Since April 28, Benin has been facing escalating violence and protest amid calls for a more democratic rerun of the parliamentary election. This election saw a dramatically low turnout of 23% following an intensification of electoral requirements, which left only two political parties – the Union Progressiste and the Bloc Républicain – eligible to stand. As both these parties are close to the President of Benin, Patrice Talon, this meant that no opposition party ran for election. This comes as a heavy setback for a country which is considered a model for democracy in West Africa.
Former president Thomas Boni Yayi who, along with Beninese politician Nicéphore Soglo, urged a boycott of the election and is, reportedly, now a target for arrest declared that ‘the people demand the return of democracy.’ This is echoed by United States ambassador Patricia Mahoney, who stated that the elections ‘do not reflect the Benin that we know.’ Furthermore, Boni suggested that ‘Talon will walk over our dead bodies’ before democracy is jeopardised – an aggressive stance which has encouraged violence to protect Beninese democracy. However, it is the Beninese who will be the greater victims of the ensuing violence, as recognised by Amnesty International’s West Africa researcher François Patuel, who claims that ‘banning peaceful protests and detaining those who speak up … will only fuel political turmoil.’
The events and changes surrounding the election demonstrate that Talon’s leadership should be held accountable for the post-election violence. The new electoral measures require a party to have the equivalent of $428,000 in West African CFA francs – this in a country with a per capita income of $2,260. Earlier in April, Talon himself recognised publicly that these requirements were damaging to Beninese democracy but argued that he could not interfere in the electoral proceedings. Previous peaceful demonstrations against these requirements have been met with an aggressive police response. Prior to the election, tear gas was fired and accusations of the illegality of the protests were made, often accompanied by arrests. But the post-election antipathy, which began with largely peaceful protest and soon devolved to the firing of automatic rifles by police and armed forces, foregrounds wilful repression which does not correlate with Talon’s claims to helplessness. Whilst the violence of protestors must be condemned, it is problematic to view this as anything other than a reaction to – and reflection of – the actions of the Beninese government.
Democratic values in Benin have suffered as a consequence of the new election requirements, but they have also been affected by limiting freedom of expression. Prior to the election, there was a concern that political activists and journalists were being silenced through intimidation. Notably, editor of the Nouvelle Economie Casimir Kpedjo is facing investigation by Beninese authorities following accusations that he spread false news about the Beninese economy on social media. Another blatant attack on freedom of expression was made on the day of the election when Beninese authorities shut down access to the internet and social media.
With violence breeding violence, it is difficult to see how an aggressive strategy of resistance can serve to protect democratic values in Benin; there is a worrying contradiction between means and end on both sides of the barricades. It is now only Talon’s influence that can stem the violence.