Protesters barricade the streets of Cadjehoun the stronghold of former president of Benin Thomas Boni Yayi on May 2, 2019, in Cotonou (LaPresse)

Unrest in Benin: Elections Called Without Opposition Parties

Benin, a country known to be an example of democracy in West Africa, voted on April 28 to elect its representatives. The election was marked by a massive abstention and total ban on the use of the Internet. The opposition was not allowed to run and only two parties participated: The Republican Bloc and the Progressive Union, both allies to Benin’s president, Patrice Talon. Turnout was at a record low, at only 27%, in a clear demonstration of popular discontent. Also, internet access was restricted on the day of the voting as a way to prevent popular revolt and calls for protest – in the end it didn’t work

According to activists Nwachukwu Egbunike and Ellery Biddle, Whatsapp, Facebook and “several other major web platforms, including Twitter, Instagram, Telegram and Viber, went dark in the early hours of the day. By 11 am, 99.5% of internet connections became inactive, sending the West African country into a nationwide internet shutdown that lasted well into the night.”

Talon was elected in 2016 with a discourse of modernisation and respect for institutions. According to Jacque (fictitious name), an activist from Benin, “I cannot say that Patrice Talon does not respect institutions. But cleverly, since his election, he has managed to control them. So, he makes them do things that suit him and his government.”

“The goal of Patrice Talon is to change the Constitution of Benin. In this project, he has already failed twice because of the opposition parties. Its purpose is to have a parliament that is fully committed to its cause. This will allow him to change the constitution and do whatever he wants,” adds Jacque.

On Wednesday, May 1, violent protests erupted against the government and demanding democracy in a country known for its stability since the 1990’s, where violence is unusual, but which may end up entering the same spiral of violence as several countries on the continent. Opposition parties say at least 7 people were killed by security forces during the post-election clashes, other sources point to two dead.

The military have taken the streets of Cotonou, Benin’s capital, in an attempt to restore the peace while the opposition says they will not accept the result of the elections.

Civil liberties have been slowly compromised in Benin, as well as demonstrations have been met with violence and repression in the tiny African country the past few years. And according to the new electoral law, introduced this year just in time for the elections, a political party would have to pay a sum of almost 400 thousand euros to present a list of candidates.

The law, says Allain (fictitious name), activist from Benin based in France, was Talon’s idea to reduce the number of political parties in Benin from more than 200, to a more acceptable number. “Aside from the new electoral code, Talon also approved a charter for political parties that forced parties to file administrative documents to be approved by the Interior Ministry, and that prevented all opposition parties from running, except for two parties aligned with the president”, adds Allain.

For months, opposition parties were subjected to legal proceedings in a so-called fight against corruption deemed by critics as a “witch-hunt”.

Among the excluded political forces is the Cowry Forces for an Emerging Benin, allied to former president Thomas Boni Yayi (and the biggest political party in the 2015 legislative election) who, in turn, was also an ally of Talon. Talon, a rich businessman helped financing Yayi’s campaign for election (2006) and re-election (2011, amid allegations of widespread corruption) until they parted ways. Talon faces allegations of corruption and even a plot to poison Yaiy, in 2011.

Although Benin has maintained some democratic stability since 1991 and has survived allegations of electoral fraud and the promiscuous relationship of rulers with powerful businessmen, the fear is that Talon may gradually seek absolute control of the country – and the first steps have been taken.

Last year, Talon’s government imposed a tax on text messages and social media (similar to what Zambia and Uganda, other African countries, did) in order to curb dissent and a campaign to fight corruption’s been criticised for being selective and overzealous. In other words, for selecting possible opponents of Talon and sending them to jail on baseless charges.

The only solution, Jacque points out, “would be that the protagonists find a solution of appeasement”. At the moment, it seems to be a difficult solution to reach.

United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the UN was following the situation and asking for restraint in face of the unrest. The African Union has not yet pronounced itself. However, little can be done from outside without promoting an intervention.