Patrice Talon: from self-made tycoon to new African leader

Cotonou (AFP) - Benin's new president Patrice Talon, dubbed the "King of Cotton", is a self-made tycoon with a bling-bling style in marked contrast to the more austere past rulers of the West African country.

The 57-year-old drove to a polling station on Sunday in a Porsche and has vowed a "new beginning" for the tiny coastal nation where high unemployment is a major problem.

The tycoon, who made his money in the key cotton sector and running Cotonou's port -- a regional maritime hub -- is one of the most powerful figures in Beninese business.

He looks the part with designer glasses, his Jaguar sports cars and his fondness for the chic George V hotel in Paris.

But he became public enemy number one of former president Thomas Boni Yayi, whose successful election campaigns he bankrolled in 2006 and 2011.

In 2012, Talon was accused of being the brains behind an alleged plot to poison the president, then the following year of attempting to endanger the security of the state.

- Embezzlement cases -

At the time, Talon was being prosecuted in several embezzlement cases and skipped the country. Boni Yayi pardoned him in May 2014, paving the way for his return from Paris and his election bid.

A man of modest origins from the Atlantic port town and ex-slave trading post of Ouidah, Talon went on to study at Dakar's science faculty before transferring to Paris' National School of Civil Aviation (ENAC).

Despite passing the entrance exams, he failed a medical test and was forced to give up his dream of becoming a pilot.

Talon is a Fon -- one of Benin's main ethnic and linguistic groups -- and this has helped in his early career. He has since maintained close links with the country's power elite.

He decided to run for president following his return from exile in Paris "perhaps as a way of protecting himself by becoming a major political figure rather than a rich but vulnerable businessman", said analyst Gilles Yabi, from Wathi, a Dakar-based think-tank.

But his victory was not always assured, coming out of the first round with 100,000 less votes than his main rival, outgoing prime minister Lionel Zinsou.

For the second round, he had the support of 24 of the 32 candidates from the first round, including fellow businessman Sebastien Ajavon, who won 22.07 percent of the initial vote.

His success and taste for luxury have attracted support from many young Beninese, who see in him a person who knows how to create jobs and wealth on a national scale.

Among his flagship policies is a pledge to decentralise the powers currently concentrated in the hands of president.

He has also pledged to introduce a five year term limit, with presidents compelled to step aside after just one term, an unheard of development in Africa.