Benin (Vol 16, 2019)

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Pauline Jarroux
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Bignon Clarisse Tama
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(4,244 words)

In 2019, the government of President Patrice Guillaume Athanase Talon continued with some of the political, economic, and social reforms considered essential for the emergence of the country, according to the ‘Bénin révélé’ programme. However, the very nature of some political reforms, and the way opposition and dissent were treated, produced a general feeling that individual and democratic freedoms were being increasingly undermined.

See also Benin 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017 | 2018 | 2020 | 2021 | 2022.

Contents Volume 16, 2019.

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In 2019, the government of President Patrice Guillaume Athanase Talon continued with some of the political, economic, and social reforms considered essential for the emergence of the country, according to the ‘Bénin révélé’ programme. However, the very nature of some political reforms, and the way opposition and dissent were treated, produced a general feeling that individual and democratic freedoms were being increasingly undermined.

On the socioeconomic front, speeches and statistical information on the success of the government contrasted with the population’s expectations regarding social progress as far as the ‘household food basket’ and the precarious situation of numerous workers were concerned.

Domestic Politics

Events related to the parliamentary polls and the ensuing post-electoral crisis marked much of the year. In April, only two political parties – both from the presidential camp – competed in the elections. Indeed, the 2018 laws on political parties and elections profoundly changed the rules of the game, leading to disqualifications and, consequently, non-compliance by some parties, including the main opposition parties. First, in February, only seven of the ten initially engaged in the legislative campaign could submit their application files on time to the ‘Commission Électorale Nationale Autonome’ (cena), despite many protests and complaints. Former president Thomas Boni Yayi’s ‘Force Cauris pour un Bénin Émergent’ (fcbe), Candide Azannaï’s ‘Restaurer l’Espoir’, and the Communist Party of Benin were unable to get a certificate showing compliance with the provisions of the new political parties law – a document the constitutional court now considered compulsory. On 5 March, the cena published its (unexpected) decision on the validity of the applications: only two political parties, the ‘Bloc Républicain’ and the ‘Union Progressiste’, both supporting the president’s policies, were allowed to take part in the campaign. The others, including Sébastien Ajavon’s ‘Union Sociale Libérale’ (usl), Adrien Houngbédji’s ‘Parti du Renouveau Démocratique’ (prd), and Claudine Prudencio’s ‘Union Démocratique pour un Bénin Nouveau’ (pdbn), were rejected because of files deemed incomplete. As early as 11 March, several thousand Beninese demonstrated in Cotonou, following a call by the political opposition. A few days later, an extraordinary parliamentary session was held, during which a special committee of five mps submitted its proposals for finding a way out of the crisis. Nevertheless, the negotiations among mps failed, as well as the numerous attempts at concessions between politicians, civil society actors, diplomats, etc. President Talon and the collective of constitutional institutions’ presidents thus called for the continuation of the electoral process. While demonstrators were being dispersed by force, and arrests and detentions of political opponents and journalists were being reported, a large part of the opposition called for a boycott of the elections. On 28 April, numerous incidents (ransacking of polling stations, clashes between demonstrators and security forces, etc.) occurred in Tchaourou, Parakou, and elsewhere, further discouraging the few potential voters. Internet access was restricted at first and then entirely shut down later in the day. Despite the polemics and contested figures, the electoral turnout, historically low, was reported as 27% by the constitutional court. Urban violence continued in the following days, and severe clashes took place in Cotonou, particularly in the Cadjèhoun district, near Thomas Boni Yayi’s house. While the police encirclement of his house was officially presented as a means to restore order and disperse the demonstrators, the population (the residents and some opponents) denounced it as an attempt to arrest the former president. In the aftermath of the events of 1 and 2 May, during which the police fired live ammunition, many people were arrested and Boni Yayi was soon accused by the authorities of having been personally involved in the post-election violence. While his house was still surrounded, violent clashes between the police and the population broke out in mid-June in Savè and Tchaourou (the former president’s hometown). Although the precise number of civilian casualties was not known, many wounded were counted on both sides. Alongside the attempts at mediation by the Beninese episcopate and by traditional leaders and dignitaries from both cities, efforts by foreign political figures such as the Nigerian and Rwandan presidents reportedly influenced the decision taken on 22 June to suspend the police presence around the former president’s house. That very evening, Boni Yayi left Benin after nearly two months locked in his home. Although his family and followers advanced “medical reasons” for his departure, the press quickly described it as exile. All in all, the post-election violence resulted in several deaths, many injured on both sides, and the arrest of several dozen political opponents. Despite widespread criticism, both nationally and internationally, the new 83 mps, all from the president’s camp, were officially installed in mid-May. This crisis marked a turning point in Benin’s political history: for the first time since 1990 and the establishment of a multi-party system, parliamentary elections ran without the participation of a genuine opposition faction. This episode tarnished the image of the country, which was long touted as a model of democracy, stability, and peace.

