Benin president taps China for controversial railway


Cotonou (AFP)

Benin's President Patrice Talon has asked local firm Petrolin and French giant Bollore to "withdraw" from a major rail infrastructure project to make way for China, in the latest development of the controversial scheme.

In an interview published on Thursday in the French magazine Challenges, Talon asked the two companies to "withdraw amicably from the project", which links Benin to Niger to the north, promising they will be "compensated fairly".

"A private investor cannot finance the railway we want alone," the head of state was quoted as saying, describing Bollore's offer as "lower-end".

"China has the necessary financial means" to support work estimated to cost around $4 billion (3.3 billion euros), said Talon.

"China has demonstrated its technical know-how" to build infrastructure in Africa, added the president, who rarely speaks to the media.

Talon's remarks are the latest twist in a saga that has been going on for years.

In 2008, Benin and Niger launched a bid to manage the construction and management of a 740-kilometre (462-mile) railway network linking Cotonou and Niamey.

The bid was won by Petrolin, a company owned by Beninese businessman Samuel Dossou, but was handed over by the government in 2013 to the Bollore group through Benirail, a company representing a public-private partnership.

However last October, a Benin judge ruled that Petrolin should have had the contract and dismissed Bollore.

- Standstill -

After years in court and months of negotiations, the project remains at a standstill, strangling growth in the country of 10 million inhabitants whose economy depends on distribution of goods from its port.

Petrolin representatives said that despite Talon's statement they have not been given formal notice to withdraw.

"The withdrawal of Petrolin will be the result of negotiations between Benin and Niger," said Petrolin spokeswoman Claudine Affiavi Prudencio.

"This option (the withdrawal of the project) is not yet formally notified to the Petrolin group" and "at this moment the group hasn't failed", said a source close to the Beninese businessman contacted by AFP.

But a source at the presidency said that the onus was now on the companies to show they can move forward on the project.

"Heads of state (Benin and Niger) have tried to bring them together (Petrolin and Bollore) without success," a presidency source told AFP.

"It would be up to them to show then that they can agree to carry a convincing project," he said.

There was no immediate comment from the Bollore group when contacted by AFP.