."

Pluralism questioned

Guillaume Moumouni, an Academic specialising in Sino-African relations, maintains that it would not be true to say that it was pluralistic democracy which brought economic development in Benin.

He points to examples where economic development has been possible without pluralistic democracy.

"The ASEAN countries - Singapore, Malaysia, even Hong Kong before it went back to China, the Philippines - were not democracies," he says.

"They promoted their economic development prior to a liberal democracy."

Image caption Children work from an early age to help feed their families

Defender of democracy

In the midst of Benin's desperately poor quarters, with flood waters drowning the dirt roads, Adjaho Akinocho Mubaraka sits in the beautiful house she has built with proceeds from her business.

She made her fortune by importing items such as cars and cloth from Europe and then exporting them to her African neighbours.

She is now one of the richest people in Benin and likes democracy.

"Democracy has helped some people," she says, "but you cannot have everybody at the same level. "

She believes that people can improve their lives: "Not in one day but slowly, whereas they could not grow before."

Mrs Mubaraka is aware that some people say the Chinese way is best.

"They see Chinese goods at low prices. They all look to ASEAN countries to have cheap goods - to satisfy African people."

Traditional methods

In the past, the ports of Benin exported slaves and one of the religions of those slaves was voodoo, which remains strong in Benin today.

Image caption A voodoo stall offers solutions to help people's businesses or exam results

There is a large trade in raw materials for voodoo.

In one of the the markets, the size of a football field, a bald man under an umbrella makes a sales pitch.

He lifts up a tarpaulin and reveals dead animals including snakes, lizards and birds.

A chameleon is apparently necessary to help a business succeed, whilst a cat's head, ground into a powder with seven herbs and the skin of an antelope, will help a student get good results at school.

"We are only using white magic to help everybody in the world, black magic is to do bad things," he says.

If business leaves you exhausted, he can also offer something he calls a "not-worry-viagra-stick".

Democracy has given the people of Benin choices, and one of those choices it to purchase those voodoo ingredients which will enable you to "walk the night like a buffalo".

More on this story

Around the BBC