Lionel Zinsou doesn’t lack ambition. Last June, Zinsou resigned as chair and CEO of PAI Partners, a Paris-based private equity firm, to accept his appointment as prime minister of Benin. The financier, a dual citizen of France and the francophone West African nation, recently announced plans to run for president in the February 28 election.
Although many regard his foray into politics with suspicion, Zinsou, 62, has family history on his side. His uncle Émile Derlin Zinsou was among the first presidents of Benin following its independence from France in 1960. During his yearlong rule, which began in 1968, the elder Zinsou tackled the nation’s severe economic and financial problems, significantly reducing its deficit.
Nearly 50 years later, Zinsou has similar goals for Benin, whose population numbers roughly 10.5 million. His election platform pledges to strengthen the economy, alleviate poverty and move people from informal to formal work. Beninese gross domestic product, currently around $9.6 billion, will grow by 5.3 percent in 2016, the International Monetary Fund projects, a healthy pace for an emerging country but slightly down from last year. This pullback owes much to a dramatic slowdown in trading partner Nigeria, Benin’s eastern neighbor and Africa’s largest economy. Benin is one of the world’s least developed nations: Gross national income stands at about $890 per capita, versus $1,638 for sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, according to the World Bank Group.
France-born Zinsou, who holds advanced degrees in social sciences and economic history from the École normale supérieure in Paris and the London School of Economics, has plenty of business experience. After spending the early 1980s working in academia and for the French government (including a two-year stint as a speechwriter for former prime minister Laurent Fabius), he drifted into private industry.
In 1986 he joined what is now Paris-based food manufacturer Danone as controller, rising to head several divisions before moving to investment bank Rothschild & Cie as a managing director in 1997. Eleven years later he joined PAI, which now manages €7.9 billion ($8.6 billion) in assets, to sit on the firm’s executive committee.
Zinsou’s French background has raised hackles: Critics point to his ties with the former colonial power and his disconnection from the realities of life in Benin. Some think departing President Thomas Boni Yayi has had too strong a hand in his political rise. Having nixed the prime minister post in a 2013 cabinet restructuring, ex-banker Boni Yayi, who is finishing the second of two five-year terms allowed by law, reintroduced it, appointing Zinsou. Opponents view this move as paving the way for the Franco-Beninese economist, who is running for president under the banner of the ruling Cowry Forces for an Emerging Benin (FCBE) party, which lost its parliamentary majority last spring.
Either way, Zinsou has been taking steps to prepare himself for the West African nation’s highest office. Over the years he’s maintained loose ties with Benin, where his father was born. Zinsou has slowly worked his way back into public life, serving as special adviser to Boni Yayi from 2006 to 2011. In 2014 he led the charge in conceiving and chairing the French-African Foundation for Growth, a public-private partnership tasked with building new economic relationships between France and various African countries. In that capacity he headed discussions with the international community to raise some €18 billion to support public and private sector economic expansion in Benin.
Pascal Koupaki, the prime minister dismissed by Boni Yayi in 2013, will confront Zinsou at the polls. But there’s no shortage of other competition: This year’s presidential election has a record 48 candidates, pending approval by a constitutional court in January. Zinsou’s campaign has been pocked with setbacks, among them his helicopter crashing on Boxing Day. The PM was fine, though the chopper was totaled. Politics is a rough game.
Follow Georgie Hurst on Twitter at @Ghurst_iimag.