Lebanese Traders in Cotonou: A Socio-Cultural Analysis of Economic Mobility and Capital Accumulation

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Passenger cars and other small vehicles have for a long time been the backbone of transport in west Africa. The cars are usually second-hand, and they are sourced on overseas car markets, mostly in western Europe. During the 1990s the port town of Cotonou, Benin, became one of the most prominent hubs in this car trade: car markets mushroomed, attracting large numbers and a wide variety of traders--including a prominent contingent of Lebanese. This article discusses the role of these Lebanese traders in the car trade through a reconstruction of their careers. It reveals that Lebanese business, which can go through a rapid succession of different economic activities, starts as kin-based enterprise, but gradually incorporates peers and friends. Close analysis of this practice suggests that Lebanese immigrant traders are to a large extent driven by the ideal of enjoying life by adopting an expatriate lifestyle.

RESUME

Les voitures de tourisme et autres petits vehicules sont depuis longtemps la cheville ouvriere du transport en Afrique de l'Ouest. Ce sont generalement des voitures d'occasion achetees sur les marches automobiles etrangers, principalement en Europe de l'Ouest. Au cours des annees 1990, la ville portuaire de Cotonou, au Benin, est devenue la principale plaque tournante du commerce de voitures: les marches de voitures se sont rapidement multiplies, attirant en grand nombre des commercants divers et varies, y compris un important contingent libanais. Cet article s'interesse au role de ces commercants libanais dans le commerce automobile en reconstituant leurs carrieres. Il revele que le commerce libanais, qui peut passer rapidement d'une activite economique a une autre, demarre sous la forme d'une entreprise familiale qui peu a peu integre des pairs et des amis. Une analyse approfondie de cette pratique suggere que les commercants immigres libanais sont dans une large mesure motives par un ideal de jouissance de la vie en adoptant un style de vie d'expatrie.

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'Listen,' my friend Ahmad, a stout Lebanese second-hand car trader in his early forties, says to me one Saturday night in 2003 while he gently wraps his arm around Aisha, a young and attractive west African girl, 'Life is nice around here, don't you agree?' (1) We sit in the basement of the Sheraton hotel in Cotonou, capital of Benin, which has recently been transformed into a popular karaoke bar. The other people in the bar, a mixture of local and foreign faces, are seated in luxurious chairs scattered across the basement floor, mostly engaged in animated conversation. Ahmad looks about him, and I see how he spots several familiar faces among them, mainly fellow car traders. While Ahmad reaches out for a bottle of Black Label on a nearby table and fixes a drink for Mathieu, a young west African man sitting next to him, he adds: 'Here in this Cotonou, I'mat home, and look how I'm free to do what I want.' Meanwhile, the thumping music has stirred up quite a crowd and, seconds later, Aisha gets up, holds out a hand towards Ahmad and swiftly disappears with him onto the dance floor.

Ahmad's night out at the Sheraton brings out the central theme of this article: the presence of Lebanese immigrant trading communities in urban west Africa today. The study is situated in Cotonou, a west African port town that witnessed the rapid emergence of a large-scale trade in second-hand cars from western Europe during the 1990s. (2) The second-hand car trade in Benin provides an interesting setting in which to further our understanding of Lebanese traders in west Africa for the following three reasons. First, it presents an economic domain in which Lebanese traders operate alongside their west African counterparts on a daily basis. Second, the car trade has attracted different types of Lebanese businessmen. Building on a long settlement history in the region, some of the Lebanese were already working in Cotonou and merely changed trades, while others migrated from Lebanon to Cotonou specifically to set up a second-hand car business. …