The parliamentary election in Benin was held a few weeks ago, on April 28 2019. In the aftermath, the country witnessed protests, riots, and clashes with security forces as the people called for President Patrice Talon’s resignation. They did so because Benin’s democracy is under attack.
A Young Democracy
After Benin was granted full autonomy from its colonial ruler, France, in 1960, Benin suffered from military coups in 1963, 1965, 1967, and 1972. The last of which was led by Matthieu Kerekou who disbanded all competing political parties and imposed some version of a Marxism-Leninism ideology. Three years after, he changed the name to the People’s Republic of Benin as well as the nation’s flag was redesigned to better accompany the ideology. Kerekou continued his rule until 1989 when the national banking system collapsed and with the knock-on effects, Kerekou was forced to hold elections. The state was renamed the Republic of Benin and Nicephore Sogolo was elected the new president. That lasted until 1996 when Kerekou with great support from his Nigerian neighbour at the time, Sani Abacha, won the election which he later would in 2001 as well.
In 2006, both Kerekou and Sogolo were unable to run for the presidency due to the constitutional limit of two terms and age restrictions. Instead, in what was considered a fair democratic election, Thomas Boni Yayi was elected. Yayi was considered calm and cool and under his rule improvements in energy and infrastructure was implemented as promised. He was also one of eight African leaders to attend the 2012 G8 summit at Camp David which was considered an indication that the world had taken note of the positive development in Benin as well as it reinforced the notion that Benin was ‘the laboratory of democratization in Africa’ due to the country’s swift acceptance of democracy during the end of the Cold War era. In 2016, Yayi had served his terms and was ineligible from running again.
Current ‘Democracy’ & Reactions
The current president, Patrice Talon, won the 2016 election. Following his victory, he promised constitutional reforms to strengthen governance and the integrity of elections. However, these promises were broken and instead the Benin democracy and integrity of elections has been weakened. Following up on the parliamentary elections on April 28, only two parties were registered. The Progressive Union and the Republican parties linked to President Talon were registered, meanwhile, five other opposition parties were denied registration by the election commission which is headed by President Talon. Whilst acting against democracy is a reason for reactions in itself, it also has a historical meaning for a people who lived under a one-party rule for decades.
Responding to the lack of opposition parties registered in the election, supporters of former president Yayi turned to the streets where they led calls for boycott and protests, making barriers out of burning tires. As protests went on, shops were vandalized, windows of government buildings were smashed, and rocks were thrown around. Security forces responded with tear gas and water cannons in attempts to break up the crowds and, allegedly, in the evening when it got dark, they cut the lights and fired live rounds at the protesters. Internet services were blocked as has become the ‘norm’ in response to protests on the continent.
Reportedly 2-3 people died from the protests themselves. Moreover, the move to weaken the democracy of what has been the bulwark for democracy in the region can have knock-on effects, and seemingly the weakening of democracy can be somewhat of a pattern in the region as events similar to Benin took place in Senegal while neighbouring Guinea’s president is considering running for a third term which would require a referendum to change the constitution, which in that case easily could be manipulated. Similar events can take place in Ivory Coast as the Alassane Ouattara has not decided whether to pursue an unconstitutional third term or not. While it could be an indication that the political environment in West Africa is changing, this could make these states more vulnerable to non-state actors who feed of weak governance and porous borders, which can be a result of transitioning power from the people to the ruler as it grows dissatisfaction and distrust in the government.
Image: Sahara Reporters (link)