Benin had been among the most stable democracies in sub-Saharan Africa, but President Patrice Talon began using the justice system to attack his political opponents after taking office in 2016, and new electoral rules effectively excluded all opposition parties from the 2019 parliamentary elections. Protests surrounding those elections were met with harsh restrictions on civil liberties, including an internet shutdown and deadly police violence against demonstrators.
- The courts, electoral officials, and the government implemented a new electoral code in a manner that effectively prevented all opposition parties from participating in the April legislative elections, resulting in a National Assembly composed entirely of government supporters.
- Internet service was shut down on election day, and security forces used gunfire to disperse protests in the months surrounding the vote.
- Two journalists were charged during the year with publishing false news under a 2017 digital media law.
- As part of a crackdown on President Talon’s chief opponents, former president Thomas Boni Yayi was held under de facto house arrest for several weeks after the elections and fled the country in June. The runner-up in the 2016 presidential election, Lionel Zinsou, was barred in August from standing for office for five years due to alleged campaign violations.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
The president is elected by popular vote for up to two five-year terms and serves as both the chief of state and head of government. In the 2016 presidential election, none of the 33 candidates won a majority of votes in the first round, leading to a second round in which Patrice Talon defeated former prime minister Lionel Zinsou of the incumbent Cowry Forces for an Emerging Benin (FCBE) with 65 percent of the vote. Talon, Benin’s richest businessman, ran as an independent, supported by the business sector and a number of small political parties. The election was generally held in accordance with international standards, although some delays in voting were reported due to voter card shortages and the late delivery of materials to polling stations.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
Delegates to the 83-member, unicameral National Assembly serve four-year terms and are elected by proportional representation. The April 2019 legislative elections were not free or fair, as the implementation of new electoral rules effectively prevented all opposition parties from participating. Observers canceled poll-monitoring plans for fear of violence, turnout fell to about a quarter of eligible voters amid a boycott by opposition supporters, there was an internet shutdown on election day, and security forces violently suppressed protests before and after the balloting, resulting in several deaths. Only two progovernment parties, the Progressive Union and the Republican Bloc, won seats, taking 47 and 36, respectively.
In November, the new National Assembly adopted a package of constitutional amendments, including provisions that imposed a three-term limit on legislators, expanded the assembly to 109 seats, and extended its terms from four years to five beginning in 2026 in order to align them with those of the president. The next legislative elections would still occur in 2023.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 1 because all opposition parties were barred from competing in the parliamentary elections, and the polls themselves were marred by a large-scale voter boycott and an internet shutdown.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
Elections are conducted by the Autonomous National Electoral Commission (CENA). In the past, the CENA generally administered elections fairly and transparently. However, following the passage of a restrictive electoral law in 2018, the Constitutional Court—headed by the president’s former personal lawyer—ruled in February 2019 that parties must obtain a “certificate of conformity” from the Ministry of the Interior, and the CENA declared in March that five of the seven party lists lacked the necessary certificate or otherwise failed to meet the requirements of the electoral law. The two party lists cleared for the elections were both loyal to the president. Although reforms to the constitution and electoral code were adopted in November, the key rules that led to the exclusion of opposition parties remained in place.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 1 because a new electoral code passed in 2018 was interpreted by the Constitutional Court and enforced by the Interior Ministry and electoral commission in a manner that led to the exclusion of all opposition parties from the parliamentary elections.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
Since the reintroduction of multiparty elections in 1991, Benin has generally had a large number of active political parties. However, the electoral code passed in 2018, aimed at decreasing the quantity of parties, established restrictive rules including an unusually high 10 percent threshold for party lists to win representation in the parliament and a dramatic increase in obligatory financial deposits for presidential candidates and legislative party lists—though the sums for presidential candidates were reduced again under legislation passed in November 2019.
