Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Benin's political rights rating declined from 2 to 3 due to problematic presidential elections that were partially boycotted by opposition candidates.
Benin suffered a slight setback in 2001 with presidential elections that were marred by technical and administrative problems, as well as a boycott by the second- and third-place finishers in the second round of voting. The boycott gave incumbent President Mathieu Kerekou a solid victory with 84 percent of the vote. Both former President Nicephore Soglo and Adrien Houngbedji claimed fraud after they had won 29 percent and 14 percent, respectively, in the first round of voting in March, compared to Kerekou's 47 percent. Kerekou ended up running against an obscure fourth-place candidate in the second round.
Benin was once the center of the ancient kingdom of Dahomey, the name by which the country was known until 1975, when Kerekou renamed it Benin. Six decades of French colonial rule ended in 1960, and Kerekou took power 12 years later, ending successive coups and countercoups. He imposed a one-party state under the Benin People's Revolutionary Party and pursued Marxist-Leninist policies. However, by 1990, economic hardships and rising internal unrest forced Kerekou to agree to a national conference that ushered in democracy. The transition culminated in his defeat by Nicephore Soglo in the March 1991 presidential elections. The country's human rights record subsequently improved. Kerekou made a comeback in the 1996 elections, defeating Soglo with 53 percent of the vote.
Historically, Benin has been divided between northern and southern ethnic groups, which are the main roots of current political parties. The south has enjoyed more advanced development. Northern ethnic groups enlisted during Kerekou' s early years in power still dominate the military, although efforts have been made in recent years to rectify this.
Several members of the Autonomous National Electoral Commission had stepped down in protest before the second round of voting in 2001, citing a lack of transparency and poor conduct of the election. International observers said that although there were problems, such as outdated voter lists and computer difficulties, the election was generally fair and reflected the will of the majority of voters.
Benin maintained a good human rights record in 2001, but sporadic violence preceded and followed the presidential elections. Benin made efforts to curb the practice of child trafficking, which drew international attention when a Nigerian-flagged ship carrying about a dozen child laborers docked at Cotonou in April.
Benin is a poor country whose economy is based largely on subsistence agriculture. A code of ethics aimed at curbing graft in the allocation of government contracts was launched in 1999.
Benin held its first genuine multiparty elections in 1991 and now has more than 100 political parties. Under the guidance of the former Independent National Electoral Commission, legislative polls for the unicameral assembly proceeded smoothly and were judged free and fair by international observers. In the March 1999 elections, opposition parties won 42 parliamentary seats, against 41 by candidates backed by President Mathieu Kerekou. It was the first year that an electoral commission in Benin had taken an oath of moral responsibility.
The judiciary is generally considered to be independent, but is inefficient and susceptible to corruption at some levels. Lawmakers in July 2001 replaced the colonial criminal code. An African judicial training center for lawyers was set up in Benin in 2000.
Freedom of assembly is respected in Benin, and requirements for permits and registration are often ignored. Human rights are largely respected, although concern has been raised about the operation of anticrime vigilante groups and the failure of police to curb vigilantism. Prison conditions are harsh, marked by poor diet and inadequate medical care.
Numerous nongovernmental organizations and human rights groups operate without hindrance. The National University of Benin hosted workshops in July 2001 aimed at training West African teachers, lawyers, judges, security officials, and journalists in basic human rights and democratic principles.
Harsh libel laws have been used against journalists, but constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression are largely respected in practice. An independent and pluralistic press publishes articles highly critical of both government and opposition leaders and policies. There are numerous independent newspapers and radio stations, as well as an independent television station. The High Authority for Audio-Visual Media and Communications is the liaison office between the media and the government.
Religious freedom is respected. Although the constitution provides for equality for women, they enjoy fewer educational and employment opportunities than men, particularly in rural areas. In family matters, in which traditional practices prevail, their legal rights are often ignored. They have equal inheritance and property rights, but local custom in some areas prevents them from inheriting real property. Women' s rights groups have been effective in drafting a family code that would improve the status of women and children under the law. A bill banning female genital mutilation was submitted to the supreme court in December 2000.
Smuggling children into neighboring countries for domestic service and meager compensation is reportedly widespread. Reports in 2000 said that up to 49,000 rural Beninese children (eight percent of the rural child population) were working abroad. Many, especially young girls, suffer abuse. Benin, in May 2001, ratified both the International Labor Organization' s convention prohibiting the worst forms of child labor and the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. Efforts are underway in Benin to fight child abuse and child trafficking through media campaigns and education.
The right to organize and join unions is constitutionally guaranteed and respected in practice. Strikes are legal, and collective bargaining is common. A new labor code went into effect in 1999. Approximately 75 percent of wage earners belong to labor unions. Laws prohibit employer retaliation against strikers, and the government enforces them effectively.