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Memory Lane:AN INTERVIEW WITH AMBASSADOR AROUNA ON HIS DECADE-LONG AFFAIR WITH MCA-BENIN

June 30, 2017

By Ajong Mbapndah L,*

 

Ambassador Omar Arouna

Ambassador Omar Arouna

On June 17, 2017, in Cotonou, Benin –the capital city of the tiny French speaking west African country once dubbed as a beacon of democracy on the continent– everywhere, in the press –there was news of the signing of “entry into force” (EIF) of the second Millennium Challenge account. This was a big deal for the country’s 10 million inhabitants. Among the officials, three current Ministers of the Government of Patrice Talon were in attendance among other government officials, foreign representatives, U.S. diplomats and international foreign assistance workers.

Earlier in the summer of 2015, Benin’s former president Dr. Boni Yayi signed the second Millennium Challenge Corporation Power Compact at the White House, shortly before leaving office at the end of his second term. The first compact, negotiated and signed under President Mathieu Kerekou, focused on improvements to the market access sector, the financial sector, the judicial sector and land reform. This new contract provided $407,000,000 to strengthen Benin’s national utility, attract private-sector investment, and fund investments in electricity generation and distribution infrastructure and off-grid electrification for poor and unserved households.

Only one-third of Benin’s population has access to electricity, and total consumption is low due to limited access and availability.  Electricity consumption in Benin is below the average for Africa’s low-income countries at 110 kilowatts per hour per capita annually, or 0.01 percent of the average for middle-income economies. Now thanks to the generosity of the American people there is a certainty that Benin might see the light at the end of the tunnel.

As Benin looks forward to brighter days, it is a big sigh of relieve for Omar Arouna who was that country’s Ambassador to Washington,DC,when that second compact was signed. With Benin facing formidable obstacles as it sort the Compact, former President Yayi Boni tapped Omar Arouna , a man who knew his way around Washington to serve as his Ambassador. His major assignment? Get that second Compact for Benin.

Understanding what these MCC Compacts do to transform lives for the millions in Benin , I could not remain indifferent or say no to the call to be of service, says Arouna who had to forgo his U.S Citizenship to serve as Ambassador . Pan African visions met with the former Ambassador of Benin to the United States Omar Arouna to learn more about MCA-Benin.

How were you introduced to the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) program?

This started unexpectedly; one evening in the early spring of 2004, when my wife in answering the proverbial question “how was your day?” revealed that the highlight of her day was a meeting at the White House. During that meeting, President George W. Bush announced a list of 17 countries chosen to submit a proposal for a newly formed assistance agency by his Administration. Nine of these countries were in Africa and Benin was on the list. This was the first time I was hearing about the Millennium Challenge Account, a program launched by President Bush at the Monterrey Summit in 2002 to provide greater assistance to countries that are themselves taking greater responsibility for their own development, by putting good policies in place that promote poverty reduction and promote growth–countries that rule justly, invest in their people, and encourage economic freedom.

The following days and weeks after my conversation with my wife, I switched into research mode making phone calls, meeting people and visiting the State Department and USAID offices, educating myself and learning more about that new aid agency and the program.

Why were you so interested about the program?

As a consultant, I was trying to understand how I could offer my services to selected countries. During that process, I gain a comprehensive understanding of the program and produced a detailed analysis of the program with the intention of helping governments, specifically African governments, to take advantage of this opportunity.

While I was educating myself on the program, I realized that most of the selected countries weren’t officially notified. I placed a call to then Benin Minister of Public Service, Labor and administrative Reform, who was my elder brother. I talked to him at length about the opportunity such a program represents for the people of Benin and urged him to inform his boss then President Mathieu Kerekou as well as the State Minister of Development and Planning who also coincidentally was a family member.

I was determined to make President Mathieu Kerekou’s government understand the value proposition of the program. I saw the MCA as an opportunity for the country to improve its governance, get rid of corruption and strengthen its democracy. I knew then if Benin agrees to enter into a compact agreement with the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the country’s leadership will have to allow greater scrutiny by the U.S. government and the international community and would consequently be obligated to uphold higher standards in its democratic practices, the rule of law, civil liberties and social investment in order to qualify to receive funding under the MCA. Benin and its people would therefore benefit not just financially, but in many other ways by having open, transparent governing norms. Years later, that intuitive sense has proven to be correct and was even dubbed by many as the MCC effect in some circles in Washington DC.

A week following our telephone conversation, Benin Minister of Public Service, Labor and administrative Reform flew to the U.S. During a dinner at a now closed Indian restaurant on K Street in Washington, DC, I went on a lengthy exposé about the program, aided by my wife’s extensive expertise in development. Upon his return to Benin the Minister formally reported on the program in the Council of Ministers meeting and the government decided to follow up via the State Ministry of Planning and Development.

