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.
- In March, authorities restricted travel and public gathering sizes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, though some restrictions were loosened in May. The informal employment sector was severely affected by the pandemic, with some Beninese workers facing food insecurity.
- Local elections were held in May, despite an African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (AfCHPR) order to suspend them and ensure opposition participation. Progovernment parties won the majority of local council seats.
- The media regulator banned “unauthorized” online news outlets in July, prompting at least one to temporarily close. Media owners criticized the decision, warning it would restrict press freedom and destabilize the sector.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||3.003 4.004|
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, Patrice Talon defeated former prime minister Lionel Zinsou of the then 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 voter card shortages and the late delivery of materials to polling stations led to some delays.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||1.001 4.004|
Delegates to the 83-member, unicameral National Assembly serve four-year terms and are elected by proportional representation. The April 2019 legislative elections were neither free nor fair, as 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 an opposition boycott, there was an internet shutdown on election day, and security forces violently suppressed protests before and after balloting, resulting in several deaths.
Only the progovernment Progressive Union and Republican Bloc won seats, taking 47 and 36 respectively. That November, the new National Assembly adopted constitutional amendments, including provisions imposing three-term limits on legislators, expanding the body to 109 seats, and extending terms to five years beginning in 2026 to align them with those of the president. The next legislative elections would still occur in 2023. In December 2020, the AfCHPR called for their repeal before the next presidential election.
Municipal elections were held in May 2020, ignoring an April AfCHPR order to suspend them and ensure opposition participation. Sébastien Ajavon, a businessman living in exile after receiving a drug trafficking conviction in 2018, had sued after opposition parties were barred from participating. The Progressive Union and the Republican Bloc won most local council seats, while the FCBE, the only opposition group to field candidates, won 14 percent of them.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||1.001 4.004|
Elections are conducted by the Autonomous National Electoral Commission (CENA). Following the passage of a restrictive electoral law in 2018, the Constitutional Court—headed by Talon’s former personal lawyer—ruled that parties must obtain a “certificate of conformity” from the interior ministry. In March 2019, CENA approved only two party lists, both loyal to the president. Despite electoral-code and constitutional reforms approved that November, key rules barring opposition parties remained in force.
CENA barred opposition groups from the May 2020 local elections, again favoring progovernment parties.
|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?||2.002 4.004|
After multiparty elections were restored in 1991, Benin generally had a large number of active political parties. However, the 2018 electoral code established restrictive rules including an unusually high 10 percent national threshold and an onerous increase in obligatory financial deposits, though sums for presidential candidates were reduced in November 2019.
All opposition parties were excluded from the 2019 parliamentary contest, though the FCBE gained legal recognition that September. A second opposition party, the Democrats, which was formed after a split within the FCBE, won recognition in December 2020.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||1.001 4.004|
Talon’s defeat of Zinsou, former president Thomas Boni Yayi’s chosen successor in the 2016 election, marked Benin’s fourth presidential transfer of power between rival groups since 1991.
However, the government has since introduced significant obstacles to opposition parties and presidential candidates, and leading opposition figures faced harassment and prosecution. Ajavon, who received an in absentia conviction in 2018, remained in France in 2020. In June 2019, Boni Yayi fled Benin after being placed under de facto house arrest for 52 days. That August, Zinsou received a suspended six-month prison sentence in absentia and a five-year ban on running for office over alleged 2016 campaign violations. In April 2020, former finance minister Komi Koutché received a 20-year sentence in absentia for embezzlement.
Under the 2019 constitutional amendments, no president can serve more than two terms in their life, even if they are nonconsecutive; some alleged this was aimed at Boni Yayi. Future presidential and vice-presidential candidates must also obtain endorsement from 10 percent of mayors and National Assembly deputies.
|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?||3.003 4.004|
Politics have generally been free from military interference, though soldiers and police used lethal force to disperse opposition protests in 2019. However, 20 people, including 10 soldiers, were arrested over a so-called destabilization effort in February 2020. Some 15 soldiers were arrested in late June on suspicion of plotting a coup d’état.
The role of personal wealth in politics has increased in recent years, with higher campaign costs and clientelist structures boosting the careers of wealthier politicians. Talon developed his private businesses in part by financing the campaigns of Boni Yayi and other elites and then securing lucrative contracts. After becoming president, Talon allegedly attempted to bribe lawmakers during while attempting to secure passage of constitutional amendments.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3.003 4.004|
Women and minority groups are not legally excluded from political participation, but cultural factors limit women’s engagement. Women won just 7 percent of the seats in the 2019 parliamentary elections. Constitutional amendments passed that November reserved 24 seats for women in the next legislative term.
Benin has historically been divided between northern and southern ethnic groups, and political parties often rely on ethnic bases of support. Southern-born Talon selected most of his political appointees from the southern Gbe-speaking region. The 2019 election of a southerner as National Assembly president broke with a tradition where legislative leaders and chief executives come from different regions.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||2.002 4.004|
The president and the legislature generally determine government policy. However, the current National Assembly was not elected freely or fairly, and its lack of opposition members seriously undermines its role as an independent branch of government.
The government does not consistently implement policy throughout Benin. In many rural areas, the state struggles to deliver basic services, and citizens instead rely on local customary and religious leaders.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||2.002 4.004|
Corruption remains widespread. Corrupt officials rarely face prosecution, contributing to a culture of impunity.
The National Anti-Corruption Authority (ANLC) hears complaints and sends cases to courts, but has no independent law enforcement capacity. In April 2020, the cabinet announced its intention to replace the ANLC with a High Commission for the Prevention of Corruption and forwarded legislative amendments to lawmakers.
