New look, old ways? Benin’s leader and the authoritarian past

President Patrice Talon of Benin, a multi-millionaire businessman who dresses in sunglasses and sharp suits, presents himself as part of a new generation of modern, finance-focused and ambitious African leaders.

Elected in 2016 by defeating the preferred successor of former president Thomas Boni Yayi, Talon won the top job without a traditional political power base.

“He wants to change attitudes,” his communications adviser, Wilfried Houngbedji said.

But the businessman, who entered politics late after making his money in cotton and ports, has done more than change attitudes.

He has shifted the political rules of the small West African state that had previously been held up as a model for democracy in the region.

Tough new eligibility criteria effectively barred opposition parties from fielding any candidates in last Sunday’s parliamentary elections.

Talon argued the higher threshold would help to consolidate the country’s fragmented parliament, but critics condemned it as a gag that choked democracy.

On the day itself, more than three-quarters of the country’s five million registered voters stayed at home.

Talon, 61, now commands control of the 83-seat parliament.

But it comes at the cost of sweeping away the fervent political climate that had been a hallmark of Benin’s democracy since its shift to democracy in 1990.

To some, the spectres of authoritarian control and political unrest have risen once more.

Protesters have taken to the streets, torching businesses, hurling stones and smashing the windows of government buildings. Police responded with live rounds and teargas. One woman died and another men was seriously hurt, a medic said on Thursday.

Business tycoon 

Three years earlier, it had looked good for Talon, who promised to modernise the country.

Ranked the 15th wealthiest person in sub-Saharan Africa with a fortune topping $400-million in 2015 according to Forbes, he presented himself as part of a new wave of can-do African leaders.

Aides said he was a perfectionist, keen to show he would sweep out corruption and cronyism.

Lowly government officials were dismissed if they turned up late for work, as they had done for years, or if they helped themselves to public cash.

Talon also helped push Benin’s economic growth to 6.8% in 2018, although this was largely due to the forced regularisation of the informal economy.

Since coming to power, he is as much hated by the poor who see him as arrogant as he is admired by the elite who sees him as a visionary.

And the election — widely criticised by rights groups —is a turning point.

The internet was shut down on polling day, which watchdogs denounced as a blatant violation of freedom of expression.

“The wave of arbitrary arrests of political activists and journalists, and the crackdown on peaceful protests, have reached an alarming level,” Amnesty International researcher Francois Patuel said in the run up to the April 28 poll.

The vote, according to preliminary results, saw a record low turnout of 22.99 percent — a slump of more than half since the advent of democracy nearly 30 years earlier.

For Talon it was “a referendum in all but name” on his rule, political scientist Expedit Ologou said.

‘Admirer of strongmen’

It is quite a contrast to Benin’s competitive elections, which it had held since leaving behind authoritarian rule almost two decades ago.

Just five years ago, voters could chose from 20 parties.

This time round, only two parties — both allied to Talon — contested seats.

Some critics fear that a parliament entirely loyal to the president will give him power to change the constitution and engineer a way to meet his goal of extending the presidential term.

Arguing in favour of strong leadership, Talon has spoken of prolonging the term from five years to seven, albeit for a single mandate.

One way of understanding Talon, said a political source, is to look at those he admires.

They include Rwandan President Paul Kagame, a strongman who has led Rwanda since 1994, earning a reputation for promoting economic development while repressing dissent.

Kagame was re-elected in 2017 with nearly 99% of the vote, after the constitution was changed to allow him to run for a third term.

In Kagame, Talon found the “charismatic political role model” he was searching for, the source said.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Sophie Bouillon
Sophie Bouillon
Sophie Bouillon is a journalist at AFP.

Related stories

The African Union’s (un)official statement on the US elections

The United States has never been shy to pass judgment on African elections. What does it look like when Africa passes judgment on America’s chaotic vote?

Why we must fight to secure places for more women and young people in politics

Too often, governments talk the talk on gender equality, but fail to walk the walk

Kenyan cops cash in on Covid-19

The ‘unmasked’ are arrested during early morning patrols, taken to police stations and charged a ‘bond’

Why do presidents cling to power?

Four former heads of state speak about what being president is actually like

‘My son died the worst kind of death’: Horrific details of violent unrest in Ethiopia

Eyewitness accounts emerge of the violence that left 239 people dead after the assassination of singer Hachalu Hundessa

Covid-19 deepens the educational divide

With the closure of schools, learning has moved to online platforms across the world, but a UNESCO report said only 12% of households in the least-developed countries have internet access at home

Subscribers only

SAA bailout raises more questions

As the government continues to grapple with the troubles facing the airline, it would do well to keep on eye on the impending Denel implosion

ANC’s rogue deployees revealed

Despite 6 300 ANC cadres working in government, the party’s integrity committee has done little to deal with its accused members

More top stories

The Nigerian government is killing its citizens — again

‘Nigeria kills its people. Nigeria has always killed its people.’

Finance probe into the Ingonyama Trust Board goes ahead

The threat of legal action from ITB chairperson Jerome Ngwenya fails to halt forensic audit ordered by the land reform minister

Ailing Far East Rand hospital purchases ‘vanity’ furniture

Dr Zacharia Mathaba, who purchased the furniture, is a suspected overtime fraudster and was appointed as Gauteng hospital chief executive despite facing serious disciplinary charges

Institutions of higher learning should commemorate their casualties

The bust of Matikweni Nkuna at Tshwane University of Technology is an example of how we should honour those who fought for equal access to education

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday