| The Courier N°128 July-August 1991 - Dossier : Human Rights- Democracy-Development Country reports: Benin, Western Samoa |
'People are too selfish and they do not show enough love for their country'
Everyone in Benin is convinced that much of' the success of the National Conference was due to Monsignor Isidore de Souza, that rotund, good-natured, mischievous and highly moral man who masterminded the debates, and it came as no surprise when he was made President of' the High Council of the Republic, the nation's legislative body for the transitional period, after the meeting—which he had in fact attended by chance when he stepped into the breach as an eleventh-hour replacement for the bishops' representative. Believers may well see this as the hand of destiny.
In this interview, Monsignor de Souza talks about the main economic problems the transitional government hats had to tackle.
· Monsignor, did the national conference perhaps neglect the economy a little bit... ?
— There were two crises. First of all, there was the economic crisis — the worst, the biggest and the hardest to do anything about. On top of that essentially economic and therefore social crisis, there was a political crisis and everyone in Benin believed the two were linked—bar the Head of State, who spent a lot of time in one of his speeches saying that he had not called the National Conference to go in for pointless political discussions, but because there was an economic crisis he wanted to find answers to. The crisis, to his mind, was essentially an economic one. I told him that there was a political crisis on top of it, as must have been obvious from the fact that the students and civil servants were unwilling to call off their strike until the political system had been changed. This political crisis was the star of the show and I have to say that the National Conference paid a lot more attention to the star than to the economic backdrop' although not without making some hints —but only hints—as to how the basic crisis might be handled. It called for the civil service to be reformed, for example.
· Do you mean pruned ?
— Indeed I do, because one of the main reasons for our crisis is that every bit of Benin's State revenue goes into paying the civil servants, although they and their families only make up 10% of the nation and we have 90% of the population paying the taxes which make up the State
budget and only 10% getting the benefit. That's not right. There are the services which that 10% render to the nation and the economic and social effects of their wages, obviously, but it would have been better to have the State's income doing more. The civil service is enormous and it is easy to see why, because the State in fact thought it had to recruit everyone who had been to university into the civil service. It systematically took on all new graduates, without any idea of planning requirements or possibilities. You can't do that. There is no country in the world that can systematically give jobs to all its graduates.
· I think the message has got across now and the students understand...
— No, they don't. Not all of them. And there are people who have got into the civil service with forged diplomas or no qualifications at all. If we check on diplomas strictly, I think, we can cut out at least a third of the civil service, or at least reduce the staff who have only got the certificate of primary education instead of the baccalaureate they claim. They are classified in the light of their diplomas, after all.
· But why hasn't this been done over the past year ?
— The executive should have set up a commission to do it, but it had to tackle the immediate problem of finding wages.
· And there were the elections, weren't there, because if you lay off' a third of the civil service, you have that manny more dissatisfied people, don't you ?
— It is a complicated problem, I have to say. We Beninois are very complicated, as our present President of the Republic so often says. We want one thing and we want the opposite at the same time. We want to rationalise the civil service without laying anyone off and it can't be done. Yet we are very good at opposing Goverment action. I realise that we shall find that we haven't done anything like that which the National Conference asked when we take stock of this transitional period. As an economic measure too there was the privatization of our State firms, but that has been done.
· These were healthier firms, were they'?
— There are some privatisations which I don't personally agree with at all and the privatisation of the BCB, the Banque Commerciale du Benin, is one of them. I am neither a banker nor an economist, but I still think that we were stupid to liquidate the BCB. It wasn't even privatised. More privatization is on the cards —- the La Beninoise brewery, for example. Privatising that would be a lesser evil, but liquidating it would be another mistake. When companies of that sort go broke in a country where a dot of beer is drunk, it has to be due to bad management. If it were run properly, it would make a profit.
· That looks as if you've developed a taste for political action
— I was already talking like that before I started in this business.
· Yes, but it probably didn't get you anywhere at the time...
— It doesn't even now, because I'm not on the executive. I tried to oppose BCB liquidation as much as I could, but I failed.
· They say the election campaign had much more to do with people than with ideas or programmes...
— What I am about to say doesn't apply just to Benin. It applies to nearly all of Africa. For the moment, we are electing men, not choosing programmes. This is a dominant feature of Africa. Some of our parties proposed programmes, but they looked so much alike that, if you read one, you'd read the lot, as they were all based on the same economic, social and political analysis. And the candidates themselves didn't insist much on their programmes either. Even the President elect never mentioned his. He hasn't got one.
