As Benin prepares to mark the six-month anniversary of President Patrice Talon’s re-election, international observers have largely turned their attention to the political crisis in Guinea. On 5 September, the army led by Colonel Mamady Doumbouya unseated the country’s first democratically elected leader Alpha Condé, less than a year after he had won a controversial third term. Not only does this constitute Guinea’s third coup since the country gained its independence in 1958; it is also the latest in a series of unconstitutional power grabs in the region. This year alone has witnessed four military takeovers in the region, including two in Mali.
Just as West Africa had been starting to see political blue skies, democratic backsliding this year in several countries is reversing this trend. As in Guinea, the Ivory Coast’s constitution was recently amended to allow a third term, while the Senegalese government’s repression against its people continues to grow.
Looking ahead, however, it is the situation in Benin that gives the most cause for concern: a former model democracy which helped spark a wave of democratization across Africa, the country is now following an all too familiar pattern, as President Patrice Talon seeks to dismantle democratic processes and strengthen his grip on power.
In many ways, recent events in Benin bear similarities with Guinea’s downfall. Elected on promises to reduce corruption and strengthen the economy, both Condé and Talon utilised the countries’ natural resources to improve their infrastructure. And in both countries, the bulk of the population failed to feel the effects. Then, as new elections loomed, campaign promises were broken as both leaders illegally amended their nations’ constitutions to secure new presidential terms. In parallel, quelled protests and a crackdown on opposition candidates allowed Condé and Talon to effectively scrap the possibility of free and constructive opposition.
The starkest example of this lies in the case of Reckya Madougou, who would have been Benin’s first female presidential candidate had her candidacy not been rejected due to Talon’s reforms. Next month will mark Madougou’s eighth month of incarceration in Benin’s high-security prison of Akpro-Missérété, where she is cut off from her family and the outside world, her right to a fair trial repeatedly refused.
Previously Benin’s Justice Minister and government advisor on financial inclusion and development, a former UN ambassador, philanthropist and mother to two young children, she would undoubtedly have been a strong contender for the election – a risk Talon was not willing to take.
The conditions surrounding Madougou’s arrest – she was effectively kidnapped off a street in Porto-Novo following a political rally – and the subsequent election, which saw a voter turnout of 26% rather than the 50% officially reported, shed light on the democratic tragedy unfolding in Benin.
Top Criet judge Essowé Batamoussi, now exiled in France, who initially oversaw the investigation into Madougou’s case, commented that political pressure from the administration had compelled the court to detain her. This echoes the stories of Sébastien Ajavon, former candidate in the 2016 presidential election, of Thomas Boni Yayi, the former President, and Lionel Zinsou, the former Prime Minister, who have all been subjected to police intimidation and politically motivated legal charges. This list could go on, as hundreds of others have gone into exile to escape unjustified sentences.
It is upon this repression that Patrice Talon has established his power and a fortune that makes him – the “king of cotton” – one of richest people in Francophone Africa today.
Despite some degree of international response, including the removal of Benin from France’s list of “safe” countries drawn up by the Office for Refugees and Stateless Person (OFPRA) and the downgrading of Benin’s “free” status by the NGO Freedom House, reactions have been insufficient to curtail Talon’s efforts to co-opt the country’s democratic processes.
In light of the recent turn of events in Guinea, Benin should look to its Western neighbour and take note. Regional instability is already spiking, reminiscent of the 1970s and 1980s when military putsches in West Africa were at an all-time high.
There is much Talon can do to halt a further slide into autocracy for Benin, with the systemic damages that it would entail for the region – starting with the release of political prisoners and the end of his campaign to damage Benin’s democratic institutions.
Peter Burdin is the BBC’s former Africa Bureau chief. He has 35 years’ experience as a senior editorial leader in the BBC’s international news operation.