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The fight for a democratic future

A child holds a campaign poster with photographs of incumbent Benin President Patrice Talon (R on poster) and running mate Mariam Talata (L on poster) at the market in Cotonou on April 8, 2021.

President Patrice Talon is running for a second term in polls where several key rivals are in exile or barred

Voters in Benin are taking part in elections following days of protests over President Patrice Talon’s broken promise to serve only one term in office.

There are just two other candidates on the ballot, in a country dubbed the birthplace of African multiparty democracy.

Alassane Soumanou of the opposition FCBE party is a former minister, while Corentin Kohoué is seen as more of a wildcard.

Several key opposition figures – including an ex-prime minister and a former mayor of the biggest city Cotonou – have either been arrested and ruled ineligible or are now in exile.

But a government spokesman has told the BBC “no-one is excluded from this election”.

“We do not need every person in Benin to run as candidates in an election for it to be representative. Once you have the ruling party and the opposition represented, an election is complete – and the democratic system is operational,” communication minister Alain Arounla said.

More than 5.5 million people are eligible to vote, including about 45,500 in the diaspora, and results are expected within days.

What happened in the protests?

Many in Benin question the legitimacy of the election and some fear more violence could break out, reports the BBC’s Lalla Sy who was recently in Cotonou.

One person was killed in the town of Savè on Thursday, officials say, while health workers report that another six people suffered gunshot wounds after confrontations with security forces. Demonstrations also happened in the cities of Cotonou, Parakou and three other towns.

Protesters use tires to barricade the road in Toui, an opposition stronghold, on 7 April.

Demonstrators blocked this road in the town of Toui on Wednesday

“We want the president to leave. Five years means five years,” Cotonou protester Rodrigue Amadou told Reuters news agency.

The authorities have accused the protestors of starting the violence, saying the security forces were assaulted by drugged and armed youths. But others say it is an example of how Benin has become more authoritarian under President Talon’s rule.

Some see parallels with the exclusion of all opposition parties from parliamentary elections back in 2019, which sparked protests where security officers opened fire on protestors and a mother of seven died after being shot in the back.

Prudence Amoussou became a symbol of those protests, and her sister Léocadie Cakpo recently told the BBC: “I am deeply hurt in my heart. I don’t know when I will recover from this. She was my only sister.”

What’s at stake for Benin?

Benin was in the vanguard of a new wave of multiparty democracy which spread across the continent 30 years ago.

A map showing the locations of Cotonou and Porto-Novo in Benin.

A map showing the locations of Cotonou and Porto-Novo in Benin.

Those polls in 1991 saw Benin’s former President Mathieu Kérékou become the first West African leader to admit defeat in an election.

Since then Benin had been regarded as a democratic model with several African nations replicating its reconciliation body, the National Conference of Active Forces of the Nation.

But this reputation soured in 2019 when new electoral laws meant a political party had to pay about $424,000 (£328,000) to field a list for the 83-seat parliament. That year saw a record low voter turnout.

Benin’s parliament is currently completely controlled by the government, our reporter says, and the opposition say that their main representatives have been prevented from taking part in these latest polls, including constitutional lawyer Joël Aïvo.

“In five years, President Talon’s so-called political reforms have squandered the legacy of the National Conference. Benin no longer knows how to organise elections,” he told the BBC.

The government says the opposition is represented and the democratic system is working.

In reference to the president breaking his promise to leave office after a single term, Mr Talon’s communication advisor Wilfried Houngbedji told AFP that “he came to power with a touch of evangelism” but later “became more realistic”.

Who else was ruled out of the race?

  • Sébastien Ajavon – a businessman who came third in 2016’s presidential election, now in exile

  • Lionel Zinsou – the former prime minister was accused of campaign overspends then barred from running for office for four years

  • Léhady Soglo – ex-Cotonou mayor and son of a former president, now living in exile and sentenced in absentia to 10 years in jail for “abuse of office”

  • Reckya Madougou – presidential candidate for The Democrats party, accused of terrorism

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