Benin – Democracy battered

Not all is well in Benin. The country is rapidly losing its status as an exemplary democracy in West Africa. Socio-economic turmoil, increasing corruption and mounting opposition to the president’s suspected desires for a third term have rocked an otherwise stable nascent democracy.

Recently, a nearly four-month general strike threatened the school year. Four of six unions involved lifted their participation in the strike on April 15, following partial satisfaction of their demands, but maintain their call for the departure of the prefect and the police chief of Cotonou. The two officials are seen as responsible for the violent repression of a December 27, 2013 march demanding better governance and the respect of democratic freedoms.

Since Yayi took power in 2006, the country has been hit by a series of economic scandals, including its own “Madoff” pyramid investment scheme that defrauded Beninese citizens of 150 million Euro. At the end of December 2013, the United States removed Benin from the list of countries eligible for funding from the Millennium Challenge Account, citing increasing levels of corruption.

According to Freedom House, the media has suffered since Yayi’s election, as legal and regulatory structures have been used to restrict media freedom. For example, the director of a private television station was charged with criminal defamation in September 2012 for authorizing the broadcast of comments considered defamatory toward the president. In 2008, the country’s freedom of the press status was degraded from ‘free’ to ‘partly free.’

Reelected in 2011, Boni Yayi has surrounded himself with family members and members of the Pentecostal church of which he is a fervent devotee.  Three of his children serve in the presidency, and his wife’s older brother is Minister of Development, while the Ministers of Justice, of Labor and of the Environment are members of evangelist churches. Family members are not necessarily above all suspicion, as demonstrated by the bizarre alleged attempt by the president’s niece, his family doctor and a former financial sponsor to poison Yayi, in 2012. The niece, the family doctor and the head of the presidential security guard are all in prison, while the business man and former presidential financier, Patrice Talon, has taken refuge in France.

As he approaches the end of his second term in April 2016, his opponents suspect President Yayi of wanting to change the constitution to stay on for another term. A constitutional revision introduced by the government in June 2013, though not touching the two-term presidential term limit, was seen as intended to reset the term clock, by initiating a new republic and thus allowing the president to run for office again under the new constitution. In September 2013, the law committee of the National Assembly (which includes members of Yayi’s party) declared the proposed revisions inadmissible, with reference to procedural irregularities. The bipartisan rejection of the amended constitution is an indication of Yayi’s eroding political support.

Benin has thus far remained on the democratic path since its February 1990 ‘national conference’ which transitioned the country to multi-party democracy and initiated a wave of such conferences in Francophone Africa, modeled on the French États Généraux held in 1789 on the eve of the French revolution. Hopefully, Benin will again set the example by resisting pressure for doing away with presidential term limits, at a time when countries such as Burkina Faso, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) seem to be headed down that path.

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