· Is this structural adjustment ?
— By no means. Structural adjustment isn't a programme. It's now that the programme has to be designed and I hope it will be drawn up not just by him and the one or two parties which back him. I hope it will emerge from a national concensus.
· You are for a government of national unity ?
— I'm talking about programmes, not governments. If I were President of the Republic, I wouldn't try and form a government right away. I'd start by trying to get some national consensus on a government programme and I'd call a mini-conference of about 60 people for this purpose; economists, experts and leading figures who hold the traditional power and are far stronger than the President in some fields, the leaders of all the parties represented in the National Assembly. And once the programme was ready, I'd ask them how many ministers they thought we needed to supervise implementation, insisting on the need to keep the numbers down on the grounds of austerity—to 10, perhaps, but certainly not 20 or even 17. Only afterwards would I tell them to leave my hands free to form my government to do all the things we had planned together. This Conference will be always kept in mind in all the draft decrees, so everyone will have the impression that it is his particular programme which is being implemented.
· Who knows ? People may well listen Jo you, but doesn't the North-South polarization which appeared in this latest election campaign go against this kind of consensus ?
— Apparently, intellectually, yes. But psychologically and tactically, no. On the contrary, it may provide a solution for North-South polarisation. The fact of getting the people in North and South alike to say what they think, to meet and to discuss together, on the other hand, is going to foster cohesion.
· Would you then put the moral authority which you enjoy in this country at the service of a government to explain that the State cannot do it all ?
— I haven't waited to do so. I met the students again last week and told them, inter alia, that there was no point in asking for the arrears for 1990, the year in which they did no studying, because the Government did not have the means to pay them. One of the things I called for was a social truce, with the trade unions dropping their claims and all of us trying to build the country together—the only way to Bet what they want. Even if they overturned the Government, the change wouldn't bring an immediate, automatic, magic answer to their claims. We have to stop the country going from government to government. We mustn't start on another series of coups d'etat every three or four months.
· Do you think there could be another coup d'etat in Benin after all you've been through ?
— I have no illusions. There might not be another military coup, but there is nothing to say there won't be a civilian one. When you overturn one government after another, you may make people want more, army included—although we have practical evidence that this is no answer. Until we have decided to make an effort and make sacrifices and get resolutely down to work, there will be no answer.
· Does that mean people have not yet got down to work again ?
— Frankly, I have to say that I have seen nothing serious or permanent designed to build the country so far. People are not disinterested enough, nor do they love their country enough. We aren't nationalists. We are individualists and egoists. We have to congratulate the transitional Government and its head, the present President of the Republic, for setting people to work—but they are not yet working as they ought and they never will until every Beninois is convinced that his State is no welfare State. The State is there to try and give everyone the best living conditions, in cohesion, in peace and in tranquillity. But no-one is convinced of this yet. People—students, civil servants and peasants—expect the State to do everything for them. But it can't. Where would it get the money?
·The fact that the President is sick and absent is creating a void at the moment...
— It would be wrong for the period we are currently living through to last too long. This is why I personally am praying and asking people to pray to the Lord to make the President of the Republic better and restore him to full health soon, so that everyone can focus on him in the building of our country. Why are the MPs marking time in their discussions on the rules of procedure? I think—and I mean think, not assert — that one of the reasons for this is the fact that the new President isn't there and hasn't yet formed his Government. People cannot hold two posts—you can either be an MP or a minister—so there is every point in letting things hang fire, because, if they choose now they may well be biting their fingers tomorrow. So they are waiting and, to my mind, waiting is not in the country's interests. We are putting our personal interests before the State's interests and I am free to say so because I am not fishing for anything. I have not got my eye on any jobs or any material advantages and that is my strength.
· To hear you talk, you could almost forget that you are one of the heads of the church in Benin. Is the church in your country finding recruitment cliff cult at the moment ?
— No. Quite the contrary. Under the previous regime, we lost our schools and they wanted to confine us to the vestry and the church and this was highly beneficial to the church. The less freedom we had, the more the ranks of the faithful swelled and now we are forced to push out the walls a little bit so everyone can get in. It's not just the Catholic church either. It's the same for the Protestants, for the sects and for the Moslems. Saying that there was no God in our country was enough to make everyone say that He was thereto
Interview by A.T.