The Court of Punishment of Economic Crimes and Terrorism (CRIET) was established in 2018 to prosecute corruption, drug trafficking, and terrorism cases, but critics claim it targets political opponents and journalists. CRIET issued convictions against Ajavon in 2018 and Koutché in April 2020.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||3.003 4.004|
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.
As a West African Economic and Monetary Union member, Benin was obliged to convert the Chamber of Accounts into a more independent Court of Auditors that would examine government finances. Its creation was mandated in a 2019 constitutional amendment package, but it remained inactive as recently as September 2020. The General Inspectorate of Finance, which the president directly controls, has harassed the opposition rather than promoted transparency.
|Are there free and independent media?||2.002 4.004|
Constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression are somewhat respected, and print outlets have expressed a wide variety of viewpoints. However, media outlets have encountered new scrutiny and restrictions under the Talon administration.
Defamation remains a crime punishable by fines, and media outlets critical of the government have increasingly risked suspension. The High Authority for Audiovisual Media and Communication (HAAC) shuttered four broadcasters in 2016 and suspended a major newspaper in 2018. One broadcaster, Ajavon-owned Sikka TV, was ordered reopened in a 2017 court ruling but remained shuttered within Benin, instead broadcasting online and via satellite. Ajavon-owned Soleil FM was shuttered in December 2019 after HAAC declined to renew its license, and its staff was dismissed in January 2020.
In July 2020, HAAC banned all “unauthorized” online news outlets, despite their efforts to attain authorization. Media owners criticized the decision, warning it would restrict press freedom and destabilize the sector. At least one outlet closed, albeit temporarily, after the announcement.
A 2017 digital media law allows for the prosecution and imprisonment of journalists for online content that is purportedly false or harasses individuals. In April 2019, newspaper editor Casimir Kpédjo was arrested for publishing “false” information about the national debt; Kpédjo was bailed a month later, and his case remained pending at the end of 2020. In December 2019, Ignace Sossou of Bénin Web TV received an 18-month sentence for “harassment” after quoting a public prosecutor. Sossou was released in June 2020 after his sentence was reduced. In January 2020, an online news editor was detained for a week for reporting on a speculated ambassadorial appointment.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 because the media regulator ordered the closure of online media outlets it considered “unauthorized,” despite their attempts to gain official authorization.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4.004 4.004|
Religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed and generally respected in practice.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
Academic freedom is largely respected.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||4.004 4.004|
There are no major restrictions on personal expression. Individuals generally are not subject to surveillance or reprisals when discussing political or other sensitive matters.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||2.002 4.004|
Freedom of assembly has traditionally been respected; permit and registration requirements for demonstrations are not always enforced. However, in the months before the 2019 elections, some local authorities issued blanket protest bans. Authorities forcibly dispersed opposition protests, sometimes resulting in fatalities.
In January 2020, protesters in the town of Savé clashed with police after a resident was arrested. Two people died later that month during a police operation to arrest participants in the earlier clash.
Authorities banned noncommercial gatherings of more than 10 people in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Restrictions on other gatherings of over 50 people were still in place in December.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||4.004 4.004|
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including human rights groups, generally operate freely. However, Beninese NGOs can no longer bring cases to the AfCHPR, after Benin withdrew from a relevant protocol in April 2020.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||3.003 4.004|
The right to form unions is respected. However, public-sector employees face collective bargaining restrictions. In 2018, 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?||2.002 4.004|
Although the judiciary has demonstrated some independence, the courts are susceptible to corruption, Judges are not nominated or promoted transparently.
Judicial independence was undermined when President Talon’s personal lawyer, Joseph Djogbénou, was named Constitutional Court president in 2018. The court’s quick decision to reverse an earlier ruling on public-sector strikes intensified concerns about its autonomy, as did a 2019 decision requiring parties to obtain conformity certificates to compete in that year’s parliamentary elections.
Critics argue CRIET also lacks independence. CRIET has allegedly been used to prosecute Talon’s political opponents. Judges were appointed by decree in 2018, in lieu of a transparent confirmation process.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||3.003 4.004|
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?||3.003 4.004|
The population is free from war and other major physical threats, though the threat of terrorism may be growing in the north. In February 2020, a police station in a northern village was attacked by armed individuals, and one officer was killed.
Prison conditions are harsh. Prisoners face overcrowding, lack of access to food and water, and occasional physical abuse. Police brutality remains a problem, including beatings and torture of suspects. Superiors often shield perpetrators from prosecution.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||3.003 4.004|
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 1996 penal code 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?||3.003 4.004|
Individuals can generally move freely throughout Benin. However, in some rural areas, cultural traditions force women to remain indoors for extended periods. Police roadblocks can make travel difficult, and officers occasionally demand bribes from travelers seeking to pass through. Public transport was suspended in March 2020 due to COVID-19-related restrictions, but resumed later in the year, while some movement restrictions persisted.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||3.003 4.004|
Reforms to the business registration process, anticorruption efforts, and other regulatory changes since 2010 improved the business environment. However, property registration is difficult, and contract enforcement is inconsistent. 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?||2.002 4.004|
Domestic violence remains a serious problem, and women are often reluctant to report domestic abuse. A 2003 law that prohibits female genital mutilation reduced the incidence of the practice, but it still persists. Marriage for those under 18 years old is prohibited, though exceptions are allowed for 14– to 17-year-olds with parental consent. Child marriage and forced marriage remain common in rural areas.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||2.002 4.004|
Legal protections against forced labor and other exploitative working conditions are unevenly enforced. Poor conditions are prevalent in the large informal sector, which was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Human trafficking is widespread, 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 Score59 100 partly free