A Democratic Champion Goes Down in West Africa

Benin has long been considered a beacon of democracy on the African continent. However, following the parliamentary election that took place last month, there are valid and growing concerns that its democratic credentials are being eroded under President Patrice Talon.

Benin was, until recently, renowned for its free, open and peaceful multiparty democratic system that has flourished since 1991. In fact, in this year’s Freedom in the World report, it is described as “among the most stable democracies in sub-Saharan Africa.”

Much of that changed on April 28 during an election in which no opposition candidates were permitted to compete. Following the vote, mass protests, riots and outbreaks of violence have erupted throughout Cotonou, the country’s economic capital. The government, in turn, has responded with brute force, with reports of police firing live ammunition at protesters, as well as implementing several internet shutdowns in an attempt to quell growing dissent.  

Of course, this shift did not occur overnight. Instead, Benin’s flawed election followed a series of concerning events that weakened key democratic functions of the state. And these developments have thus far remained largely unreported by the international press. 

In June 2018, for example, Talon appointed Joseph Djobenou as the head of the Constitutional Court. Djogbenou previously represented Talon during an alleged poisoning case in 2013 in which he was accused of attempting to poison then-President Thomas Boni Yayi and stage a coup. He staunchly denies the accusation and was permitted to reenter the country by presidential pardon in 2014. Unsurprisingly, the move to install Djobenou in this position of significant power has raised widespread concerns regarding the sanctity of the rule of law.  

Additionally, the introduction of new electoral laws that require a party to pay around $424,000 to enter a candidate for election has also been met with warranted skepticism. In a country with a GNI per capita of just $800, this left only two parties - the Progressive Union and Republican Bloc - being able to field candidates in last month’s parliamentary election, both of which are publicly loyal to President Talon and the ruling party. The result was a woefully low voter turnout of under 30 percent and a series of deadly protests. At one, two former presidents - Nicéphore Soglo and Thomas Yayi - addressed the crowds before security forces fired tear gas to disperse the assembled crowd.   

Talon also ordered an internet shutdown on election day and again during the subsequent protests, which stifled citizens’ ability to freely organize and remain in contact. This move violated the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Benin ratified in 1986, and which forms an integral part of the country’s constitution. The document calls for “the right to express and disseminate opinions,” as well as “the right to assemble freely with others.”

Upholding digital rights is an essential part of a functioning democracy. Without them, basic freedoms, including the freedom of expression and right to information, disintegrate. For that reason, shutting down internet access during a period of heightened political sensitivity is normally associated with authoritarian and dictatorial governments. In the past six months, for example, similar tactics have been used in Zimbabwe, Sudan, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Algeria.

There are now mounting fears that Talon could be steering Benin towards a similarly authoritarian path. Unphased by the recent demonstrations, and the state violence that they provoked, this vibrant multiparty democracy may be facing a tumultuous future. However, democratic ideals remain firmly entrenched and expected by the general public. Indeed, the erosion of democratic principles is unlikely to continue without a strong challenge from citizens accustomed to enjoying basic freedoms.

Samuel Woodhams is a journalist and researcher at the digital privacy group, Top10VPN. He writes about the intersection of politics and technology, and has been featured in Just Security, World Politics Review and African Arguments. Follow him at @Samuel_Woodhams

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of Vanguard Africa or the Vanguard Africa Foundation.