While all opposition parties were excluded from the April 2019 parliamentary elections, the Ministry of the Interior eventually granted the FCBE legal recognition under the 2018 electoral code in September, after some of the party’s officials agreed to remove two former ministers from its leadership. The two were living abroad and faced legal proceedings in Benin. The Social Liberal Union (USL)—a prominent opposition party whose leader, Sébastien Ajavon, was similarly living in exile—continued to lack legal recognition at year’s end.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 2 due to onerous and politicized party registration requirements that played a role in the disqualification of all opposition parties ahead of the 2019 parliamentary elections, and continued state interference with those parties in the aftermath of the elections.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
Talon’s defeat of Zinsou, outgoing president Boni Yayi’s chosen successor in the 2016 election, marked Benin’s fourth transfer of power between rival groups at the presidential level since multiparty elections were restored in 1991.
In recent years, however, the government has introduced significant obstacles to opposition parties and presidential candidates, and leading opposition figures have been harassed by authorities and targeted for prosecution on a variety of charges. Boni Yayi, who is affiliated with the FCBE, was placed under de facto house arrest for 52 days following the April 2019 elections, then fled the country after he was released in June. Zinsou, who was living in exile, received a suspended six-month prison sentence in absentia and a five-year ban on running for office in August for alleged 2016 campaign violations. Ajavon, the 2016 third-place candidate, remained in France in 2019 after receiving a 20-year prison sentence in absentia on drug trafficking charges in 2018.
Among the constitutional amendments adopted by the legislature in November 2019 was a change to clarify that no president can serve more than two terms in his life, even if they are nonconsecutive. Some in the opposition alleged that this language was aimed at Boni Yayi, who stepped down after two terms in 2016. In addition, future candidates for president and the newly created position of vice president would have to obtain the endorsement of at least 10 percent of the country’s mayors and National Assembly deputies, a threshold that would be especially difficult for the opposition to meet given the composition of the newly elected legislature.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 1 because the one-sided 2019 parliamentary elections left opposition parties with no representation in the legislature, and opposition prospects in future elections were diminished by new constitutional amendments and the prosecution of key leaders.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?
Politics have generally been free from interference by the military. Although soldiers and police used lethal force to break up opposition protests during 2019, it was not yet clear that the security forces had become politicized.
The role of personal wealth in politics, however, has increased in recent years, with higher campaign costs and clientelist structures boosting the careers of wealthier politicians. Talon himself developed his private businesses in part by financing the previous campaigns of Boni Yayi and other political elites and then securing lucrative contracts. After becoming president, Talon allegedly attempted to bribe lawmakers during his initial attempts to win passage of constitutional amendments.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to the rising role of private wealth and clientelism in the political system in recent years.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
Women and minority groups are not legally excluded from participation in the political process, but cultural factors do limit women’s political engagement. Women won just 7 percent of the seats in the April 2019 parliamentary elections. The constitutional amendments passed in November included 24 reserved seats for women in the enlarged 109-seat National Assembly that would be elected in 2023, though there were no such provisions for municipal and local assemblies.
Benin has historically been divided between northern and southern ethnic groups, and political parties often rely on ethnic bases of support. Talon is considered to be aligned with southerners, though his stated policy is to prioritize merit over ethnic balance in his appointments. In practice, most of his political appointees, including the head of the Constitutional Court, are from the Gbe-speaking region in the south, and the May 2019 election of a southerner as president of the National Assembly broke with a tradition of ensuring that the legislative leader comes from a different region than the chief executive.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 because the current president has overseen a concentration of power in the hands of southern ethnic groups, and the 2019 parliamentary elections reinforced the poor representation of women in the political system.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
The president and the National Assembly generally determine government policies. However, the current National Assembly was not elected freely or fairly, and its complete lack of opposition members seriously undermines its role as an independent branch of government.
