By Ajong Mbapndah L
Recently slammed with a heavy jail sentence on what he considers as trumped up charges the former Finance Minister of Benin is refusing to go down, and certainly not without a fight, a fight he thinks President Patrice Talon is scared of. In a recent interview, Komi Koutche says the cavalier manner in which the whole trial took place follows a systematic pattern of the current President trying to take out political opponents who pose a strong threat to his 2021 reelection agenda.
Under President Talon, the democratic gains of the last thirty years are been erased at a very alarming rate and the people of Benin must brace up to challenge this, says Koutche considered by many as the most formidable challenger that President Talon has now. While this is still to be verified, the extraordinary lengths that the government of Benin went to see this prison sentence leveled on him is unprecedented in the country’s history.
I am Confident that the system in place that is destroying the values that have powered our country for about three decades now cannot last for a long time says Komi Koutche in discussing his political ordeal and other perspectives.
Thanks, sir, for accepting this interview, as we were getting ready for his interview, word came from Benin that a jail sentence of 20 years had been slammed on you for various charges, what is your reaction to this?
Komi Koutché: Thank you, sir, for giving me this occasion. In response to your question, I will just tell you that I am not surprised. Beninese or people who know a little bit about what Benin has become since 2016 when Patrice Talon became the head of the state are not surprised either. He clearly stated that what makes an African President renew his mandate is not the results of his actions, but his capacity to be a strong man who frames his own legal context and builds his own institutions to neutralize major figures or challengers who do not share his point of view. That is what he is doing. He has a specific plan for all those figures who can contest and beat him in the next presidential election in Benin. After many other figures of opposition (included the former President Boni Yayi) who have already been sentenced on bogus charges by Talon’s private justice or pushed into exile far from their country, I am the latest on the list after almost three for years of a bogus process that I cannot waste your precious time to expose here.
How do you intend to fight back these charges and restore your good name?
Komi Koutché: Let me just let you know that there are no charges against me, but there are bogus fabrications of a government that has decided to run the state like a private company for the sole interest of the president and his supporters, and who cannot exist without neutralizing the major figures of the opposition. Just talking about the recent developments on the case without a brief overview of the whole matter could make you miss important aspects that your readers will need to base their judgement.
Let me restate that I have held many prominent political and professional positions in my country. My last position was the position of Senior Minister of Economy and Finance. Politically, I am also a major figure in my country. I was elected member of parliament in 2015 and narrowly missed to become the president of the parliament (the second personality of the country after the President) by one vote (41 votes for me and 42 for my challenger).
Before all this, I was CEO of the national microfinance fund, one of the major institutions established in 2006 to fight against poverty. During my tenure, all the legal audits were done according to the law and everything was approved by both the auditors, the government and the international organizations like for example the Islamic development bank. Also, under my tenure, that institution was the first public institution of support to microfinance to be certified ISO 9001 in the world. I left that position since 2013 and have held different ministerial portfolios.
Everything started in 2017 when Patrice Talon and his government broadcasted that they audited my management at the head of that fund. I just heard this through the new paper. How can you audit the management of someone without associating him to get his version of the charges you are raising against him? I filed an appeal at the constitutional court which stated that the government had violated the constitution as it is not possible to audit one’s management without associating him to hear his version. At that time the Minister of Justice was Joseph Djogbenou a personal lawyer of Patrice Talon. He left this position later to become President of the constitutional court. Therefore, he proceeded to reverse the decision on my case to state that this was not a violation of the constitution.
On April 2nd, 2018, my lawyer in Cotonou called me to let me know that a judge wants to hear me on April 4th, 2018. Since 2016, I am in the USA. It was not possible for me to leave the USA and to arrive to Cotonou at that date. Then the judge signs a warrant of arrest on April 4th, 2018. I arrived in Cotonou early on April 6th, 2018 and showed up at the office of the judge. After many hours of hearing, he concluded that there was no matter to arrest me as the government was requesting through the persecution. He canceled the warrant of arrest and let me free. That judge will be later subjected to persecution. He was removed from his position of judge and the government changed the law on the superior council which appoints and punishes the judges.