A few months later, the initiative of the president to organise a three-day ‘political dialogue’ in mid-October in order to end the political crisis, rekindled tensions: the participation of the fcbe, the only opposition forces invited, caused a lot of turmoil within the party and attracted strong criticism from the opposition. The recommendations of the ‘dialogue’ were eventually presented as the basis for several legislative initiatives, which were all adopted by a one-colour parliament. First, a revision of the constitution – the first since 1990 – was passed by parliament in October, after two unsuccessful attempts since the beginning of Talon’s mandate. Second, there was an amnesty law for ‘criminal acts’ committed during the post-election violence. And finally, three laws were adopted in mid-November regarding the financing of political parties and the modification of political parties and electoral laws. The main provisions included the limitation of the presidential and parliamentary terms to two and three terms, respectively; the creation of a vice president position; the extension of parliamentary terms to five years; the organisation of general elections featuring local, parliamentary, and presidential polls simultaneously; the introduction of measures to enhance women’s representation in parliament; the creation of a court of auditors; the abolition of the death penalty; and the recognition of the ‘traditional chieftaincy institution’. Many objections were raised, pointing first of all to the use of an emergency procedure for constitutional reform and the absence of parliamentary debate. Certain specific provisions also attracted considerable criticism, such as the introduction of a system of sponsorship, by local elected representatives and mps, for presidential candidates. Some saw this as a way to reinforce the exclusion of the opposition, in a context where it was not represented by any member of the parliament. Finally, the issue of the limitation of the presidential terms in office was also the subject of much criticism. Opponents saw it as a way to hinder Boni Yayi’s return to power, and as an illustration of the renewed ambitions of President Talon, who had made the single term of office a recurring theme of his political campaign (a project buried with the failure of the 2017 project for constitutional revision).

The feeling, shared by many citizens, that freedoms were increasingly restricted was reinforced by the end of the year with the arrest of Ignace Sossou. The young investigative journalist was arrested at his house on 20 December by agents of the ‘Office central de Répression de la Cybercriminalité’, supported by Godomey central police station. The day before, he had posted three messages criticising the authorities on his Facebook and Twitter pages, relaying comments attributed to public prosecutor Mario Metonou. The latter had reportedly made these comments at a conference on ‘fake news’ organised in Cotonou by ‘Canal France International’ (cfi), a French media development agency. While the cfi agency first distanced itself from the journalist, Metonou filed a complaint against Sossou. According to the prosecution, Metonou’s comments were taken out of context by the journalist. However, since the comments finally proved to be true, Ignace Sossou was therefore prosecuted for ‘harassment’ rather than ‘defamation’. After a four-day police custody and a search of his home, he was brought before the court on 24 December. At the end of a fast trial, he was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment and a fine of CFAfr 200,000 (just over $ 326), a decision the defence could appeal against. “For the first time in the ecowas region, a journalist is convicted and imprisoned for having reported on social networks public-interest statements that have been made”, said Assane Diagne, head of the West Africa office of Reporters Without Borders. The 2018 law on the digital code, with provisions considered particularly repressive for press freedom, has been used to justify the prosecution of several journalists and bloggers in the country. More generally, many commentators agreed that media control has been tightened since Talon’s election. In any case, according to the Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index for 2019, Benin ranked 96th out of 180 countries, 12 places lower than in the 2018 survey.

