Voting began in Benin on Sunday in a presidential election when some opposition parties called for a boycott after a week of deadly protests against incumbent Patrice Talon, who is strongly in favor of winning a second term.
Talon, a millionaire cotton magnate who shows his strong economic growth under his leadership, is accused by his opponents of undermining Benin’s position as one of West Africa’s most stable democracies.
Protests in several cities this week turned violent. Some people were killed in a shooting on Thursday in the central city of Bante when security forces fired warning shots, the mayor told local radio without saying how many died.
In the commercial capital Cotonou, several said they feared violence on election day.
“The events of the last few days scare me,” says student Christophe Dossou. “I prefer to be careful.”
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Among the protesters’ complaints is Talon’s reversal of a promise he made as a candidate in 2016 to serve only one term and changes he pushed through to election laws that he said were aimed at streamlining nasty state institutions.
In practice, these reforms resulted in total parliamentary control of Talon’s supporters and the exclusion of leading opponents from the presidential race.
A coalition of opposition parties in a statement late on Saturday called on its supporters to boycott the vote due to the violence and President Talon’s decision to seek another term.
The US Democratic watchdog Freedom House downgraded Benin last year in its annual ranking from “free” to “partially free”.
Talon faces two relatively little-known opposition candidates: Alassane Soumanou, who was minister under former President Thomas Boni Yayi, and Corentin Kohoue, a veteran politician.
Several more prominent opposition leaders have been detained this year over terrorism-related allegations, Amnesty International said. Talon has denied that his government is targeting its opponents.
He has fought for his financial record. Benin, a country of about 12 million people, became Africa’s top cotton exporter in 2018, noting an average annual gross domestic product growth of over 5% before the global economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“What we did was not easy,” Talon said at one of his last campaign meetings on Friday. “We are strong and we know how to do it.”