'Plot' to poison president grips Benin

The case unfolded like the plot of a thriller: the Benin president's niece, his doctor and an ex-minister were accused of being part of a conspiracy to poison him by replacing his medicine.

But this was no novel, and fallout from the accusations made in October may soon come to a head.

The supreme court in this small West African nation is expected soon to decide whether there is enough evidence to try the case after earlier rulings called for the suspects to be freed.

Some see the accusations as President Thomas Boni Yayi's way of ridding himself of political enemies, while others argue that a prominent businessman was seeking revenge against a leader clamping down on corruption.

The case has shaken up politics here, and a number of analysts say the relationship between the businessman, Patrice Talon, and the president, who was once his ally, is behind it all.

It is "like a couple's badly negotiated divorce," said Serge Prince-Agbodjan, who runs a blog analysing legal affairs in Benin. "We are witnessing live Talon's descent into hell."

Even if the supreme court says there is insufficient evidence, it likely will not be the end of the ordeal for Talon. He is accused of being both the mastermind of the poison plot as well as of an alleged foiled coup bid.

He has fled to France, and his case, along with that of another suspected accomplice on the run, Olivier Boko, has been separated from the other accused.

Speaking in an interview with Radio France International when the poison allegations were made, the 55-year-old Talon said of Yayi: "I counseled him and introduced him where I could for his arrival in power in 2006, then in 2011."

The falling out between Yayi and Talon has never been fully explained.

Talon, despite helping finance Yayi's two presidential campaigns, later lost two lucrative state contracts involving the country's port, which accounts for some 60 percent of GDP, and its cotton industry.

Then came the stunning accusations in October.

According to prosecutors, the president's niece, Zouberath Kora-Seke, and his physician Ibrahim Mama Cisse were promised around $2 million to carry out the poison plot. Former commerce minister Moudjaidou Soumanou allegedly acted as an intermediary.

The alleged plot involved replacing Yayi's anti-pain medicine.

Police also said there were claims of a plan for Yayi's niece and his doctor to be assassinated after the plot was carried out to conceal what happened.

Prosecutors said word of the plot leaked when Yayi's niece spoke of it to others, who then warned the president.

Behind it all was Talon, prosecutors say, who several months later in March was also accused of being behind a coup plot foiled by the authorities.

"In June 2011, it was the head of state himself who defended his friend before the press when it came to the contract at the port of Cotonou," said rights activist Martin Assogba.

"No one could have foreseen a falling out between the two men."

Talon was arrested in December at his Paris residence on a warrant issued by Benin and was forced to surrender his passport before being released.

A French court has asked for more evidence from Benin to allow it to rule on the extradition request. Elements of the case in the meantime have begun to face criticism from rights activists.

Last week, civil society groups demanded the release of four of the accused in the poison plot case, including Yayi's niece, his doctor, the ex-commerce minister and the president's bodyguard.

Their call came after an appeals judge confirmed a lower court ruling in May that there was no evidence and called for the four to be released.

State prosecutor Justin Gbenameto says they are being held pending an appeal to the supreme court. It is unclear when the supreme court will rule.

Wilfried Leandre Houngbedji of state-run The Nation newspaper said the falling out between Yayi and Talon was the key to understanding the case.

"Talon wanted to continue to grow his business with the complicity of the president, but the other in the meantime changed his mind, which seemed to him to be a betrayal," he said.