The government is not always able to implement its policies across all of the country’s territory. In many rural areas, the state struggles to deliver basic services, and citizens rely on local customary and religious leaders to fill the gap.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 because the flawed 2019 parliamentary elections produced a legislature that had little democratic legitimacy and could not serve as a meaningful check on the executive.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
Corruption remains a widespread problem. The government’s main anticorruption body, the National Anti-Corruption Authority (ANLC), has the ability to hear complaints, recommend remedies, and pass cases to the courts, but it has no law enforcement powers of its own. In September 2019, the ANLC president accused the CENA of irregularities in its disqualification of all but two parties for the April parliamentary elections.
Corrupt officials rarely face prosecution, contributing to a culture of impunity. The Court of Punishment of Economic Crimes and Terrorism (CRIET) was established in 2018 to focus on the prosecution of corruption, drug trafficking, and terrorism cases. However, critics have argued that the new court targets the government’s political opponents and journalists; Ajavon, the exiled leader of the USL, was one of the first to be sentenced by the new court. Parliamentary immunity has been used to avoid corruption charges in the past; under Talon, immunity has been removed for some opposition members.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
The 2015 Information and Communication Code provides for public access to government records. However, information deemed sensitive, including national security, trade, and judicial documents, remains restricted.
Benin has long been obliged as a member of the West African Economic and Monetary Union to convert its Chamber of Accounts, part of the Supreme Court, into a more independent Court of Auditors, responsible for auditing government finances. The constitutional amendments adopted in November 2019 called for the creation of a Court of Auditors, whose head would be appointed by the president. Meanwhile, the executive branch’s General Inspectorate of Finance, under the direct control of the president, has been used in recent years to harass the opposition rather than promote transparency. For example, the former mayor of Cotonou, a prominent member of the opposition, was audited four times in 2017.
|Are there free and independent media?
Constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression are largely respected in practice. Print media exhibit pluralism of opinion and viewpoints. However, most media outlets receive direct financial support from politicians, and few are considered genuinely independent.
Defamation remains a crime punishable by fines, and media outlets that are critical of the government have increasingly risked suspension in recent years. The High Authority for Audiovisual Media and Communication suspended one of the country’s most popular newspapers in 2018 for publishing articles critical of the president, and shut down four broadcasters for technical violations in 2016. One of these, a television station owned by Ajavon, remains closed despite a 2017 court ruling that it be permitted to reopen.
A 2017 digital media law enables the government to prosecute and imprison journalists for online content that is deemed to be false or to harass individuals. The measure has been used repeatedly to punish journalists and bloggers in recent years. Casimir Kpédjo, editor of the Nouvelle Economie newspaper, was arrested in April 2019 for publishing “false” information about the national debt. Ignace Sossou of Benin Web TV received a suspended one-month prison sentence and a fine in August for publishing “false” information about tax evasion; in December he was arrested again over online posts about the public prosecutor and quickly sentenced to 18 months in prison for “harassment.”
Also during 2019, the shutdown of internet service and access to social media on election day in April disrupted news organizations’ ability to report on matters of acute public interest.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
Religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed and generally respected in practice.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
Academic freedom is largely respected. In February 2018, police arrested nine students at the University of Abomey-Calavi in Cotonou for protesting increased enrollment fees, but the students were released after three days, following a strike by three student unions.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
There are no major restrictions on personal expression, and individuals generally are not subject to surveillance or reprisals when discussing political or other sensitive matters.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
Freedom of assembly has traditionally been respected; permit and registration requirements for demonstrations are not always enforced. However, in the months before the April 2019 elections, local authorities in some areas issued blanket bans on protests. Police and military personnel used means including tear gas, batons, water cannons, and gunfire to disperse opposition protests both before and after the elections, sometimes resulting in fatalities. For example, at least four protesters were killed during such incidents in February, another four deaths were reported in April and May, and seven more were reported during a series of clashes in Tchaourou in June. In addition to the internet shutdown on election day, partial disruptions were imposed on other occasions during the year, apparently to suppress demonstrations.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 2 because security personnel violently repressed opposition protests before and after the legislative elections, sometimes with lethal force.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
Nongovernmental organizations, including human rights groups, generally operate freely.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
The right to form unions is respected. However, employees in the public sector are restricted in their ability to bargain collectively. In 2018, newly appointed justices of the Constitutional Court reinstated a law prohibiting public employees in the defense, health, justice, and security sectors from striking, and a new law limited strikes to a maximum of 10 days per year for private-sector workers and public employees not covered by the existing ban.
|Is there an independent judiciary?