In this context, the decision taken by the ‘Haute Autorité de l’Audiovisuel et de la Communication’ (haac) to suspend ‘Radio Soleil fm’ for failure to renew its licence was read by some observers as a new case of censorship and attack on press freedom. First suspended in 2016 for a few months, Radio Soleil fm, owned by Sébastien Ajavon, opposition politician and businessman, was one of the few opposition radio stations. Sébastien Ajavon had been convicted in October 2018 in a controversial drug-trafficking case, after an initial trial in which he had been acquitted. In April, he was granted political refugee status in France, where he had fled. At the same time, the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights (achpr) condemned Benin for violating several fundamental rights in his trial and issued a new ruling in November ordering the Beninese state to pay nearly CFAfr 40 bn (about $ 43 m) in reparations within three months.

Another trial that was also widely reported in the country relates to the ‘Beninese Madoff case’, i.e. the case of the managers of icc Services, an illegal capital investment society that operated in the 2000s, before the system collapsed in 2010. Some 150,000 small-scale investors lost all their savings, with the damage estimated by the imf at more than CFAfr 150 bn (about $ 250 m). After numerous postponements and adjournments, the trial resumed in December 2018 before the ‘Court de Répression des Infractions Économiques et du Terrorisme’ (criet) and ended in early February. Prison sentences and fines were handed down to the principal managers, and their assets were seized in order to reimburse the victims. Since the names of former ministers and former president Thomas Boni Yayi were mentioned during the trial, the court’s special prosecutor said that they would also be prosecuted for complicity – drawing the wrath of the opposition, which denounced the political manipulation of the case and the violation of the principle of presumption of innocence.

A final point to be mentioned in this section concerns the diagnostic evaluation of teachersreversés’ in 2008 as state contractual agents. These were previously community teachers, i.e. instructors recruited and paid by parents to cope with the staff shortage in classrooms; they eventually obtained the status of contractual teachers, through union struggles and political promises. In a context where the quality of education, considered to be low, has been a matter of concern and debate for several years, authorities undertook a diagnostic evaluation of these ‘reversés’ teachers, from pre-school to general secondary education, on 24 August and 7 September 2019. This mandatory diagnosis officially aimed, in the long term, at strengthening the capacities of teaching staff. It was also planned that teachers who did not obtain the required grade would be re-evaluated, after one year’s training, and those deemed least capable would have to be reintegrated into another sector of the civil service or other sectors of activity. The project was strongly resisted by teachers and trade unions, who refused to be considered as the cause of the country’s educational problems and feared that the initiative could justify a salary reduction. The political opposition was also vocal: the fcbe, for instance, likened the initiative to a massive redundancy plan. As a result, the first-round tests were boycotted by many teachers, who could nevertheless retake the tests on 7 September. The high failure rate, especially among pre-school and primary school teachers (around 70%), was widely discussed in the country, as well as the decision, taken in December, to remove from public administration more than 300 contracted teachers, from pre-school to secondary level, who had refused to get tested.

Foreign Affairs

As far as foreign affairs are concerned, the year 2019 was marked by several major events, starting with the kidnapping of two tourists in the north of the country.

On 1 May, two French tourists did not return to the lodge waiting for them after their day in the Pendjari National Park, located in Atacora on the border with Burkina Faso. Fiacre Gbédji, their Beninese guide, was found dead in the park a few days later. After initial hesitation and in the absence of any claims of responsibility, the assumption of a kidnapping became a certainty, particularly after the discovery, in the east of Burkina Faso, of the 4×4 vehicle that had been transporting the tourists; it had been set on fire. Although the identity of the kidnappers was unclear, there were indications that the hostages might be transferred to a terrorist organisation in Mali, which would have greatly complicated any liberation operation. Therefore, during the night of 9–10 May, an operation was quickly carried out by French special forces, with the support of American intelligence and Burkinabé forces, in the east of Burkina Faso. It resulted in the release of four hostages – the two French, as well as one American and one South Korean – and the death of two French soldiers and four of the kidnappers. While the finger was pointed at the activism of armed groups, straddling banditry and terrorism, which were proliferating in eastern Burkina Faso, this episode revived fears of an extension of the terrorist threat southwards and into the hitherto relatively safe states bordering the Gulf of Guinea (except for the attack on Grand-Bassam in Côte d’Ivoire in 2016). Benin, like its neighbouring countries, deployed additional units to strengthen the security of its northern borders, and a few joint initiatives by the countries of the sub-region led in particular by ecowas were carried out in the context of the fight against terrorism. Yet, these events highlighted the vulnerability of the Gulf of Guinea states to terrorist groups active in Mali and Burkina Faso. Since Talon was strongly committed to the development of tourism in the country, the classification of the Pendjari park as a red zone by the French Quai d’Orsay raised criticism among Beninese authorities, who regretted it as a “unilateral decision” and a “bad advertisement” for the country, as the French newspaper ‘Le Monde’ reported it. Nevertheless, some progress was made on another topic involving Benin and France, namely Benin’s cultural property appropriated by France and held in Paris, following Patrice Talon’s request that the artefacts be returned to Benin.

