Benin continues to slide toward autocracy

Police officers walk out of the premises of the Autonomous National Electoral Commission as vote-counting begins in Cotonou, Benin, on April 12. (Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images)
Police officers walk out of the premises of the Autonomous National Electoral Commission as vote-counting begins in Cotonou, Benin, on April 12. (Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images)

Benin’s April 11 elections have many analysts increasingly concerned that the country is following a recent pattern of democratic decline in Africa. In 1991, Benin was the first former dictatorship to hold multiparty elections in Africa’s post-Cold War wave of democratization. According to one measure of democracy — the “two-turnover test” — Benin consolidated its democracy in 1996, when a second incumbent president lost reelection.

Political scientists define democracy as a system with contested elections — which means the opposition has some chance of winning. That wasn’t the case in Benin, where President Patrice Talon took steps to ensure his victory before a single vote was cast last month. Talon won with 86 percent of the vote, defeating two hand-selected opponents.

The details of Benin’s slide toward autocracy fit a distinct pattern outlined in “How Democracies Die,” a comprehensive analysis of how democratic underpinnings cease to function. Authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt point out that, unlike the dramatic revolutions or coups that once displaced democracies, in recent decades, democratic regimes tend to succumb via marginal changes, including “legal” reforms such as laws regulating elections and the media. Other political scientists refer to this process as “authoritarianization.”

Levitsky and Ziblatt identify four key indicators of authoritarian behavior, all of which emerged in Talon’s Benin:

1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game

Like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Talon reportedly attempted to overthrow a previous president in a military coup. Talon, known as the “King of Cotton” and Benin’s wealthiest man, financed the campaigns of President Thomas Boni Yayi in 2006 and 2011, then in 2013 was arrested on charges of organizing a coup attempt. Talon was later pardoned — and then won the 2016 election.

2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents

After Talon won the presidency in a runoff election in 2016, politicized courts (in particular, a new anti-corruption court, CRIET) disqualified potential presidential opponents for alleged criminal activity.

Opponents in exile and sentenced in absentia include 2016 runner-up Lionel Zinsou, third-place finisher Sébastien Ajavon (who helped Talon win the presidency with a second-round endorsement, then was convicted in 2018 for cocaine smuggling, a charge he had been cleared of in 2016), and former finance minister Komi Koutche.

In March, the military arrested former minister Reckya Madougou for an alleged terrorist plot. The CRIET judge responsible for Madougou’s detention apparently fled the country in protest of the political pressure to target opposition candidates.

3. Toleration or encouragement of violence

Benin politics have rarely been violent, but Talon’s administration has occasionally resorted to force. In 2019, Boni Yayi, the former president, was placed under de facto house arrest for several weeks during election protests. Security forces fired on protesters in various locations in 2019, and in the run-up to the April 2021 election, sometimes with deadly force.

4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media

Talon targeted independent and opposition-owned media after his election in 2016. The government prosecuted and jailed journalists and bloggers under a 2016 digital media law that restricts press freedom and criminalizes press offenses. Benin’s government also shut down opposition-owned newspapers and broadcasters.

In 2018, the Constitutional Court declared the right to strike a constitutional right, and struck down a law to ban strikes by public-sector unions. Talon then replaced the court’s members and placed his former personal lawyer and justice minister as head justice, and the court reversed itself.

Using a bit-by-bit approach, Talon effectively banned opposition parties. In 2018, the National Assembly adopted a restrictive new electoral code and revised Charter of Political Parties. In 2019, the Talon-aligned Constitutional Court created the requirement of a Certificate of Compliance, issued by the Ministry of the Interior, for parties to be legally recognized.

Soon after, the electoral commission disqualified all opposition parties. For example, Ajavon’s party was blocked when the ministry denied it a certificate, citing Ajavon’s 2018 drug-smuggling conviction. In the 2019 parliamentary elections, which also had historically low turnout, two new pro-Talon parties — the only competition allowed on the ballot — won all the legislative seats.

Talon then built upon the groundwork of the 2019 opposition-free legislative election to construct an opposition-light presidential election in 2021. The two pro-Talon parties amended the electoral law to create a new endorsement requirement for presidential candidates: sponsorship from 10 percent of the 83-seat National Assembly and the 77 mayorships. But all opposition parties were eliminated in the legislature, and only one opposition party — the rump of the previous ruling party, the FCBE — was permitted in the 2020 local elections, leaving just seven mayors from opposition parties. This meant no candidate could enter the 2021 presidential election without the approval of Talon’s allies.

The presidential majority denied the requisite sponsorships to strong opponents like Joel Aivo, and greenlit candidates acceptable to Talon’s political supporters, presumably because they posed little threat. For April’s election, the only two challengers on the ballot were Alassane Soumanou and Corentin Kohoué.

Soumanou, who placed second with 11 percent of the vote, was a minor figure in the FCBE, previously the party of former president Boni Yayi. To gain the certificate of conformity and compete in the 2020 elections, the party ejected prominent figures who had received recent convictions, including Koutche. Much of the party, including Boni Yayi, formed a new party, the Democrats, which then nominated Madougou — one of the candidates who was later disqualified and arrested. Kohoué is a dissident politician who failed to win the endorsement of the Democrats

The absence of challengers prompted most opposition parties to boycott this election. Turnout, at 50 percent, was the lowest since 1991, when Benin introduced multiparty elections for a president, and lower than any legislative election other than 2019.

Talon, who had promised in 2016 not to run for a second term, now promises not to run for a third. But the path has been cleared to break that promise, following the trajectory of democratic decline in the region.

Tyson Roberts teaches political science at the University of California at Los Angeles. His research interests include African politics, authoritarian institutions, and international political economy.

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