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COTONOU (Reuters) - Benin President Boni Yayi has removed the post of prime minister in a new 26-member cabinet announced late on Sunday, fanning speculation about a leadership rift in the cotton-producing West African state.
Yayi dismissed his entire government in a surprise move on Friday, declaring only that the decision was intended "to breathe a new dynamic" into the cabinet. He did not reappoint Pascal Koukpaki as premier or name any replacement.
Local newspapers have for nearly a year speculated that Koukpaki, who is widely viewed as a top contender for the presidency in elections set for 2016, had fallen out of favor with the president. Neither man has publicly commented.
"It's his discretionary power," Yayi's spokesman, Vincent Dassi, said on Monday in response to Reuters' requests for the reasons behind Koukpaki's removal.
"A certain number of projects were struggling. The head of state wanted to unblock the situation and give a new dynamic to his program," he said, declining to give further details.
Finance Minister Jonas Gbian and Foreign Minister Nassirou Bako retained their jobs but the 26-member cabinet counts 12 new ministers. Francois Adebayo Abiola, in charge of higher education and scientific research, is the most senior figure in the government with the sole minister of state post.
Yayi headed the government himself during his first mandate before he appointed Koukpaki in 2011 and is expected to again assume the job of coordinating the activities of his cabinet.
Benin, situated to the west of Nigeria, has enjoyed two decades of political stability since multi-party democracy was restored. Yayi won the last election with an outright majority in the first round.
Yayi has said he wants to amend parts of the constitution to introduce bodies like an independent election commission and a court to oversee state audits. He has pledged not to pursue any amendment that allows him to stand for a third term. Critics suspect his camp has not ruled out this idea.
(Reporting by Samuel Elijah; Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by David Lewis and Mark Heinrich)