More than a year and a half after President Macron’s promise, the issue of the restitution of 26 cultural objects looted by French colonial forces was revived, thanks to the organisation of a Forum on African Heritage in Paris in July. If a “rapid” return had first been considered on the French side, the process appeared more complex, as the French legal framework needed to be clarified. As for the Beninese officials, they seemed to be calling for “patience”, as José Pliya, director of the ‘Agence Nationale de Promotion des Patrimoines et de Développement du Tourisme’ (anpt) put it. According to him, in a situation where Benin’s public museums were ill equipped, it was a matter of ensuring suitable conditions existed for the exhibition of objects. These discussions took place within the framework of the government’s tourism investment programme, which included the construction of a new museum in Abomey, within the 47 hectares classified since 1985 as a unesco World Heritage Site. This museum, dedicated to the history of the ‘Amazons’ and the Danxomean kings, would house the 26 cultural objects returned by France. While unesco gave its consent to the project and the French Development Agency approved a loan of € 12 m, the construction of the museum was delayed, and the objects will not be displayed in Benin before 2021.

In August, Nigeria decided to close its land borders with its neighbours, including Benin, to trade in goods. The Nigerian president justified his unilateral decision by his desire to combat smuggling, particularly of rice, at a time when the country intended to develop its agriculture and diversify its economy by encouraging Nigerian farmers to increase production. While the situation led to a sharp rise in the price of rice and a shortage of imported food items in Nigeria, it also directly impacted the Beninese economy negatively, by affecting its transit economy and informal trade with its neighbour. More broadly, the situation affected not only a large number of traders but also the entire Beninese population: the price of ‘kpayo’, the smuggled gasoline imported from Nigeria and used by many Beninese, more than doubled at the end of the year. In November, while the borders were still closed, a meeting was held in Abuja, Nigeria, bringing together several ministers from Benin, Niger, and Nigeria to consider collective solutions. Joint patrols were posted at the borders of the three countries to combat smuggling activities. However, by the end of 2019, a resolution of the situation was still pending, postponing until 2020 the possible resumption of Nigeria’s trade with its neighbours.

In diplomatic terms, the year 2019 was marked by several trips abroad by Patrice Talon, notably in June to Abuja for the 55th ecowas summit, where the name ‘Eco’ was given to the West African single currency project. In October, Talon flew to Japan to take part in the ceremonies of enthronement of the new emperor Naruhito, then to Sochi for the first Russia–Africa summit, organised by Vladimir Putin. In July, President Ram Nath Kovind was warmly welcomed in Cotonou for the first visit of an Indian head of state or government to the country. Several cooperation agreements had been signed and a loan of $ 100 m had been promised to Benin for the implementation of its priority projects. By contrast, diplomatic relations with the eu stalled. In November, the Beninese authorities took the decision to expel the eu ambassador in Cotonou, accusing him of interfering in internal affairs and of “subversive” activities, in the climate of high political tensions that had prevailed since the electoral episode. Despite the European authorities’ criticisms regarding an “unjustified” decision, the head of the eu delegation in Benin had to leave the country. Soon after his departure, the European Union responded by declaring Benin’s ambassador to the eu persona non grata. The latter lost his accreditation with the European institutions on 19 December.