Subsequent to the Minister of Public Service, Labor and administrative Reform report to the Council of Ministers, I met with then-Benin State Minister of Development and Planning. During the meeting at Hotel Lombardy on Pennsylvania Avenue, a few blocks away from the White House, the State Minister asked that I provide him with a detailed written brief on the program. I acquiesced and handed to him a report a couple of days later at the Washington Dulles International Airport as he was returning home to Cotonou.

By the time the US government officially informed the government of Benin about the country’s selection, some officials in the country were already well aware of it due to my activism. The State Minister of Development and Planning appointed an Interim Coordinator who was later confirmed as the coordinator of the program.

 After an extensive public consultation–one of these consultations was held with selected members of the Benin diaspora and several senior Benin government officials at GoodWorks International, where I worked for 8 years as a Managing Director.

In February 2006, the Millennium Challenge Corporation signed a five-year, $307,000,000 compact with the Government of Benin toward the end of the Kerekou Administration.

 Did you remain involved after Benin signed the compact?

Vice President Joe Biden (right) shakes hands with Benin's President Thomas Boni Yayi, during a Compact Signing Ceremony in the Indian Treaty Room at the White House in Washington, Sept. 9, 2015.

Vice President Joe Biden (right) shakes hands with Benin’s President Thomas Boni Yayi, during a Compact Signing Ceremony in the Indian Treaty Room at the White House in Washington, Sept. 9, 2015.

In April 2006, a newly elected President Boni Yayi was sworn in as the new head of state and took over the nation’s destiny. He presides over the MCC compact in Benin entry into force (EIF) in October 2006, formally initiating the five-year timeline for project implementation for what is now known as the Benin MCA first compact.

Throughout the project’s implementation, I would occasionally touch base with the Program Coordinator and his team to inquire about the project’s progress and offer unsolicited advice based on information I gathered from various colleagues in DC.

The project was successfully completed in October 6, 2011, with international accolades due to the exemplary implementation and the leadership of the country’s President, who from the beginning understood its importance.

What was that compact used for?

Benin and MCC designed the compact to address obstacles to investment and economic growth by modernizing and expanding the Port of Cotonou, often referred to as the “lungs” of Benin; promoting land security; improving access to capital for micro- and medium-sized enterprises; and creating a more efficient judicial system.

In October 2011, then CEO of the U.S. Government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), Daniel W. Yohannes, noted that MCC’s investment in the Port of Cotonou was of significant contribution to economic growth.

The modernized port is expected to attract over $200 million in financing from the private sector, which will increase revenues and create more jobs.

The partnership between MCC and the Government of Benin is already impacting the lives of the Beninese.  In addition to progress at the Port of Cotonou, these results include: strengthening land rights, improving access to justice, strengthening the microfinance sector, Improving business registration.

 What happened after that, did Benin qualify for a Second Compact?

Yes! On the 9th, of November 2011, The U.S. Government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) released its fiscal year 2012 country scorecards. The scorecards, produced each year for every low income and lower middle income country, measures countries’ policy performance and serve as the basis for the MCC Board of Directors to select countries eligible for MCC compact funding. Following that release, the Millennium Challenge Corporation Board in December 2011, also authorized MCC to invite Benin to submit a proposal for a second compact. Although a submission of a proposal is not a guarantee that MCC will finalize a compact with an eligible country, Benin was eligible to apply for a second compact.

Ambassador Arouna with President Obama, Arouna worked hard to improved the frail relations between Cotonou and Washington

Ambassador Arouna with President Obama, Arouna worked hard to improved the frail relations between Cotonou and Washington

In December 2011, MCC wrote in its report to congress: “As a candidate country Benin is one of the poorest countries in the world, but maintains relatively strong policy performance. It is particularly strong in the Ruling Justly category, where it passes all six indicators, and is recognized as a stable, democratic country in West Africa. In FY12, Benin passed the new indicator criteria, but it did not pass the old indicator criteria, due to performance in the Investing in People category. By compact conclusion, Benin delivered all core construction targets and undertook an ambitious and complex series of policy reforms. This included letting a major port concession, undertaking changes to customs and port procedures designed to reduce corruption and improve port efficiency, and making improvements in the microfinance regulatory system. These activities allowed the Government of Benin to address some of their greatest development challenges and create new opportunities for economic growth. Over the next 20 years, MCC’s port investment in Benin is expected to affect a regional import-export facility that not only serves the entire population of Benin, but also provides meaningful trade capacity for Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria. Increased imports and exports could also open up the potential for new market and trade opportunities for U.S. businesses. This port project serves as an example of MCC and the Government of Benin working together to address a complex project that combined ambitious infrastructure investments and policy reform. While projects with this level of complexity are difficult, they embody MCC’s mandate of reducing poverty through economic growth in poor, well- governed countries.

