Benin’s President Patrice Talon met on Wednesday with his predecessor Thomas Boni Yayi for the first time in five years, indicating a possible thaw in relations between the government and the opposition in the West African country.
Boni Yayi, 70, arrived smiling and looking relaxed as the two men greeted each other warmly ahead of the hour-long meeting at the presidential palace, an AFP journalist reported.
Afterwards, the 63-year-old Talon told reporters that he had taken pleasure in seeing Boni Yayi once more in “this place that holds memories” of his decade-long presidency.
For his part, Boni Yayi said: “A lot of people think there’s a deep rift between Talon and Yayi, but there’s nothing deep.”
He added: “I made some proposals to the president… notably that he put an end to political arrests so that all of our exiled compatriots… can come home.”
The two men are former allies — Talon, a cotton tycoon, bankrolled Boni Yayi’s successful presidential runs in 2006 and 2011.
But they fell out in late 2012, prompting Talon to leave the country for three years, accused of trying to poison Boni Yayi.
Once praised as a vibrant multi-party democracy, the former French colony has veered onto an authoritarian path under Talon, with a steady campaign against his political foes, critics say.
But Talon has been praised for his efforts to develop the poor country of around 12 million people.
After the 2016 election, the two men held talks brokered by Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara, but they failed to reconcile.
Tensions between them were rekindled during legislative elections in 2019.
Boni Yayi questioned the legality of the polls, after which security forces surrounded his home for nearly two months, prompting him to go into exile.
The ensuing crisis saw demonstrations and violence in which dozens were shot dead.
In November 2019, Talon and Boni Yayi were set to meet but the former president did not turn up at the palace.
Tensions resurfaced in April this year when Talon was re-elected president with more than 86 percent of the vote.
Most leading opposition figures were not allowed to run, some were arrested, and violence broke out in central Benin, Boni Yayi’s home region.
Soldiers dispersed protesters who had set up barricades. At least two people were shot dead and dozens of opposition activists were arrested or managed to flee to neighbouring countries.
Reckya Madougou, one of the opposition leaders who were barred from running, was detained in March on accusations of plotting to disrupt the vote, a charge her lawyer said was politically motivated.
Another opposition figure, academic Joel Aivo, was arrested after the election, as well as dozens of activists.