Authoritarian slide taints West Africa’s ‘model democracy’ as Benin heads to polls

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The small West African nation of Benin has for the past three decades stood out as a model democracy in a region beset by coups and insurgencies. As he seeks a second term in a presidential election on Sunday, its tycoon leader Patrice Talon faces accusations he has tarnished the country’s reputation as a vibrant multiparty democracy.

Talon, a multi-millionaire known as the “King of Cotton”, looks all but certain to win re-election in a contest critics say is heavily tilted in his favour. He faces 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 contest signals a stark reversal after three decades of competitive elections in the coastal nation of 11.5 million, a former French colony hemmed in between tiny Togo and Africa’s powerhouse, Nigeria. It follows the introduction of controversial reforms that analysts have described as “a master class in entrenching autocracy”.

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

“Patrice Talon was meant to finish his term on April 5. But he failed to organise elections in time, as required by the constitution,” said Kamar Ouassagari, a senior member of the opposition party Les Démocrates, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

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

Opponents kept off the ballot

A poor country that is heavily reliant on cotton exports and informal trade with neighbouring Nigeria, Benin has a proud record as a beacon of 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 at the polls.

Talon’s predecessor, two-term president Thomas Boni Yayi, agreed to step down in 2016 even as neighbouring rulers changed their constitutions to extend their rule. Talon himself appeared willing to go a step further, pledging as a candidate that year to forgo a second term in order to avoid "complacency".

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

Opponents are especially critical of a reform of the country’s electoral laws requiring presidential candidates to secure the signatures of at least 16 elected officials in order to run. The rule was ostensibly designed to prevent the proliferation of mini-parties and fanciful candidacies. But in a country where all 83 members of parliament and 71 out of 77 mayors belong to Talon’s camp, securing those precious endorsements has proved largely impossible.

The incumbent’s stranglehold on power results from disputed parliamentary elections held in 2019, in which the principal opposition parties were barred from running. Those polls led to a dismal 27 percent turnout – an unprecedented low in a country that had seen turnout near 75 percent in the 1990s.

The disputed parliamentary elections triggered angry protests and several people were killed when the army opened fire on demonstrators. Many fear a similar outbreak of violence following Sunday’s presidential vote.

“Benin will be at high risk in the coming days,” warns Francis Kpatindé, a French-Beninese journalist and researcher at Sciences-Po Paris, stressing that “such political violence is a novelty” in a once stable country that had grown accustomed to peaceful transfers of power.

“Benin used to score well in global rankings published by the likes of Amnesty International and Reporters Without Border,” he says. “But over the past five years we’ve seen it slide down the tables when it comes to human rights and respecting democratic institutions.”

‘Politicised’ court

Amnesty International has registered at least 12 cases of political opponents being either arrested, sentenced or summoned by the authorities since the start of the year.

“Most of these arrests are based on laws that appear designed to curtail freedom of expression and the ability to voice criticism [of the authorities],” says regional expert Fabien Offner, who works for Amnesty’s Dakar bureau, in Senegal. He points to a digital law, passed in 2019, “which has been used to detain people based on messages posted on WhatsApp”.

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

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

Sébastien Ajavon, a business leader who backed Talon in the 2016 run-off after coming third in the election, has fled to France before his sentencing on drug-trafficking charges, which he denies. Ganiou Soglo, another prominent opponent, survived an attempted assassination earlier this year, shortly after declaring his candidacy. As for Lionel Zinsou, the runner-up five years ago, he is serving a five-year ban from elected office for exceeding spending limits in the 2016 campaign.

Last month, the authorities jailed another would-be 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 would have justified her arrest,” judge Essowé told FRANCE 24’s sister radio RFI on Monday, speaking from an undisclosed location. “It’s not the first time,” he added. “There have been several such cases where we received instructions from above.”

The government has dismissed the accusations as “political manipulation”, accusing exiled opponents of trying to have the election annulled.

Benin is fast resembling “the prototype of an authoritarian regime that tolerates no contradiction,” says Kpatindé. “Talon wants to develop the country’s economy and overhaul its infrastructure. He believes he’s invested with an almost Messianic mission at the country’s helm – and he accepts no checks on his power.”

Jihadist threat

Five years ago, Benin’s “King of Cotton” banked on his business credentials and his image as a moderniser to secure a convincing win at the polls. He has played up his economic successes during this campaign, with improved road, water and energy supplies.

Economic growth notched up one point to a solid 5.5 percent in 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 amid the coronavirus pandemic. However, analysts say the resilient growth has done little to improve the lot of a population still largely reliant 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 sweeping structural reforms while also stifling dissent.

Talon’s critics also denounce his grip on the nation’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 the hands of Benin’s incumbent president is cause for alarm, says Kpatindé, warning that Talon’s clean sweep of parliament could allow him to “prolong his rule indefinitely, without needing a referendum” to bypass constitutional term limits.

The health of Beninese democracy is of particular concern at a time when jihadist insurgencies threaten to spill over into coastal countries south of the restive Sahel region, Kpatindé warns.

“If you don’t have national unity, and a stable and peaceful democratic framework, then the door is open to all sorts of enterprises,” he says.

In May 2019, gunmen kidnapped two French tourists and killed their guide in the Pendjari national park, near the country’s northwestern border with Burkina Faso. Though rare, the incident served as an ominous reminder that Benin is not immune from the jihadist menace wreaking havoc across large swathes of West Africa.

This article was adapted from the original, in French.