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'Nigeria is an Inspiration to Benin Republic'


Last Saturday, the National Stadium of the Republic of Benin in Coutonou was filled to the brim when Dr. Richard Mahougnon Senou, the 57-year old father of three and World Bank senior financial analyst, made a grand entry into the Benin's presidential race. Senou, while declaring his presidential ambition, told the excited crowd that his vision was to transform the entire country. He later spoke with newsmen from Nigeria in his residence, where he spoke of his experience, Nigeria's relationship with Benin Republic and sundry issues. Sheriff Balogun was there

When actually did you start nursing the idea of this presidential ambition? Since 1999 I started getting involved in social activities in Benin, providing water for rural areas, creating and sponsoring health care projects for the people and getting involved in other social programmes. By the time I started all these projects, the ambition was not there. I just wanted to give back to the community at that time without any political ambition.
But when the people realized that I was doing more good, I received a wake up call about 5 years ago that I needed to serve the people. I did not decide to run for the Presidency even then. I only started to manage my life in a way that would bring me closer and closer to the people. So that was how it started. My ambition did not just come over night.
With what we saw today at the stadium, would you say it was evident that the people want you?
Well, I know they love me. That's what I can tell you. From there, to win the election, it takes a number of things that I have to do. That's why I told you that I'm going to use a very simple way to communicate with the people, touching their spirit and caring for them.
I'm sincere when I say I care for the Beninoise people. Of course a number of politicians have said this. But I know that if I have a good communication with the people, then I can do it. Communication will be the key word in the coming presidential election in Benin.
How many political parties are here in this country and which of them do you belong to?
I have no political party and like I said earlier I'm running independently with the support of four, five small parties with national accreditation. But you see, take the old men here, whenever you do or manage your thing very well like I'm doing here you can do without the support of any big party.
Do you know of (S.B.J.) Oshofa (founder of Celestial Church of Christ)? The guy who replaced him is a very close friend of mine and the group made a declaration today that they would support Mahugnon and that is very powerful because these people not only represent almost 1/10 of the total people in Benin, but are also people who are very sincere.
When they decide to do something, they do it in a transparent way . So these are my supporters and that is the reason I'm so confident that I can win the election.
You speak so confidently on this race. What makes you think you can win this election?
First of all, the two icons in politics in the Republic of Benin are close to eachother. The profile put foward by the Beninoise people is demanding for a man who is quite familiar with the international community, international business, international law, who knows the financial implication of these and who is a brand new man who can carry forward all his potential experiences with the World Bank or IMF .
Another point is that I have worked with the police. They believe I can run this country with the privilege that I 've had and that I can lead the country to a new horizon. That security gives me so much confidence.
By March 6, if you eventually emerge as the President of Benin Republic, what do you have in stock for the people of this country?
I have programmes, socio-economic programmes. I put some of them in French but unfortunately you don't understand French. It is basically democracy as you know the name in West Africa. There is no way democracy can be a problem in this country.
Thererefore, we'll make sure we strengthen democracy and by strengthening democracy, we continue with what the predecessors have done.
Secondly, we will ensure a private sector development. A number of people in Benin believe that the state can create jobs. But who is going to create the job? Nobody. To create jobs - that's what we are going to do because as you may know, about 200,000 men and women in Benin have no jobs right now. It's a very embarrassing situation and someone needs to avert it.
The third point is infrastructure. You know we need to make infrastructure services like electricity, telephoning, among others efficient. Benin is one of the countries with the most expensive cost of telephone. You've noticed that right. So that is what happens. We need to reduce this thing. We need to build the highway between Nigeria and C'ote de voire.
Tight security is also a pillar of my programmes. And lastly, strengthening the role of women is another programme. You know a number of pregnant women died in the rural areas. Five out of them are still dying today in Benin when they are at the point of delivery. You see, provision of better health care delivery will be put in place immediately I assume office
What are the strategies you've mapped out for all these programmes to be implemented because itís one thing to have these programmes in mind and another thing is to implement them when you are eventually elected.
Listen, you can ask the people of Benin and they will tell you that I'm the one with the less formalized programmes. All my life I ve spent on writing reports, financial reports but at the end of the day, I have achieved one or two things. I know exactly what you're saying and that's why I do not want to rely on very good reports on the economy of electricity price, this is what should be done.
And you'll actually remember the grassroots?
All my life I've been in touch with them; even in all my professional life. In fact yesterday, we had a tour of the rural areas and I know exactly what I'm talking about. Most of the countries where I have worked, 7o per cent of the population are usually poor. So I know the rural community very well.
When is the campaign kicking off properly?
It is going to be between February 17 and March 23
Can we know you better?
