Vital Sounouvou was working in Dubai, keeping an eye on the run-up to the elections back home in Benin. Sounouvou is founder of Exportunity.com, a company working to promote global trade in Africa, to make it cheaper and easier for countries to do business with Benin and other developing African economies.
Some of what he saw was too familiar: candidates with a lot of money to spend who Sounouvou didn’t think were motivated by what was best for Benin. It is common in Benin for candidates to give out cash to voters, even though studies have shown this tactic has little effect on how a voter behaves at the polls.
Where Sounouvou sees the greatest damage and potential for corruption is when candidates pay community leaders to publicly support them. “When local influencers are paid to speak about someone they don’t believe in, they end up convincing those who [don’t have] access to the real information. People will vote for the person who has been spoken about the most.”
But when Sounouvou found out a man he admired was planning on running for president, he decided that giving his vote was not enough. He offered his services and returned to Benin to help plan the campaign. “It’s the first campaign I’ve worked on,” said Sounouvou. “It’s not something I’d do as a career. I’m just doing this because I believe in [the candidate].”
He wasn’t alone. Sounouvou’s experience with Exportunity.com earned him the position of communications team head for the campaign, where he directed a team of 40 young volunteers. “Our job was to transmit our candidate’s vision to the population and broadcast it in all possible ways.”
Sounouvou also coordinated regional communications teams throughout Benin. He and his team met daily at the campaign office to strategize and to work to counter falsehoods he said were being spread by the wealthier campaigns.
It’s the first campaign in Benin to fully take advantage of social media, using WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. “The best way to combat money is with conviction and truth,” Sounouvou said.
The biggest challenge his team faced was that their candidate didn’t have nearly as much money as his opponents. But Sounouvou thought the candidate’s vision and the enthusiasm of his young supporters in getting the word out could make up for what they didn’t have in cash.
He credited his candidate’s ability to both talk to and listen to young people for the volunteers’ willingness to give a month of their time to help him get elected. In the lead-up to the official campaign launch, the candidate would often ask for his young supporters’ input. “One day he called asking if I’d seen his speech,” said Sounouvou. The candidate asked Sounouvou what he thought and how he could improve his message. A lot of young people discovered him and got involved, Sounouvou said, “because the guy knows how to talk to young people.”
Sounouvou felt optimistic about what he and the other volunteers did to support their candidate. “What I can say is that at the end I’ll feel good because I feel that I’m in the right fight.”
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