Days before its presidential election, tensions are mounting in Benin between incumbent Patrice Talon, the political class and the population.
Elected for the first time in 2016, Talon, a businessman, claims to be seeking a second term, although he had promised not to run again. He thus enters an arena facing a dispersed opposition.
He will face two candidates after the rejection of eight others by the Autonomous National Electoral Commission: former minister Alassane Soumano and Corentin Kohoue, an unexpected candidate accused of treason by the Democrats. Kohoue wants to restore confidence in Beninese institutions.
Both are almost unknown on the Beninese political scene and are not considered real opponents according to public opinion.
Thus, many observers consider Talon to be the only candidate because he has no strong opponents.
“The opposition is sheared off and even stigmatized by the government. It is at a standstill and has no impact. It does not have any institutional strength or political apparatus to confront the president. The real opposition is represented by civil society and the youth who express themselves through the media,” Regis Hounkpe, a geopolitical analyst and political communication specialist from Benin, told.
According to Hounkpe, Talon’s two challengers are just trying to legitimize his candidacy.
“The zero year of the death of this opposition was marked in 2019 during the tense communal legislative elections with violence and deaths,” he said.
For him, the arrests and exile of some opponents such as Sebastien Ajavon and Reckya Madougou reflect “an image of a totalitarian regime, even if it is not yet the case.” But those examples are also a mark of “democratic retreat and a kind of dictatorial era,” he added.
He believes that there is reason to be concerned about the fate of opponents, freedom of the press, freedom of opinion and the democratic mode that the country represents.
“We must pay attention to the ways in which the press and national and international organizations are denouncing. There is a real internal and international protest,” he said.
Hounkpe also has “the impression that freedom of speech is threatened,” given the scarcity of debate on the fate of Benin, “a country once renowned for its democracy and abundant political debate,” he recalled.
He deplored the lack of public debates between the candidates on issues such as agriculture, defense and security, but also the lack of ideas and proposals from all sides in the context of an electoral campaign.
Economic development is not enough
Regarding the candidacy of Patrice Talon, Hounkpe sees no surprise because even if he had announced a single term, the progressive union and the republican bloc that surround him had begun to pave the way for him to run again.
“If we are to believe those close to him, Talon wants to further boost the economic dynamic in Benin. In five years, he has accomplished a lot in terms of infrastructure, economy, modernization of the administration or digitalization,” Hounkpe said.
He believes that Talon will return for a second term and hopes he will take the opportunity to work on public freedoms and the respect of democratic norms. This is because “the more Beninese opponents are in exile or in prison, the more Benin’s image will suffer.”
“He is a businessman, but economic development is not enough. He must work on public freedoms, respect for democratic norms and shared growth for all. Every Beninese must be able to feel the effects of economic progress,” he said.
Like Hounkpe, on March 31, 2021, Amnesty International called on the Beninese authorities to “protect” certain rights. In particular, “the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and to respect the right to a fair trial of all opponents and critical voices who are subject to criminal proceedings.”
In its release, the organization listed the summoning, arrest and/or conviction of at least 12 political opponents and voices critical of the government, some of them “on the basis of unclear grounds.”
Recently, the local press reported that Essowe Batamoussi, a judge of the Court of Repression of Economic Offences and Terrorism (CRIET), fled the country after denouncing “pressure” from the government for Madougou’s arrest.
But, the government denied this accusation on April 6, denouncing the “cowardly” attitude on the part of the magistrate, who is not credible and “serving an unmentionable cause.” The magistrate enjoys the “principle of irremovability” which protects him from the influence of political power, said Alain Orounla, the government spokesman.
The day of April 6 was also tense in several cities across the country, according to local media. Demonstrators responded to a call to protest against Talon.
The president came to power on the same date in 2016. Critics says he completed his five-year term and should no longer serve in his post.