Heavy hand: Riot officers disperse demonstrators gathered to protest against President Patrice Talon in Cotonou. Photo: Yanick Folly/AFP
You’d be forgiven for not knowing Benin is holding a presidential election next month. How could you? As I write this, the first result when searching “Benin Election” on Google News is about a French artist transforming a playground in Benin as part of their “Beyond Walls” project. You’d have to scroll down a bit to learn that Reckya Madougou, our country’s first ever female presidential candidate, was arrested and charged with terrorism.
So here sits Benin, a sliver of a country sandwiched between smaller still Togo and Nigeria, the most populous country on the continent. We’re mere days from the most consequential election in our country’s democratic history and the brazen arrest of an opposition candidate barely registered in the international press.
Betting this trend will continue, President Patrice Talon is rolling back years of democratic progress in Benin, transforming our country from democratic standard-bearer to democracy’s pallbearer.
I had the distinct honour of representing Benin as a foreign diplomat from 2003 to 2006. During my time in government, Benin was recognised as one of only a handful of countries in all of Africa that was consistently rated “free” by the global watchdog group Freedom House. We received this recognition every year I was in government. Because of Talon’s failed leadership, that is no longer the case.
When he was elected in 2016, Talon seemed committed to serving only one term. He claimed he’d need only five years in office to “miraculously change Benin.” Fast forward to today and Talon has certainly changed Benin. In just five short years, he has destabilised the very foundations of our democracy. This disturbing pattern began in earnest in April 2019 when opposition candidates were barred from running in parliamentary elections. When our citizens flooded the streets in protest, police opened fire. The government shut down our internet attempting to quell dissent and kill the story. Step into our National Assembly today you will see it is composed entirely of ruling party supporters.
Talon’s political opponents have been consistently targeted during his time in power. Before Madougou’s arrest and terrorism charge, Lionel Zinsou, runner-up in the 2016 presidential election, was swiftly barred from standing for office due to alleged “campaign violations.” Former president Thomas Boni Yayi was forced to flee the country after being held under de facto house arrest for weeks following the 2019 elections. The assault on the opposition is widespread and enduring.
Earlier this year, Benin’s media commission enacted repressive policies meant to silence the political opposition and stifle our legitimate campaign activities. A directive issued in January forbids local media from broadcasting “any element of the electoral campaign relating to the presidential election of 2021”. Conveniently, this new rule went into effect just after Talon and his ruling twin parties wrapped up a nationwide media tour. The ruling party’s monopoly over state media is unfair, unconstitutional, and unacceptable. And yet for most everyone not living in Benin, it occurred entirely unnoticed.
The warning signs have been flashing in Benin for years now and so far, the international community has done little to address them. Benin may not register prominently among the foreign policy priorities of countries such as the US, the UK or even South Africa, but any country — and indeed anyone — concerned with the state of democracy worldwide should steady their eyes on Benin come April.
Our own deteriorating democracy reflects a troubling pattern in West Africa. Heads of state in Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire, for example, have extended their stays in power despite protests and deaths in the streets. In Togo, the Gnassingbé family dynasty, in power since the late 1960s, rigged yet another election in their favour early last year.
The international community must not let these ongoing assaults on democracy, state institutions, and our individual human rights, to remain unchecked. As the late Dr Martin Luther King Jr said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Do not let this election become another example of injustice overlooked in Benin.