Socioeconomic Developments

Benin’s economic growth continued to gain momentum, despite the closure of the Nigerian borders, and the country was removed from the imf’s list of the world’s 25 poorest countries for 2019. Growth was driven by healthy seaport business (which increased, compared with 2018), agricultural production, and public and private investments, especially in the construction sector. imf experts were also pleased with the stabilisation of the public debt ratio, lower consumer price inflation, and the diversification of the financing structure through the issuance of Eurobonds for the first time in 2019. Nevertheless, and despite the slight increase in Benin’s ranking in the Doing Business report for the year 2019, some concern was raised among observers and the business community regarding the impact of political tensions and the restriction of freedoms on the business environment. There were also questions about the economic clout of a handful of powerful men – including Patrice Talon – in a number of strategic sectors, such as the seaport and cotton businesses. Moreover, the good economic indicators sparked much debate among the population, while social progress remained timid. The arrest in April of journalist Casimir Kpedjo, accused of spreading false information about the country’s economy, raised further doubts among some citizens.

The 2018–19 cotton harvest reached a record of nearly 700,000 tonnes, making Benin the continent’s leading cotton-producing country. Its direct competitors, Burkina Faso and Mali, were constrained respectively by security conditions and climatic variations. According to observers, the sector’s good health was to be credited to measures liberalising the sector and to the rehabilitation work on road infrastructure. Cotton production also benefited from favourable rainfall in 2019, which positively impacted food production in general – another sector targeted by the Talon government.

Major construction works, among the key measures of the government’s action programme, also continued. In July 2019, the reconstruction and asphalting work on the Kétou–Savé–Nigeria border road was officially launched, while the Natitingou–Boukoumbé–Korontière road neared completion. Urban renewal works were carried on, with asphalting of the streets of Cotonou, Natitingou, Porto Novo, and Parakou, among others. Other major projects, such as the construction of a new airport in Glo-Djigbé and the modernisation and improvement of some 30 markets in the country, slackened. In the latter case, it was only in December that the site was handed over for work on the first batch of nine markets in Cotonou. The date was considered late – nearly three years after the eviction operations which forced the petty traders along the roads to cease their activity.

In August, the government inaugurated a thermal power station in Maria Gléta, some 20 km from Cotonou. This was the second station of its kind built in the country, after what had been considered the failure of Maria Gléta 1, erected between 2008 and 2012. With a capacity of 129 mw (out of the approximately 240 mw deemed necessary for the country), Maria Gléta 2 was intended to eventually strengthen the country’s energy autonomy and put an end to load shedding; hitherto, Benin had depended on Nigerian and Ghanaian electricity.

On a more social level, the 2019 undp’s Human Development Report for 2018 ranked Benin 163rd out of 189 countries, and 30th on the African continent. While economic reforms progressed well, the population was awaiting the social measures promised by the government. These appeared even more necessary to address the serious financial repercussions for many of the country’s producers, sellers, and traders stemming from the eviction operations and the closure of the borders with Nigeria. The ‘Projet d’Appui au Développement Agricole et à l’Accès au Marché’ (padaam), one of the tools promoted by the government to ensure food security and income for smallholder farmers, was finally launched in November, notably after the funding agreement signed with ifad, the project’s main donor. The project sought to reach about 50,000 rural households in seven of the country’s 12 departments within six years. As for the ‘Assurance pour le Renforcement du Capital Humain’ (arch), a project offering health insurance, microcredit, training, and retirement for the poorest, the health insurance part of the project only entered its pilot phase in July. Three sanitary zones, encompassing seven of the country’s 77 communes, were the first to receive attention.

Finally, as far as gender is concerned, mechanisms for reducing gender inequalities remained weak. The 2019 report on the gender index in the Sustainable Development Goals, published by Equal Measures 2030, ranked Benin 109th out of 129 countries. It was undoubtedly at the political level that the contradictions of gender-related policies were most visible: while there were only seven women among the 8th legislature’s 83 mps installed in May – far from the 30% that some had hoped for – Maria Chabi Talata was the first woman to be appointed as vice president of the parliament. Furthermore, the new electoral code passed in November provided that 24 of the 109 seats in the next legislature be reserved for women. However, the measure has not been extended to the local elections, the next of which will be held in 2020. At the end of 2019, of the country’s 77 mayors only four were women, in the communes of Ouidah, Toffo, Kalalé, and Pèrèrè.

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