Get-rich quick con may undermine Benin's president

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The Independent Online

The president of the tiny African state of Benin is facing calls to quit after more than 100,000 people lost their savings in a con that he appeared to publicly endorse.

Investment Consultancy and Computering Services, which folded taking more than 130 million dollars from investors, featured President Boni Yayi in television, print and radio ads.



They showed him and other top government officials posing alongside firm's the managers.



Although investors recognised his presence as an endorsement, the president did not officially speak in favour of ICC during the appearances.



Average yearly income in the country of 8.7 million people is around 750 dollars (£490). Many lost months to years of savings in the scam.



Electrician Lambert Saizonou, 40, planned to use his investment earnings to buy his first house. Now he has lost them all. Jobs are scarce, and he worries it will take years to save to buy a home for his family.



"They promised me an interest rate of 200%," he said. "Now I must start saving again, little by little."



Herman Menton, a 32-year-old company manager, lost nearly 1,500 dollars after investing in ICC for a year. Like many investors, he was referred to the company by friends who had already invested and lured him with the promise of high interest rates.



Perhaps the greatest swindle, some say, is the government's role in the investment company. Many victims say the sight of government officials in the ads reassured them their money would be safe.



"We saw them on television," said Pierre Dossa, a mechanic who lost his savings. "How could we not believe in it?"



Since the announcement that ICC's activities were fraudulent, President Yayi has swept his administration of those associated with the company. In July, he fired Armand Zinzindohoue, the minister of the interior, and Chief Prosecutor Georges Constant Amoussou.



More than a dozen individuals connected to ICC have been jailed, including the president's cousin and two of the company's top managers.



But some members of Benin's National Assembly say these measures do not go far enough. They accuse President Yayi of being complicit in ICC's corrupt activities, and they have called for his impeachment.



Adrien Houngbedji, Yayi's opponent in the 2006 presidential election and a vocal critic of the administration, says the president failed to exercise moral caution.



"He met with ICC managers in public, on television, and on the radio. This could only reassure investors," he said.



Mr Houngbedji claims Yayi has failed in his official responsibilities.



But the government denies any wrongdoing. "This is a private affair between a business and its clients," said a spokesman. "Because the people have been robbed, the government is intervening for the security of its citizens."



An investigative commission has been established, and the government is seeking to retrieve funds from ICC, even seizing personal items such as cars and villas from the company's managers.

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