The President now resorted to his council of Ministers and people close to him. Therefore, the justice system became his private tool to do what he wants. In July, he created a new special jurisdiction and transferred my case to that new jurisdiction. He later cancelled my ordinary passport in August and ordered my extra judiciary arrest. We filed an appeal but until the moment I am responding to theses question, there was no response. It was under such circumstances that the President of the new jurisdiction, a father in law of the Minister of Justice who was pursuing me and later became the President of the Constitutional Court, asked me to show up before him. How can I show up when the same government that wants me to show up has cancelled my passport and order an extra judiciary arrest against me? Recently, the scenario was the same. My lawyer was asked to tell me to show up on April 3rd, 2020. He provide the stay home order issued by the state where I am leaving in the USA and raised the fact that all the airlines companies have cancelled , but as the goal was clear, they did not consider all this and decided to sentence me. You can then understand everything. It is regrettable that some African countries are going back to a system that we decided to abandon since the beginning of the 90s.
May we know the reasons why you have so far avoided showing up in court, if you are innocent or have nothing to hide, why not allow the judiciary or courts in Benin to handle the process?
Komi Koutché: If you follow the way the government has organized this process since the beginning, you will realized that the aim was not to hear from me for any charges. The aim was to organize a process that kept me far from my country, and that could last in time to see if I will get tired to abandon my convictions and sell my soul to the government. If I did not do so, the strategy was to condemn me by default just to prevent me from contesting for the next presidential election. Can you tell me how you can cancel the passport of someone who lives in the USA and in the meantime invite him to show up before a special court in Benin? The other question I can ask you, is how do you think that a normal court can ask someone living in the USA to come to Cotonou now that the world is facing the COVID 19 and almost all the airports are closed? I never refuse to show up before the judge. When my passport was not revoked by the government, I showed up before the judge. But all the development after that as I restate in your first question showed that the aim in this bogus case is not to hear someone, but the aim is to keep someone far from his country because the President does not want to have an opposition.
It is unprecedented in the history of Benin to have a government order an international warrant of arrest for a former top government official, under what conditions were you arrested in Spain and under what terms were you released?
Komi Koutché: Yes, you are right. Benin has been a model of democracy for over 30 years. Our constitution was the base of everything. The different Presidents who had led the country during the last 30 years since we entered the era of the democracy in 1990 have been bound by the constitution. Unfortunately, since we had a new President, a businessman who controls all the economic sectors of the country, his only aim is to sustain his power. And the only way to do so is to create bogus judiciary cases to weaken or to put in trouble the leaders of the opposition. I am not the first. All the major leaders of the opposition are today in exile. The justice in Benin has become the private justice of Patrice Talon who uses it as his personal tool for himself and against the people he is supposed to protect.
In December 2018, I was going for a conference of opposition parties in Paris where most of the major figure of opposition are in exile. The government followed my path and when transiting in Spain issues came up. The government had fraudulently notified Interpol that I had declared the loss of my passport, but I did not know. When I was stopped with my passport, the police of Spain called Benin and they lied that there was a warrant of arrest against me. Therefore, the Minister of justice had certified the already cancelled warrant of arrest and sent it to Interpol. After many months of an overwhelming procedure, Benin was not able to prove the charge alleged against me and the Spanish justice concluded that It was a political persecution and released me.
Considering that the government of Benin has revoked your passport, how is Komi Koutche able to move around the world now?
Komi Koutché: We filed an appeal with Interpol which at its 109 annual meeting concluded that it was political persecution and remove the order from Benin on my passport from its database. Furthermore, the African Court of Human and People’ Rights which sentenced the government to revoke the decision of cancelation of my passport. Obviously, I cannot go to my country because the government does not revoke it decision; however, since Interpol does not have anything against me in its database, I can travel until the date of expiration of my passport.
In what shape did the government of Presidential Yayi Boni that you served under leave Benin and in what shape do you find it today, in other words, what has changed for Benin since you left office?
Komi Koutché: What is important is what our democracy was like when Boni Yayi was leaving as President of Benin. The first indicator is that he was succeeded by Patrice Talon, a man who tried to kill him and who will later become the candidate of the opposition. Such a thing can happen only in country with strong democracy. The Benin democracy, a label for west Africa until 2016 has been destroyed. Today, instead of the parliament of Benin, we have a private parliament of Patrice Talon as he prevented all the parties of opposition from contesting in for the last election. There were protesters who were killed by the army under on his orders. Benin is not so far from what Gulag has been in the past.
