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Benin’s Recent Election is a Warning Sign to Democracy Everywhere
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We are living in the midst of a global democratic backslide. In recent years, traditionally stable democracies such as the United States and Britain have weakened and faltered. Non-democratic states such as China have strengthened their state power and repression of dissent. China is spreading its influence in the developing world with infrastructure projects through its robust Belt and Road Initiative.[1][2] Rising authoritarianism threatens human rights on a global scale. The recent developments in Benin should come as an immediate call to action by the international democratic community from both a strategic and human rights standpoint.

A country of 12 million people, Benin has stood as a beacon of democracy for the past 30-years. In 1991, president Matthieu Kérékou became the first president in mainland Sub-Saharan Africa to be peacefully voted out of office.[3] However, the events preceding Benin’s April 11th presidential elections demonstrate that this small West African country is a victim of the regional –and global– trend of democratic erosion.[4] Unfortunately, this has occurred with little condemnation or recognition by the international community.[5] A stronger response is urgently needed before it is too late.

West Africa has led the way for democracy in the continent during the most recent wave of democratization.

In recent years, the region has experienced a noticeable backslide in its democratic institutions.[6] Throughout the pandemic, Senegal’s president has become more oppressive. Presidents of Guinea and Ivory Coast have pushed constitutional changes allowing them to serve a third term. In Nigeria, Jihadist insurgencies and ethnic conflicts have undermined the nation’s institutions, and the government has responded by curtailing individual freedoms. An August military coup in Mali deposed President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. In recent years, Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, and Nigeria all fell in Freedom House’s rankings from “free” to “partly free.”

Many cite these backslides as result of economic difficulties, demographic pressures, weak institutional counter-balances to power, and a loss of the credibility of traditional mediators, such as Western nations.[7] Persecution and weakening of the democratic opposition is rampant. According to a political scientist with the Open Society in West Africa (OSIWA), "Especially in French-speaking countries, we see stricter criteria for creating parties, [and] standing in elections is becoming more and more difficult, like in Ivory Coast and Benin"

“Cotton King” Patrice Talon was elected president of Benin in 2016.

A multimillionaire cotton tycoon, Talon defeated former prime minister Lionel Zinsou in a run-off election following the first round of 33 candidates. Dubbed the “King of Cotton,” Talon beat Zinsou, the chosen successor of out-going president, Boni Yayi, with 65% of the vote. The multi-party election in Benin brought the country its fourth electoral turnover, which was more than any other county during Africa's most recent wave of democratization. [8] [9]

A “modernizer,” Talon ran on his record of improving roads and accessibility to water and energy. He pledged to continue his crusade against corruption and mismanagement while promoting a business-friendly environment for investors. Under Talon, Benin’s economy expanded: between 2016 and 2019, Benin had an average real GDP growth of 5.5 percent and became Africa’s top cotton exporter in 2018.[10] [11] However, much of Benin’s population remains poor and relies on the informal economy. Most of these economic gains have gone to the country’s elite, and consequently, to Talon’s cotton empire.

Meanwhile, the 62-year-old incumbent has consolidated power while doing little to lift Benin’s people out of poverty. He has also marginalized the country’s northern Muslim population as Islamic extremism spills over from the Sahel.[12]

Talon has built a façade of democracy and entrenched himself in power through procedural reforms, censorship, and dissolving the independent judiciary.

Talon claimed that he would limit himself to just one 5-year term. Throughout his presidency, he has consolidated power by changing election laws and manipulating the courts to prosecute his rivals. Journalists have been arrested or detained for criticizing the government. With a censored domestic media, the press has been unable to truthfully cover Talon’s power grabs. [13]

A newly established judicial body, Cour de Répression des Infractions économiques et de Terrorisme (CRIET), is supposedly aimed at tackling corruption and terrorism. This dubious court has repeatedly targeted Talon’s opponents.[14] Just a week before the election, a CRIET magistrate resigned, fled the country, and claimed that he had been pressured politically. [15]Moreover, Talon’s former personal lawyer became president of Benin’s Constitutional Court.[16]

The courts barred Lionel Zinsou, Talon’s 2016 rival and the country's former prime minister, from running based on charges of campaign law violations. Sébastien Ajavon, another rival, is exiled in France after being convicted and sentenced to 20-years in prison for drug trafficking charges[17]. Reckya Madougou, the leader of Benin’s largest opposition party, Les Démocrates, was barred from running because of newly implemented electoral reforms. She was later arrested for "planning to assassinate several political figures."[18] Almost all of Talon’s legitimate opposition was blocked from running or boycotted the 2019 legislative and 2020 local elections. According to Freedom House, protests surrounding these elections were met with deadly police violence and an internet shutdown.