That qualification was Short lived, why?

Little did I know, this “first-second” qualification was doomed from the start and was short lived. Some of the indicators were rapidly turning red, due to a lobbying campaign astutely orchestrated in Washington DC.

Mr. Patrice Talon, a cotton mogul who financed both of President Boni Yayi’s presidential campaigns, was now in a tug of war with his former champion and was raising questions regarding the direction of the country under Boni Yayi’s leadership. In the Spring of 2013, Patrice Talon recruited Arent Fox one of the largest U.S. law and government relations firms to lobby the U.S. congress, with the aim to stop all U.S. development assistance to the country while questioning the commitment of the country to democracy under President Boni’s leadership.

The specific lobbying issue recorded on lobbying disclosure forms filed by Arent Fox on July 18 2013, November 18, 2013 and January 20, 2015 was: “Promotion of respect for the rule of law in Benin, including honoring of contractual obligations, application of equitable and transparent judicial procedures in Benin. Human rights effort to secure release of Benin citizen imprisoned without bail in Benin. Millennium Challenge Corporation grant funding”.

With this new development, all foreign assistance to the country was in jeopardy and chief among them was the high probability of the country’s losing its eligibility to receive a second MCC compact.

 You were on K street, how did you react?

On Wednesday, July 24, 2013, GoodWorks International senior advisor a former director for Africa at the U.S. treasury walked to my office around 11 am with a report. His analysis was simple. The country will lose its eligibility to receive a second compact. The narrative about Benin was rapidly changing in Washington DC. The country was no longer talked about as a democratic market economy and this change could have a long-term devastating effect on U.S. assistance to Benin.

I thought about the 10 million people in Benin who will suffer from this campaign. I couldn’t stomach the fact that the burden of losing US assistance will be carried by the country’s poorest, the ones that were currently benefiting from the MCA grant and the ones who stood to benefit from the second compact.

 By now I knew I couldn’t just watch this unfold in Washington DC without doing something about it. I was on K street long enough to know how these games are played. I knew as well that I was practically one of the few in Washington DC that understood the situation and I couldn’t stand the thought of seeing the country lose its eligibility to the second compact. I knew that if the U.S. stops aid to the country, it might create a ripple effect with all other donors and will affect the livelihood of the 10 million people of Benin, who would be hurt. With them in mind, I was ready to help change the narrative.

 How did you help solve the issue?

I devised a lobbying plan and informed my Chair, of my intention to provide pro-bono help in raising Benin’s country profile in the U.S. By the end of July 2013, I was in full lobbying mode. I worked to register an entity named “Friends of Benin in the U.S.” to serve as a conduit for the effort, met with most stakeholders in town to provide them with factual information about the country and helped clarify the situation, and began to meet with key members of Congress. All lawmakers and officials I met were very sympathetic to my argument, with the exception of Congressmen Alan Grayson of Florida of the 8th Congressional District.

Despite my direct plea to him, Congressmen Grayson introduced resolution H. R. 3827 to prohibit the United States from providing financial assistance to Benin in Congress. Due to the collective advocacy of those of us who wanted to protect the livelihoods and well-being of people in Benin, we ensured that, this resolution never made it to the foreign affairs committee. H.R. 3827 was dead on arrival.

 Our understanding is that Benin ultimately lost its eligibility for a second compact in FY 2004; does this mean your efforts went in vain?

Because perception indicators are hard to correct by the time the MCC scorecards for FY 2014 were released in November 2013, Benin indicators in the area of corruption in the ruling justly category plummeted and subsequently the MCC board decided to drop the country from eligibility.

This turn of events was not the outcome that I was expecting. Mildly put, I was disappointed. We fought hard, but we couldn’t save Benin eligibility to the program that year.

 Your appointment as Ambassador coincided with the return of Benin to the good books of the MCA, how were these events related?

Benin lost its eligibility to apply for a second compact. However, President Boni Yayi was determined to get it back. He prioritized this and began to exercise direct leadership over the effort, consulting practically on a weekly basis with the MCA formulation unit in Benin, the Council of Presidential Investment and sectorial agencies to help improve the country’ indicators.

With the retirement of the Benin Ambassador to the United States, he decided to appoint me as his successor. I will have a singular charge: ensure Benin’s eligibility to receive a second compact. In order to accept my appointment, I had to relinquish my U.S. Citizenship.