Although the judiciary has demonstrated some independence, the courts are susceptible to corruption, and the process of nominating and promoting judges lacks transparency.
Judicial independence was further undermined by the 2018 appointment of President Talon’s personal lawyer, Joseph Djogbénou, as president of the Constitutional Court. The court’s decision later that year to reverse an earlier ruling on public-sector strikes intensified concerns about its autonomy, as did the body’s 2019 decision to require that parties obtain a certificate of conformity from the government in order to take part in the parliamentary elections.
Critics have argued that the CRIET also lacks independence. In addition to allegations that the anticorruption court has been used to prosecute the president’s political opponents, judges on the court were appointed in 2018 by government decree, in lieu of a transparent confirmation process.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
Due process usually prevails in criminal and civil matters. However, judicial inefficiency, corruption, and a shortage of attorneys in the north inhibit the right to a fair trial. Lack of resources contributes to often lengthy pretrial detentions. Arbitrary arrests and detentions occasionally occur.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
The population is free from war and other major threats to physical security, though the threat of terrorism may be growing in the north. In May 2019, two French tourists and their guide were kidnapped by Islamist militants in a park near the border with Niger and Burkina Faso; the guide was killed, while the tourists were rescued during a raid in Burkina Faso.
Prison conditions are often harsh, and prisoners face overcrowding, lack of access to food and water, and occasional physical abuse. Police brutality also remains a problem, including beatings and torture of suspects; perpetrators are frequently shielded from prosecution by their superiors. Security personnel were criticized for repeatedly using live ammunition and other excessive force during protests in 2019.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
Relations among Benin’s ethnic groups are generally amicable, despite recent political tensions. Minority ethnic groups have typically been represented in government agencies, the civil service, and the armed forces. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, and disability, but not sexual orientation. The only legislation directly restricting the rights of LGBT+ people is the penal code of 1996, which imposes a higher age of consent for same-sex sexual activity (21) than for heterosexual activity (13). LGBT+ people face social stigma and discrimination in practice.
Women experience discrimination in employment and access to credit, health care, and education.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?
Individuals can generally move freely throughout the country. However, in some rural areas, cultural traditions force women to remain indoors for extended periods. Roadblocks set up by the police can make travel difficult, and police officers occasionally demand bribes for travelers to pass through.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
Reforms to the business registration process, anticorruption efforts, and other regulatory changes since 2010 have improved Benin’s environment for private business activity. However, it is difficult to register property, and the enforcement of contracts is uneven. Despite laws guaranteeing equal rights to inheritance for women, many women are denied the right to inherit property in practice.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?
Domestic violence remains a serious problem, and women are often reluctant to report instances of domestic abuse. A 2003 law that prohibits female genital mutilation reduced the incidence of the practice, but it still persists, particularly in the northeast. Although the law prohibits marriage for those under 18 years old, the government allows exceptions for those aged 14 to 17 if there is parental consent. Child marriage and forced marriage remain common in rural areas.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
Legal protections against forced labor and other exploitative working conditions are unevenly enforced, with poor conditions more prevalent in the large informal sector. Human trafficking is widespread in Benin, despite a recent uptick in prosecutions for the crime. The practice of sending young girls to wealthy families to work as domestic servants has led to cases of exploitation and sexual slavery. Children are also exploited for agricultural labor and work in various trades.
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Global Freedom Score61 100 partly free