Authoritarian image weakens West Africa’s “model democracy” when Benin goes to the polls

For the past three decades, the small West African nation of Benin has stood as a model for democracy in a region plagued by coups and uprisings. As he seeks a second term in Sunday’s presidential election, its tycoon leader Patrice Talon faces charges that he has tarnished the country’s reputation as a vibrant multi-party democracy.

Talon, a millionaire known as “The King of Cotton”, certainly looks set to win re-election in a contest that critics say is strongly in his favor. He meets two little-known rivals, Alassane Soumanou and Corentin Kohoue, with most opposition leaders either living in exile or disqualified from running.

The lack of a competition signals a sharp turnaround after three decades of competitive choices in the coastal nation of 11.5 million, a former French colony that ended up between little Togo and Africa’s power plant, Nigeria. It follows the introduction of controversial reforms that analysts have described as “a master class in entrenched autocracy.”

The result has been an unusually tense encouragement for the vote, with troops deployed in several opposition strongholds this week to spread violent protests. On Friday, officials said two people were killed in the central city of Save as troops fired tear gas and live rounds into the air to disperse protesters.

Patrice Talon was due to end his term on 5 April. But he failed to arrange elections in time, according to the constitution, “said Kamar Ouassagari, a member of the opposition Les Démocrates party, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

“So the people of Benin have risen up to tell him that his time is up,” Ouassagari added.

Opponents were voting

Benin is a poor country that is heavily dependent on cotton exports and informal trade with neighboring Nigeria and has a proud record as a democracy. Following the introduction of a multi-party system in 1991, its longtime leader Mathieu Kérékou became the first West African president to accept defeat in the election.

Talon’s predecessor, two-time President Thomas Boni Yayi, agreed to step down in 2016, even as neighboring rulers changed their constitutions to extend their rule. Talon himself seemed willing to go one step further and promised as a candidate that year to abstain from a second term in order to avoid “complacency”.

But critics say his actions once in his service have largely undermined the country’s democratic progress.

Opponents are particularly critical of a reform of the country’s electoral law that requires presidential candidates to secure the signatures of at least 16 elected officials in order to participate. The rule was obviously designed to prevent the spread of mini-parties and imaginative candidacies. But in a country where all 83 MPs and 71 of 77 mayors belong to Talon’s camp, it has proved virtually impossible to secure these valuable supports.

The current throttling of power is the result of controversial parliamentary elections held in 2019, in which the main opposition parties were banned from participating. These polls led to a dismal 27 percent turnout – an unprecedented low in a country that had seen turnout close to 75 percent in the 1990s.

The controversial parliamentary election sparked angry protests and several people were killed when the army opened fire on protesters. Many fear a similar outbreak of violence after Sunday’s presidential election.

“Benin will be at high risk in the next few days,” warns Francis Kpatindé, a Franco-Benin journalist and researcher at Sciences-Po Paris, stressing that “such political violence is news” in a once stable country that had become accustomed in the case of peaceful transfers of power.

“Benin used to score well on global rankings published by Amnesty International and Reporters Without Border,” he says. “But over the last five years, we have seen it slide down the tables when it comes to human rights and respect for democratic institutions.”

“Politicized” court

Amnesty International has registered at least twelve cases of political opponents who have either been arrested, convicted or summoned by the authorities since the beginning of the year.

“Most of these arrests are based on laws that seem designed to restrict freedom of expression and the ability to express criticism. [of the authorities], Says regional expert Fabien Offner, who works for Amnesty’s Dakar office in Senegal. He points to a digital law, adopted in 2019, “which has been used to imprison people based on messages published on WhatsApp”.

Offner adds: “The result is that Benin is entering an election with most opposition leaders either in exile or in detention based on legal cases that are often very vague.”

Posters supporting Patrice Tallon and his helmsman on the streets of Cotonou. © Pius Utomi Ekpei, AFP

In recent years, the president’s main opponents have been shut down one by one.

Sébastien Ajavon, a business leader who supported Talon during his 2016 resignation after finishing third in the election, has fled to France before being convicted of drug trafficking charges, which he denies. Ganiou Soglo, another prominent opponent, survived an assassination attempt earlier this year, shortly after declaring his candidacy. As for Lionel Zinsou, who finished second five years ago, he is serving a five-year ban from the elected office for exceeding the spending limits in the 2016 campaign.

Last month, authorities arrested another prospective candidate, former Justice Minister Reckya Madougou, this time on charges of supporting terrorism. According to a judge who fled Benin earlier this month, the charges against Madougou were politically motivated.

“There was nothing in the case that could justify her arrest,” Judge Essowé told FRANCE 24’s sister radio RFI on Monday, speaking from an undiscovered location. “This is not the first time,” he added. “There have been several such cases where we received instructions from above.”

The government has dismissed the allegations as “political manipulation” and accused deported opponents of trying to have the election annulled.

Benin quickly resembles “the prototype of an authoritarian regime that does not tolerate contradiction,” Kpatindé said. “Talon wants to develop the country’s economy and review its infrastructure. He believes he has invested in an almost messianic mission at the helm of the country – and he does not accept controls of his power. ”

Jihadist threat

Five years ago, Benin’s “King of Cotton” tapped his business acumen and his image as a modernist to secure a convincing victory in the election. He has played down his financial success during this campaign with improved road, water and energy supply.

Economic growth rose one point to a solid 5.5 percent during the first years of his term. According to the African Development Bank, Benin’s economy continued to grow last year despite the global recession, making it one of the few countries in the world not to post negative figures in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. But analysts say that resilient growth has done little to improve the population, which is still largely dependent on the informal economy.

Some observers have drawn parallels between Talon’s Benin and Rwanda under President Paul Kagame, who has been credited with implementing far-reaching structural reforms while stifling disagreements.

Talon’s critics also condemn his grip on the country’s economy. The 62-year-old magnate is the richest man in a country where cotton accounts for a staggering 80 percent of exports.

The concentration of power in Benin’s incumbent president is worrying, Kpatindé said, warning that Talon’s clean parliament could allow him to “extend his rule indefinitely, without needing a referendum” to circumvent constitutional terms.

The health of Benin democracy is particularly worrying at a time when jihadist insurgency threatens to spread to coastal countries south of the dormant Sahel region, warns Kpatindé.

“If you do not have national unity and a stable and peaceful democratic framework, the door is open for all kinds of business,” he says.

In May 2019, gunmen abducted two French tourists and killed their guide in Pendjari National Park, near the country’s northwestern border with Burkina Faso. Although rare, the incident served as an ominous reminder that Benin is not immune to the jihadist threat that wreaked havoc across much of West Africa.

This article has been adapted from the original in French.

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