In 2011, Canada exported just over $14 million in goods to Benin. Benin sent to Canada a mere $22,981 in merchandise.
To put it diplomatically, as the Canadian foreign affairs department does on its website, “commercial relations with Benin have been limited, although they show much potential.”
It’s Comlan Pamphile Goutondji’s job to act on that potential. The new ambassador for Benin to Canada agrees the state of trade is weak.
But he’s hopeful a country-to-country investment deal will change that. Benin’s president, Thomas Boni Yayi, clad in a striking blue suit, stood alongside Prime Minister Stephen Harper to watch the signing of that Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement in Ottawa in January. It was the first of many such deals that Canada has struck with sub-Saharan African countries.
While Canada has ratified the deal, as of Nov. 13 it was still winding its way through Benin’s national assembly for ratification. Mr. Goutondji said he expected the ratification process to be finished in roughly the next month.
He hopes the deal will give his fellow citizens more confidence to invest in Canada, and Canadian businesspersons more confidence to invest in his west African country, a narrow strip sandwiched between tiny Togo and giant Nigeria, which is home to about 10 million people.
The former French colony’s main economic engine is agriculture, and particularly cotton production. The government wants the country to become more industrialized in order to add value to the cotton business. Mr. Goutondji sees opportunities in agribusiness and new communications technologies.
While Canada views Benin as “an example of the successful implementation of democracy, stability and good governance in Africa,” it dropped Benin from its list of international development focus countries in 2009. But it still gave the country almost $13 million in development help in 2011-12, mostly through multilateral and regional projects.
Development co-operation is still important and the needs are still there, but Mr. Goutondji said his focus is on boosting those weak trade and investment ties.
He hopes to visit Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto to reach out to the Canadian business community. He’s also keen to name honorary consuls in those cities. Benin now only has Quebec covered, with representatives in Montreal and Rimouski, where citizens of Benin are living.
His main job is to follow up with the projects started during his president’s January visit. At the time, Mr. Boni Yayi was also the chair of the African Union.
During the visit, Mr. Harper spoke of “shared security interests.” During a larger push against human smuggling, Canada started a capacity-building partnership with Benin in 2012. Canada has given Benin two or three boats for marine patrols along Benin’s coast, said Mr. Goutondji, with the aim of boosting security and dropping migrant smuggling.
Almost 150 Sri Lankan migrants were arrested in Benin and deported last year as they were trying to reach Canada, reported The National Post. The paper noted that the incident was one of several smuggling attempts of Sri Lankans that used West Africa as a transit hub. Mr. Harper’s special adviser on human smuggling and illegal migration, Ward Elcock, met with Mr. Boni Yayi in Benin in 2011.
Mr. Goutondji said he is pleased with Canada’s security co-operation, but it could help even more. Benin needs more police training, he said.
He’s also looking to boost university partnerships during his posting.
A down-to-earth GG
It’s Mr. Goutondji’s first ambassadorial post, after having spent four years as Benin’s chargé d’affaires in South Africa and another stint in Nigeria as a first counsellor.
Speaking in French with a smattering of English and seated in a cushy leather sofa in his embassy meeting room, Mr. Goutondji said since arriving in September he’s already met, among others, House Speaker Andrew Scheer, International Development Research Centre president Jean Lebel, and Jules Savaria, a director for West and Central Africa with the former Canadian International Development Agency. And he said he was very impressed by the down-to-earth attitude of Governor General David Johnston, to whom he presented his credentials in Quebec City on Oct. 3.
When he’s not at work, Mr. Goutondji said he hopes to discover Canada by travelling with his family. He has brought along his wife Leopoldine Abul-Goutondji, 16-year-old daughter Pamela and 14-year-old son Jean-Pamphile. Two older children are still back in South Africa continuing their studies.