Did you actually relinquish your US Citizenship ,how challenging was it for you to make that decision?

It was a tall order with a caveat. How could I be sure about the outcome of the goal set forward by president Yayi? Acquiring my US citizenship was not an easy task, and why would I gamble it way under this condition? Could I get my U.S. citizenship back at the end of my appointment? These were some questions I struggled with for weeks before accepting the appointment. I worried that if I did not accept the appointment; I would lose the opportunity to serve and would have given up my right to have a voice in shaping my country’s narrative in the US. I would have given up on MCA-Benin. I would have let down 10 million people, who could benefit from a second compact.

What was your agenda as the Benin Ambassador?

I presented my letter of credence to President Obama in April 2014 after having renounced my U.S. citizenship a month earlier and became the Benin Ambassador to the United States of America, Mexico, Bahamas and Barbados. I was the country’s permanent observer at the Organization of American States and its representative with the Breton Woods Institutions.

As Ambassador, my equation was simple: “How well can I perform in the shortest time period?” Speed and results were of essence, if I wanted to reach the goal set by President Yayi.

I was meeting all the independent agencies in charge of compiling data for the MCC indicators and providing them with supplemental updated data. I was talking to MCC Board members regularly providing factual information to dispel the remains of the negative perception of the country in the United States. I was doing op-eds and press interviews, sending letters to stakeholders and meeting constantly with key government officials.

 Were you successful?

Madame Awahou Codjo is a small business owner in Cotonou who benefitted from MCC’s 2006 investments in Benin. Now, she stands to benefit from MCC’s $375 million Benin Power compact. Picture courtesy of MCC

Madame Awahou Codjo is a small business owner in Cotonou who benefitted from MCC’s 2006 investments in Benin. Now, she stands to benefit from MCC’s $375 million Benin Power compact. Picture courtesy of MCC

When the FY 2015 MCC scorecards were released in November 2014, Benin was back again in the game and subsequently was invited by the MCC Board of Directors to submit a grant proposal. Now the compact was anticipated to be a total of $375,000,000 in addition to $28,000,000 that the country would contribute.

 So Benin signed its Power Compact a second in the country’s history….

Yes, Then-Benin Minister of Finance Komi Koutche and MCC CEO Dana J. Hyde signed the $375,000,000 Benin Power Compact in the presence of Benin President Dr. Thomas Boni Yayi and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday, September 9, 2015, in Washington at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Indian Treaty Room.

 What was this grant for?

The Benin Power Compact seeks to unlock private investment by supporting policy reforms and investing in electricity generation, distribution and off-grid electrification. The Benin Compact is MCC’s contribution to Power Africa, advancing the goals of increasing electricity generation and access in sub-Saharan Africa, and combating climate change through $175,000,000 for renewable energy capital works and policies.

 Benin has certainly come a long way, what comes to mind what you take a look back at this journey to another MCA Compact?

September 9, 2015, six months to the day, I presented my letter of credence as my country’s Ambassador to Washington, I was witnessing the signing of Benin’s second compact. When I take stock of my own contribution, I flash back to that evening in the spring of 2004 when I casually asked my wife “How was your day?” That question led me to this day: a decade of involvement with MCA-Benin, most of it in the shadows.

A few months later, President Boni Yayi’s second term ended and he stepped down. His successor President Patrice Talon, was sworn into office and he now holds the guardianship of Benin’s MCA Power Compact and is responsible for its successful implementation.

 The Trump administration is projecting cuts to Foreign aid, are you concerned?

Despite all its challenges this tiny West African country of Benin is upholding in that region core democratic values that are the fundamental beliefs and constitutional principles of a free society.  These are the same values expressed in the United States Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.

The partnership with the United States through the Millennium Challenge Account reaffirms these shared values and undergirds a long tradition of cooperation and mutual support.  The generosity of the American people ensures that Benin remains the beacon it has always been.

Bill Gates says it best, “these programs give American taxpayers a phenomenal return on investment, one of the best anywhere in government. They do this by making Americans safer and the world more stable, by creating jobs at home and promote trading partners that will buy American goods, saving lives and building up health systems so other countries can take better care of their people”.

However, with the news of upcoming cuts to foreign assistance under the Trump administration, many other African countries may not be as lucky as Benin in obtaining U.S. government support.

*** Former Ambassador Omar Arouna is President & CEO GlobalSpecialty, LLC

***The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) is a bilateral United States foreign aid agency established by the U.S. Congress in 2004, applying a new philosophy toward foreign aid. It is an independent agency separate from the State Department and USAID

 ***The Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) is a bilateral US development assistance program announced by President Bush in March 2002.

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