Benin votes in controversial elections despite Covid-19 threat

On Sunday, Benin held elections without the main opposition parties, the authorities continuing despite the threat of the coronavirus and calling for a postponement.

The West African nation of 11 million people this week lifted a series of restrictions aimed at stopping the spread of the virus. Covid-19 has caused 339 confirmed infections and two deaths in the country.

Turnout nevertheless seems to have suffered, noted observers after the polling stations closed, and AFP noted that in opposition strongholds, it did not exceed 10%.

Opposition leader Joseph Tamegnon accused President “Patrice Talon of believing he has the Republic under his thumb”.

The campaign was limited to posters and media appearances, with candidates forced to cancel the rallies due to the ban on rallies of more than 50 people.

For the vote, the autonomous national electoral commission (CENA) made masks mandatory for voters and imposed measures of social distancing in polling stations.

“We have received many gels and hydro-alcoholic masks for all voters,” said Mathieu Daki, returning officer, in N’dali, in the north of the country, to AFP.

In the economic capital Cotonou, where most of the coronavirus deaths have occurred, election officials have ensured that voters are more than a meter apart.

However, not everyone seems to have been reassured.

In the 5th district, the city’s electoral agent, Dimitri Assani, admitted that voters were “rare”.

Donatien Sagbo Hounga wore a mask to enter the polling station, but said he was waiting “until there are no more voters in front of the election officials” to advance to vote.

“It may sound excessive but it is necessary,” said Hounga.

Voters are “rare”

Critics warned that the health risks were too high for a vote that Talon’s opponents insisted that this not happen in the first place.

Talon was wearing a mask when he voted early in the Zongo-Ehuzu region of Cotonou.

In the first district of the city, Arnold Migan voted early in the morning. “With the threat of COVID-19, it is better to vote quickly and to go home before the arrival of many people,” he said.

Benin, considered one of the most stable democracies in the region, has been in political crisis since a disputed parliamentary election last April sparked protests.

Talon, a former business tycoon who came to power in 2016, was charged with a crackdown that forced his main rivals into exile.

The parties allied with the president won all seats at the polls last year after opposition groups were effectively banned from running, but the turnout was only 25%.

Now the main opposition parties are again banned from voting for control of 77 councils across the country.

The exclusion provoked a legal challenge from opponent Talon, Sébastien Ajavon, a businessman living in exile after being sentenced to prison for drugs in Benin.

The African Regional Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights decided that the vote should be suspended because it was not inclusive.

But Benindis ignored the decision and severed ties with the court to protest the decision.

Opponents called on voters to boycott the political situation and the risks of coronavirus.

The final results are expected in a week.