By - Tobi Idowu
The Republic of Benin has, in close to three decades, shown that democracy could work in Africa. Largely run peacefully and with little or no rancorous transition between one government to another, the French speaking country has been held as an example of how democracy can serve to hold a multi-ethinic groups together, as against the hue and cry of most African countries that democracy has not worked in their nations because of the ethnic pluralities which had been forcefully created by colonial countries. Even though one cannot overlook such issues as huge population in a country like Nigeria with it wobbling democratic process, Benin’s largely successful democratic experience continues to give the lie to the naysayers of that system of government. However, recent developments in Benin are capable of truncating its democracy and the hope of those who believe the system will continue to serve as veritable reference to other African countries.
Controversial April 28 poll
The country’s parliamentary election this year was nothing short of surprise to keen followers of the political process in the West African state. Prior to this poll, what had been the major highlight of the democratic process in the country was its all-welcoming political participation. The country had been known to practise a multi-party political system where more than 200 political parties existed; in fact, in the election from which the country President, Patrice Talon, had emerged, up to twenty parties had participated.
However, in this year’s parliamentary election, meant to elect the countries 89 deputies, only two parties were allowed to participate. How did this happen? A controversial electoral laws had been passed just before the election and stipulated a tougher administrative requirements that only two parties could meet! Curiously, the two parties happened to be those loyal to the President, who had earlier advocated for a streamlined political party system. “There are more than 250 political parties…each of the new parties include dozens of political movements,” he lamented. He would later reveal he wanted to see parties coalesce into a third and fourth coalition to counterbalance the two main parties.
Democracy without opposition
The major consequence of the disputed parliamentary election in the country is that President Talon will most likely go ahead with his policies, whether in his personal interests, his allies’ interests or the country’s interests, without much opposition. Having his allied in the parliaments, Talon may be on his way to that infamous class of African strongmen, who hold their countries in their grips.
That scenario will be unfortunate, yet seem inevitable. The signs are now clearly ominous. The brutal way in which the Beninese security force clamped down on protesters against the parliamentary election should be foreboding enough that a once celebrated democracy might have been upended and could soon be replaced by a worse system.
…freedom after expression? Not guaranteed
While reacting before the parliamentary elections, immediate past President of the country, Boni Yayi admonished his successor, “I invite him to take the full measure of the seriousness of the present situation…and stop the electoral process under way,” he warned, “there can be no legislative elections…without the opposition.” What followed Yayi’s admonition was a court summons and close to two months’ siege on his private residence by security outfits, effectively confining him to a house arrest. This clearly represents a political witch-hunt, which is an incredible occurrence in a democracy.
Last year, the news outlet, Nouvelle Tribune, was shut down, as the government could no longer brook its searing criticism. Vincent Folly, the paper’s editor-in-chief stated that the closure of his outfit, along with other happenings in the country, showed President Talon had started looking for ways to tighten his grip over the country. “He makes decisions that are seemingly unimportant but actually target opponents,” Folly told AFP, while admitting that Talon’s sudden hardening stance was an initial surprise given the way the President had advocated for the reduction of the presidential mandate to a maximum of a term.
Fleeing political opponents
One of the ways African despots drive their political opponents from the country, and so curtail their potential threat, is to influence the judiciary to probe them. Talon has also adopted this ploy. His major rival at the 2016 presidential elections, Lionel Zinsou, who is also a former Prime Minister of the country, has been effectively chased away through some judicial shenanigans. He now lives in France. First, he was found guilty of using false documents and “exceeding” spending limits in his 2016 bid, according to sources quoted by AFP.
Secondly, he was handed a suspended six-month jail term and thereafter banned from standing for elections for five years. This simply means he will not be eligible to contest against Talon in 2021 presidential elections.
Also, another potential rival to the President in the election, multimillionaire, Sebastein Ajavon, has had to leave the country as the President now seems irritated by anyone who thinks might pose a challenge to his position. To make sure Ajavon will not be able to meet the legal requirements for the election, he has been handed 20 years jail time for drug trafficking in absentia! Meanwhile, former President Yayi had also left the country, ostensibly for health reasons.
Dialogue without major rivals
Apparently to stem the tide of misgivings swelling over his government policies, Talon has recently convoked a political dialogue which is meant for a parlay with the oppositions. While nine political parties have been invited to the dialogue, most of the key opponents of the President have been left out. It makes one wonder what is the motive behind the dialogue. It clearly shows that Talon only is interested in appearing to mend fences with his rivals and smooth relationship.
A disposition to authoritarian behaviour cannot be masked for long. President Talon should check his growing “strongman” attitude and not halt the craze drive of his country into a needless political turmoil. Beninese democracy is especial beacon to others on the continent, it will be quite unfortunate if one man, out of his greed for more power, destroy that beacon.
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