The second thing is about the economy. As the last Minister of Finance and economy of Boni Yayi, I can tell you and there are many reports to testify, we left a very strong economy with a robust and inclusive GDP. The economic growth was 5,2% when we were leaving. It was inclusive as many social programs were in place to help underprivileged people to improve their living conditions. What has all this become today? Only God can tell you. Since 2016, there is no credible source of data. There is no contradiction on the performances that the government communicates. The few people who try to challenge the data that the government communicates are jailed. What I know is that we have an economic growth of almost 7%, while the index of poverty has become deeper than before and the government has to go every month to the financial market to borrow money before ensuring the essential of its action.
During the two tenures of Boni Yayi, we tried to build a strong middle class and to create programs that could ensure a transition of the underprivileged people to the middle class. all that has been destroy today and only people close to the President and his supporters can be wealthy. In other words, the middle class has disappeared and the underprivileged people who were in transition to the middle class have become poorer.
What needs to be done to put Benin back on the right path and once more make it the promising example of democracy that it used to be?
Komi Koutché: The first thing will be to reconquer the democracy. The situation of Benin today is critical and even worst than what it has been before the national conference of 1990. Benin need to be rebuilt. That requires forgiveness from all those millions of people who are injured in all sorts of ways by the actions of the current government which does not care about the wellbeing of the population. Their main has been to stifle all opposition to their bizarre type of leadership and to create a class of privileged people. The population is ready to restore the democratic values they are used to. Unfortunately, the use of the army and police to kill is a something that Beninese are not use to.
Some of your supporters say the reason President Talon is coming after you so hard is because you are a potential rival for the 2021 elections, does Komi Koutché have any political ambitions or plans to challenge Talon in 2021?
Komi Koutché: That sums all the agitation from President Talon and his team towards me. The President is seeing in me, his strongest challenger and since he wants to maintain power at all cost after taking control of all sectors of the economy, the only strategy guiding all this is to make me unable to run for the next election as he already did for other leaders of opposition.
This interview is been done at a time when the Africa is beginning to feel the crunch of the coronavirus, what is your assessment of the response from government in fighting the pandemic, and what advise do you give to your compatriots in Benin to stay safe?
Komi Koutché: We have to worry about the potential development of the coronavirus in the coming weeks in Africa. Regarding how the situation is hard for the developed countries, it is important to be thinking about what the situation will be if the crisis has to reach a certain level in Africa. I must recognize here that some African leaders have took the threats of the coronavirus seriously and initiated some relevant dispositions that need to be highlighted. For example, for the west African region, which is the region I know the best, countries like Senegal, Togo, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, and Niger take the crisis in serious. However, there are some countries that are still playing with this dangerous crisis which may not be far from a world war III. For example, the borders and the airports of Benin are still open while the number of cases are increasing.
As a former finance Minister, you certainly understand the impact that the coronavirus will have on African economies, what are some of the things Benin and other African countries could do to mitigate the economic shock from the coronavirus?
Komi Koutché: The coronavirus will leave the world in a new situation. We are undoubtedly moving toward a new order in the world. The crisis will impact most of the economies but will also create a mutation in the interactions among people. In the countries where the leaders will not be able to find the right solutions, the crisis could lead to social crisis that can cause a problem of stability and security. The only way to mitigate, is to be aware that this crisis can be more dangerous than a world war III, as there is no party to discuss a cease fire with. Once the leaders are aware of that; they will need to find strong solutions that can simultaneously address the coronavirus and prevent from social crisis. That is where we have to congratulate the African leaders who have initiated solutions to address the crisis and to help their populations also during this period of crisis.
As we wrap up this interview, what are your future plans, when do you plan on returning to Benin?
Komi Koutché: Thank you for this occasion. Let me not disclose my strategy here. You will see later what I am going to do.
And a last question on the future of Benin, what gives you a reason to hope and what are your fears?
Komi Koutché: I have strong reason to hope for my country. The most important one is the level of determination of the youth. I do not have any fear because I am confident that the system in place that is destroying the values that have powered our country for about three decades now cannot last for a long time.