Political masturbation in Benin over President Talon’s long absence
BY SOUMANOU SALIFOU
President Patrice Talon of Benin returned home Sunday after a lengthy, 24-day stay in France for medical treatment that triggered an explosion of vicious attacks on him in the social media. The relentless attacks were led by so-called citizen-journalists—some allegedly manipulated by a disguised, one-time political ally of the president—bloggers, and long-time foes of the head of state, which reveals the depth of the political division in the country. The controversy also demonstrates the out-of-control nature of Benin’s social media that feeds on rumors and outright fabrications.
From rumors to facts
Bertin Koovi, a former presidential candidate and political activist with unusual passion for the social media, pulled the trigger on June 3 by publishing a post in which he wrote: “The president of Nigeria is ill and his people know it; the president of Benin is ill and his people don’t know about it?” Koovi elaborated: “The purpose of all his [Talon’s] trips to France was to receive medical attention. Alas, the doctors cannot diagnose the disease.”
Koovi later pushed the envelope to the point of asking the speaker of the parliament, Andrien Houngbedji, to be ready to step in as acting president, in conformity with the Benin constitution that allows no more than forty days of power vacancy.
Early on, the foreign minister had stated that Patrice Talon was on an overseas trip carrying out his normal duties as head of state. However, as the people grew impatient, not knowing where exactly their president was, and rumors of his presumed illness—which some feared was very serious—swelled, interior minister Sacca Lafia made a similar point in an interview with a local radio station, Frisson Radio, on June 14, and added: “We get instructions from him when needed, we are in touch with him, and we carry out our duties as usual.”
When asked by the reporter when President Talon would return home, the man often referred to as the nation’s number 1 cop answered: “Very soon. By the middle of next week.”
President Talon came back home several days earlier, on June 18, without fanfare, and led the first weekly cabinet meeting in four weeks the very next day, an extraordinary one, for that matter, with a regular one scheduled two days later. The robust, agile head of state was later shown on national television and in newsclip videos all over the social media moving right and left shaking hands before the extraordinary cabinet meeting got underway. He however confirmed the rumor about his health to his cabinet, which senior cabinet minister and government’s spokesperson, Irene Koupaki, relayed in a post-cabinet meeting briefing, and in a government press release dated June 19. The president allegedly states he is in good health after undergoing a prostate operation on May 26. However, a second operation had to be carried out on June 1 due to a digestive complication following the first one. In the press release and the briefing, the head of state reassured his fellow-citizens that he had healed completely and is able to fully carry out his duties as president of the Republic. President Talon is also reported as saying that it matters to him that his people know about his state of health in detail.
It’s unprecedented in Benin and probably in the African sub-region as a whole where heads of states’ health matters are kept very secret. By disclosing these details, the president proved wrong his critics who had jumped to conclusion saying that he must be hiding some fatal health concerns.
Political masturbation in full swing
The social media, an inexpensive method of communication that gives voice to otherwise voiceless citizens in Africa who don’t have access to the traditional media, has proven very powerful on the continent. It’s been credited with playing a major role in the uprooting of African political baobabs such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Blaise Compaore in Burkina Faso. But it’s also a dangerous tool in the hands of so-called citizen-journalists capable of putting out unsubstantiated information with potential grave consequences. While in the developed world actors in the social media can deliberately put out false information to serve their own political purposes—as was the case in the United States when false information circulated on twitter or Facebook during the last presidential campaign about the Pope endorsing Donald Trump—in Africa, actors in the sphere of the social media can be manipulated by influential politicians who pay them for spreading false information. Case in point: a dozen officials and non-officials, some inside the Benin executive branch and others outside of it, have emphatically told The African that a one-time political ally of President Talon who is now at odds with the president is partly behind the attacks on the president in the social media and in some of the local newspapers. While Talon was feared severely ill, calls for his resignation “in order for his programs to be dismantled for the sake of our country’s development” were all over the social media and in some of the local newspapers. Something unheard of in the African culture where a severely ill person is treated with respect, out of fear for death.
Benin’s out-of-control social media
As the saga continued and on June 13 Bertin Koovi posted a text saying—falsely—that President Talon had returned to Benin the night before at 1:16, the local social media was buzzing with that false information later that same morning. Some social media activists went as far as illustrating their posts with what was supposed to be a photograph of the president stepping out of an airplane, which others questioned, saying that the image didn’t look like one shot at 1 in the morning. Better yet, on June 14, a slick page designed with President Talon’s perfect picture beside a flag of Benin appeared on the social media with the headline: “Benin, Patrice Talon evacuated from Paris to Washington.” The supposed news piece, subtitled “Benin: toward a power vacancy at the presidency,” was attributed to the “international media,” with the following text: “In Cotonou, President Talon is expected to return this weekend, but the international press says he’s somewhere else. Go and figure it out.”
This is just one example of the reckless nature of the social media in Benin, a state of affairs that has not left the authorities indifferent. The recent passing of the digital code by the Benin parliament is expected to help bring the house in order. According to an article published in the state-owned daily newspaper, La Nation, the new law is expected, among other things, “to guarantee a higher level of protection for the citizens so as to strengthen their confidence in the information and communication technologies.” It also seeks to “oversee people whose activities involve the use of the Internet such as online service providers and editors of online communication services.”
The spiritual experts in the fray
Benin, the cradle of voodoo, is a high ground of spirituality. Before each new year, the spiritual leaders of the country consult the fa, an oracle that has the proven power to look into the future and untangle complex situations that eyes cannot see, to assess what the upcoming year holds for the nation. The objective is to know what precautionary measures might be necessary to avert a bad year. According to David Coffi Aza, a Beninese high-profile spiritual leader, the fa has predicted 2017 to be a difficult year for Benin and its president.
But another spiritual powerhouse, Aza’s colleague Amoussa Rahimi, also a known “metaphysician” who has authored the book “Patrice Talon, the political UFO made king” (UFO stands for Unidentified Flying Object), could not disagree more. In an interview focusing on the president’s health published in the social media (which The African certifies as authentic), Rahimi announces bright days for the president and the country. Rahimi stated:
“Benin has been under vibration 18 and 9 and karma 7 since August 1, 2016. And the name for vibration 18 is the Twilight, and that for vibration 9 is Hermit, whereas vibration 7 is Triumph.”
He then explained that “we are in Purification and Rescue mode,” adding that God and the gods don’t intervene in vibration 9. Instead, it’s our assets in the cosmic bank of Good and Love that can save us in the Purification mode that reaches its climax in June 2017. He concluded: “The sun will soon rise (on August 1, 2017) and Triumph will be with us. Moses will win.”
Addressing specifically the president’s health, Rahimi allegedly said:
“June (6) is the mirror of 9 (September), and in June, His Excellency President Talon, in the mirror of June 2017, is under vibration 16 and karma 5, which requires rest and the charging of batteries for a new departure; so, on July 18, 2017, the Benin nation will start a new cycle of nine years. In order to navigate the upcoming nine years, one needs to recharge in the months of June and September.”
The spiritualist concluded: “You will soon see a brand-new President Talon ready for bigger victories, especially in the social field.”
Talon did return home on Sunday, a vigorous man.