Voodoo, elections take center stage in Benin

COTONOU, Benin (March 3, 2001 2:27 p.m. EST http://www.nandotimes.com) - Voters in Benin go to the polls this weekend to elect a new political leader, as Voodoo officials consult the oracles to fill the nation's top religious post.

The death last month of 89-year-old Sossa Guedehoungue, president of the official National Community of Voodoo, compelled Benin to search for a new leader of the traditional religion at the same time it picks a head of the body politic.

Benin gave the world both voodoo and West Africa's first democratic transfer of power, in 1991 -- but voodoo came long before.

So don't look for chiefs of the centuries-old tradition of voodoo to give the country's decade-old bout with the ballot box a try.

"Voting is a modern notion, an imported notion," said Erick Vidjin Agnih Gbodossou, president of an international association of voodoo, in town from Senegal.

"In democracies, someone who has money can use it to win," Gbodossou said, speaking in a National Community of Voodoo compound and clinic in Benin's commercial capital of Cotonou, as followers spoke softly into cell phones and something out in the courtyard squealed sharply and then stopped.

"That is why we must let the natural forces work," said Gbodossou, wearing a traditional robe. In voodoo, "one should consult the oracles."

At least 60 percent of Benin's 6.3 million people practice voodoo. The tradition holds, in part, that life derives from the natural forces of earth, water, fire and air.

Countless Africans shipped into slavery from this lagoon-lined strip of the south Atlantic, then called the Slave Coast, took the legacy of voodoo with them to the Caribbean, American South, and elsewhere.

White outsiders, intent on supplanting voodoo with their own religions, depicted it as something "barbaric" and "negative," Gbodossou said -- hence the zombies and pin-skewered voodoo dolls of Hollywood.

On its home turf, though, voodoo is widely revered in every aspect of life -- politics included.

Benin President Mathieu Kerekou, seeking re-election, devoted part of Friday's day of campaigning to a rally in the dusty village of Ouidah, the cradle of voodoo.

The 68-year-old Kerekou circled the meeting ground of the fetish-strewn village in a green baseball cap and a smile, against a cacophony provided by Ouidah's young men pounding drums and shaking beer cans full of rocks.

Kerekou initially tried to stamp out voodoo when he ruled Benin as a Marxist dictator for 18 years during the Cold War.

He lost the country's first presidential elections in 1991, angering him so that he placed a voodoo curse on the office. He conceded the loss, nonetheless, and since then has been vying with top rival Nicephore Soglo for power -- and the voodoo vote.

Soglo, a former World Bank administrator, made Jan. 10 National Voodoo Day in Benin after defeating Kerekou in the 1991 election. Kerekou won the office back in 1996. Sunday, it's Soglo's turn again as challenger, among 16 other contenders.

Talk in the closing days of the current campaign had Kerekou putting a magic powder in the water system to somehow help his re-election bid.

Some of Soglo's supporters, meanwhile, feared a repeat of 1991, when what they took to be a curse caused Soglo to fall ill after his election.

"We are very afraid of it happening again," said Agoli Agbo Didier, a 30-year-old teacher.

And as voodoo plays into Benin's politics, Benin's politics play into voodoo. Benin set up the national voodoo bureau in the 1990s, with Guedehoungue picked as its president in a state-sanctioned process among leaders of the various voodoo sects.

One, Daagbo Hounon of Ouidah, boycotted the state selection. Hounon, who traces his lineage all the way back to the 15th-century voodoo chief Dodo, says the position of Benin voodoo leader is his by birthright.

Guedehoungue's death on Jan. 27 opened the government-approved voodoo post.

After assisting in the voodoo president's Feb. 25 burial, the bureau's vice president spent the closing days of the national presidential campaign last week stumping for Kerekou.

Timing in the other selection -- national voodoo bureau president -- is a matter of waiting for signs, said Gbodossou, the visiting international voodoo chief.

The decision could be a matter of a white dove coming to one of the voodoo leaders, for example, "or a special light that shines specially on one person," he said.

In the dirt-road village of Ouidah, meanwhile, the 78-year-old Hounon sits straight-backed in a concrete-floored temple lined with earth-toned murals of his predecessors, starting with Dodo.

Hounon stayed out of the politicking for the nation's presidency, backing no candidate, just as he stayed out of the politicking for the national voodoo post.

"Voodoo is not an association. It does not have rallies. It does not have a president," said young follower Dati Towadan Hounon, kneeling at the traditional voodoo leader's feet and speaking for him.

"Voodoo is not a democracy. Voodoo is a religion."