When Patrice Talon, the cotton king, was elected president of Benin in 2016, few predicted that countries’ democracies would be on the verge of collapse just five years later. Benin was regarded as one of the strongest democracies in West Africa, and Talon had run with a promise to serve only one term. However, on April 11, not only will Talon be voting for a second term in office, but his only opponents will be two weak candidates, essentially chosen by his coalition.
Whether Talon has ever intended to honor his one-term promise is unclear, but there is little doubt that during his presidency he has rapidly concentrated power. One political rival after another has faced prosecution, while a series of carefully executed procedural reforms have shut down opposition parties from voting. Although some aspects of the April 11 election remain uncertain including turnout, the risk of violence and whether the government will shut down the internet the result is not. Talon is confident but sure to win, making Benin the starting point in autocracy and ending three decades of democratic success.
The country switched to democracy in 1991, helping spark a wave of democratization across the African continent. Although his political system was far from perfect when Talonwho is among the richest people in Francophone Africa today in his office in 2016, the country was rightly seen as a regional leader. Benin people were legitimately proud of him, Theodule Nouatchi, a law professor at Abomey-Calavi University, told me. This perception does not seem to exist today.
The autocratic curve in Benins is an alarming example of a broader trend democratic backwardness in West Africa, where leaders in Guinea and the Ivory Coast changed their constitutions to enable a third term, and the Senegalese president has become increasingly repressive. But the country is also a test case for the way the international community treats elections superficially democratically.
On the surface, Talon has an ambitious vision for Benin. He has had some economic success and has sought to market himself as a businessman with fiscal responsibilities by modernizing a corrupt and inefficient state.
However, on a deeper level, it is clear that Talon has eliminated almost all possibility of legitimate opposition. The independence of the judiciary has evaporated. Former coupons personal lawyer became president of the Benin Constitutional Court. And a new one judicial body ostensibly created to fight corruption and terrorism has targeted Talons political rivals. After the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights consistently ruled against its administration policies, the Talons government PREVENTED the court from the consideration of cases raised against him by individuals and non-governmental organizations.
Without a control over its power by the judiciary, the government has been able to quickly eliminate threats to the continued rule of the Talonians. Lionel Zinsou, who finished second in the 2016 election, was forbidden from running in elections for five years for alleged violations of campaign law. Third-placed candidate Sbastien Ajavon lives in exile in France following a court case sentenced him to 20 years in prison on drug trafficking charges.
Meanwhile, Reckya Madougou, Talons’ strongest opponent, is likely to watch the next election from a prison cell. Madougou would be Benin’s first presidential candidate from a major party, but her candidacy was rejected due to Talons reforms to the electoral code. Shortly after a rally challenging that decision, Madougou was allegedly arrested plotting to kill political figures.
Renaud Agbodjo, a Madougou lawyer, says the allegations are completely unfounded. She is a political prisoner, he told me, adding that her meetings with her lawyers have been recorded. Just this week, a judge in the court overseeing the investigation into Madougou left the country and said political pressure had forced them to stop.
Talons’s procedural reforms are a master class in inculcating autocracy while preserving the splendor of democracy: None of the reforms clearly targets the opposition, and his alleged concern Benins shattered party politics a legitimate problem. The country of 12 million had over 200 parties, most of which were unable to compete nationally.
Talon supporters argue that electoral reforms like raising the bar to enter legislative elections address this problem by encouraging coalition building and party consolidation. But the real effect of these reforms has been the closure of the power of no one but Talon and his allies.
Among the coupons the changes in the electoral code are: a 1,500 percent increase in the fees required for parliamentary candidates and a rule that parties with less than 10 percent of the national vote can not enter parliament. These reforms prevented any opposition party from running in the 2019 legislative elections. In the 2020 local elections, all parties except one opposition party were either blocked from running or boycotted the elections.
But piece of resistance in its electoral strategy is the new sponsorship system, which requires presidential candidates to be sponsored by at least 10 percent of the total number of mayors and members of parliament all of whom were elected in the 2019 and 2020 elections in which almost no opposition party participated in. As a result, the Talons coalition controls many mayors and seats in parliament that may have blocked all opposition candidates from running. But rather than an election with a single candidate that would seem clearly uncompetitive, members of the Talons coalition sponsored two weak opponents and ruled out the strongest challengers.
The first among this empty opposition, Alassane Soumanou, is a member of the Cowry Forces for an emerging Benin party, formerly led by Talons predecessor Thomas Boni Yayi, who left the party arguing that Talon supporters had become too powerful in it. Second, Corentin Kohoue, has little national profile and suspicions surround his recent split from the Madougous party, the Democrats. On the other hand, the prevailing opinion is that these are closed elections, said Steve Kpoton, a consultant on political affairs and democratic governance. Soumanou and Kohoue do not embody the opposition in the eyes of public opinion.
But because Talon can show the presence of challengers as evidence of a fair election, international observers can treat the result as legitimate. So far, the United States has released only a relatively lukewarm one declaration which requires respect for democratic norms without saying that the forthcoming elections deviate from them. Economic Community of West African States AND European union have also avoided challenging the legitimacy of the vote.
International actors may be tempted to allow Talons to slide autocratic tendencies. His business-friendly attitude has loved him for investors and he can point to a number of economic successes. Talon has significantly improved the destroyed roads in Benins and increased the production of a number of agricultural commodities, especially cotton. IN 2018, Benin became West Africa ‘s largest producer. And in the midst of a pandemic that has caused the debt crisis in many low-income countries, Moodys recently updated Credit rating in Benins.
Yet even those successes are vague: Critics argue that Talon has sought to promote his business interests and he has had a controversial relationship with workers in a number of sectors. In 2018, for example, thousands of teachers went on strike for months due to unpaid wages and poor working conditions, almost leading to a nationwide cancellation of the school year. It is therefore difficult to assess the successes of presidents against his failures and the extent to which the population of Benin approves of Talons’s performance is difficult to determine. There are almost no polls, and many Beninese express fear of public criticism of the government.
What is certain, however, is that the population has seen the elections as illegal. In the 2019 elections that had no opposition, turnout fell: 23 percent compared to 66 percent in previous legislative elections. The government shut down the internet on election day and its forces killed at least seven protesters. Former President Boni Yayi was brought under control home arrest. Protests have already begun before these elections. On Tuesday, opposition supporters demonstrated in several cities and blocked a national highway.
Still, Talon is not without support. Entirely it is entirely possible that he could win a competitive election, as he did in 2016. But Sunday’s result was set long ago. Judd Devermont and Idayat Hassan of the Center for Strategic and International Studies argue that the United States should not send election observers to oversee a process with a predetermined outcome, and that move would be a good start. External actors have relatively few ways to change Benin’s slide into autocracy, but they can deny Talon’s international legitimacy.
Talons’s strategy is strange. He is likely to do very little to look beneath the surface in a country with an international profile as small as Benin, especially as long as it allows for a view of the opposition and a favorable investment climate. Some countries may issue vague statements alluding to democratic norms and human rights, but they are expected to remove the topic quickly. It would be a shame if Talon was proven righteous.
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