I just gave the profile and you know now my name Mahougno Senou. Mahougnon means God is great all the time. Secondly, I left this country 22 years ago. I went to Washington DC to study and work with the world bank. I'm the one who conceptualize and who put into paper the card of development from the scrabbles in Nigeria through Benin, Togo to Ghana.
My profile again is that, I'm a financial expert. I have done the financial job for more than 5 years between 16 countries of ECOWAS. I spent 25 years in my office in Washington with 50 experts with a vision for electricity in this region. I'm well known in the Nigeria community, the financial world, as well as the energy world, the (Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation) NNPC. This is who I am but building a nation is what I know best.
Can we know the relationship between you and the incumbent president and if possible the support you're getting from him?
I know the name of the incumbent president. There is no relationship and so far, I have no plan for that, maybe you can help to build the plan to get support from him. I understand your question but I have no plan.
You are coming from a totally different background into politics, a game known for deceit and all sorts of vices. How are you going to reconcile these two strange territories.
In fact, if you know the history of the world very well. You will know that the world bank is 60 per cent politics and 40 per cent technical. so, I've been familiar with politics. If you look at my background, I have worked in Nigeria, Ghana, Togo, Sierra Leone, Liberia and recently in Senegal, Co'te d voire, Burundi, Rwanda, Kenya. I've worked in all these countries and I've learnt 50 per cent politics in all these countries. So the continuation will not be hard at all. It will just be that I need to adapt to new situations. I need to make sure that we reduce the expensive cost of telephone .
You also said the other time that you are charming. How then would you cope particularly with the opposite sex?
Look at me. I have a wife. She came from overseas last night to attend my declaration. I have a family. So, I don't have a lot of problems with women. In fact, it is management. I want their votes. That's for sure and I'm sure they will give it to me. That is the most important thing.
Still talking about the campaign, what do you want the people to know about you?
I want the people to see that I'm a dedicated person, that I care for them in that I want to change their lives. I want to stop poverty for their benefits, I want to be a success story for them. This is whom I am and this is how I want to go about.
What do you like most about Nigeria?
Mrs. (Ngozi) Okonjo-Iwela (Finance Minister), that woman is a great lady. What I'm telling you is that, you will see that she is bringing cash into Nigeria today. The fact that, that lady is in finance, you see the kind of development she is doing.
I remember that on December 17, I was in Nigeria, the day Nigeria signed the cancellation of the debt . $19 billion was being cancelled. Who did it? She did it. We'll do more than that for Benin. So why I love Nigeria is (President Olusegun) Obasanjo. You know why? Obasanjo got inspiration. Leadership is inspiration. You get inspired to make the right decision. You empower people. Obasanjo empowered people. Mrs Iweala has been steadfast. If she wanted to become the head of ADB, she would have had it.
This is something very good that she has done in Nigeria and you don't even know that she has a treasure at all. So that's the best thing that Nigeria can say to the outside world, the state of economy. Do you know about 20 billion US dollar has been cancelled in debt, that's huge. I don't think you know that's good in the perception of the international community about your country.
How do you access the government of the incumbent President, Chief Mathew Kerekou since he has been ruling?
Well, when I spoke today and you would see that I gave some respect to him for what his government has done - keeping the country together in peace. But we all recognize some aspects, that he is not perfect. There is no perfect governance.
In Nigeria, President Obasanjo is doing greatly and there are still a number of areas of the economy that are lagging behind. So our President is on the fair side. I give him outstanding performance, in the economic sector I give him 30/30.
What message do want to convey to Nigerians?
Thanks for being here. I think in the history of Benin Republic, this is the first time press men will come from Nigeria to talk to a presidential candidate . And this is based on the type of relationship that exist between Nigeria and Benin Republic. What we need to do is to set up a new type of beginning to upgrade the relationship between Nigeria and Benin. In fact, this is the best time to do it because the Minister of Finance in Nigeria used to be a colleague of mine. I was with her recently to let her know that I'm interested in the presidential election in Benin and she received me very well. I was welcomed there.
She spoke to President Obasanjo about me. She said the next step for me was to come to you guys in Nigeria and let the Nigerians know about my campaign in Nigeria by introducing me to the Nigerian Newspapers, TV, business community because it will help in the economic development of Benin because Benin cannot exist without Nigeria; yes because if we have to re-launch the economic development of this country, we have to sit down and discuss it with Nigeria.
Let me give you an example. Take the port activities - that is the Cotonou port activities. I cannot imagine at first that this port is not a private port. It should be and Nigeria should be 20 percent or 40 percent shareholder in that port because more than 50 percent of the port activities are from Nigeria. So, you don't need to come from Harvard to think like that. This is my vision for economic development in Benin and that's what I want you guys to convey to the Nigerian community that the new governance in Benin is going to strenghen their relationship with Nigeria as it has never been before.
My vision is to build the highway from Nigeria to Benin to Togo to Ghana to C'ote de voire with formalities at the borders, so that when you arrive, 5 minutes later, everything is done and you go. That is what I mean. Nigeria is making it easy for me. We need to get Nigerians interested in Benin because so far, it's only Benin that is getting the whole thing. So this is the message I want to send to Nigerians.


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