For the 2021 presidential election, electoral mandates required candidates to have the support of 10 percent of all mayors and legislators. Talon’s allies already comprised all 83 members of parliament and 71 out of 77 mayors because of the campaign restrictions and subsequent lack of opposition in the 2019 and 2020 elections.[19] Therefore, Talon’s coalition managed to handpick his 2021 opponents: two weak candidates, Alassane Soumanou and Coretine Kohoue. These actions were an obvious effort to create a guise of a legitimate multi-candidate election.  This non-competitive race was essentially decided before ballots were even cast. On April 11th, Patrice Talon won a second term with 86.3% of the vote. The election was preceded by protests met with a bloody police crackdown. Election day saw extremely low voter turnout.

The development of West Africa is a battleground for defending democracy.

This rapidly developing region of nearly 400 million people is growing its geopolitical significance. Across the globe, particularly in West Africa, The United States and its allies engage in a pivotal international competition with China. As China spreads its economic power and influence, it is simultaneously promoting its authoritarian model of government. In President Biden’s first remarks to the State Department, he stressed the importance of “meet[ing] this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including the growing ambitions of China.”[20]

Leading up to Benin’s 2021 election, The U.S. Embassy in Cotonou released a statement calling for respect of democratic norms and peaceful protest. They failed to directly address Talon’s undemocratic usurpation of power. It was only until after the election that the Embassy expressed concern over the politically motivated arrests, the lack of competitiveness, and questionably low voter turnout. While these statements align with Biden's diplomatic goals of defending democracy and fundamental freedoms abroad, they are not enough.[21] [22] [23]

If the United States is serious about preventing the spread of authoritarianism, it needs to firmly condemn Talon, impose sanctions, or withhold foreign aid as leverage. Although the Republic of Benin may seem insignificant to most Americans, the political trends of this small African country hold ramifications for the region, the continent, and the world. Benin’s democratic backslide is a threat to human rights everywhere.

Benjamin Pearl is a student at the George Washington University, studying international affairs and minoring in journalism.


[1] https://merics.org/en/analysis/china-francophone-west-africa-challenge-paris

[2] https://africacenter.org/spotlight/implications-for-africa-china-one-belt-one-road-strategy/

[3] https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2021/04/10/benins-democratic-beacon-dims

[4] https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6508/1192

[5] https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/04/08/benin-election-democracy-sham-patrice-talon/


[7] https://www.barrons.com/news/democratic-backsliding-in-w-africa-as-election-season-begins-01602595214

[8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/03/22/heres-why-benins-election-was-a-step-forward-for-african-democratic-consolidation-and-why-it-wasnt/

[9] https://www.jstor.org/stable/2960407?seq=3#metadata_info_tab_contents

[10] https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/benin/overview

[11] https://www.france24.com/en/africa/20210411-benin-votes-in-presidential-polls-after-week-of-violent-protests

[12] https://africacenter.org/spotlight/dismantling-benin-democracy/

[13] https://www.google.com/url?q=https://africacenter.org/spotlight/dismantling-benin-democracy/&sa=D&source=editors&ust=1620101303114000&usg=AOvVaw3kq18RxvNksvTi_esWaDw7

[14] https://www.dw.com/fr/bã©nin-la-criet-est-elle-vraiment-indã©pendante/a-57111213

[15] https://www.rfi.fr/fr/afrique/20210405-opposante-en-dã©tention-au-bã©nin-un-magistrat-dã©nonce-des-pressions-politiques

[16] https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/04/08/benin-election-democracy-sham-patrice-talon/

[17] https://www.france24.com/en/africa/20210409-authoritarian-slide-taints-west-africa-s-model-democracy-as-benin-heads-to-polls

[18] https://www.africanews.com/2021/03/08/benin-opposition-candidate-jailed-and-accused-of-terrorism/

[19] https://www.france24.com/en/africa/20210409-authoritarian-slide-taints-west-africa-s-model-democracy-as-benin-heads-to-polls

[20] https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/02/04/r emarks-by-president-biden-on-americas-place-in-the-world/&sa=D&source=editors&ust=1620101466338000&usg=AOvVaw373ebhNMkm3GJiROPNkNOQ

[21] https://bj.usembassy.gov/u-s-embassy-statement-on-benins-presidential-elections/

[22] https://bj.usembassy.gov/arrests-of-opposition-figures-in-benin/

[23] https://bj.usembassy.gov/u-s-embassy-statement-on-benins-presidential-election/


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