Freedom in the World
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Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
The presidential election scheduled for March 2006, anticipated as a test of the country's democratic processes, was still wide open toward the end of 2005. President Mathieu Kerekou has groomed no clear successor, and no front-runner has emerged from the political opposition. Meanwhile, more than 20,000 Togolese sought safety in Benin after fleeing political violence in their country in April 2005.
Benin was once the center of the ancient kingdom of Dahomey, the name by which the country was known until 1975. Six decades of French colonial rule ended in 1960, and Mathieu 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 had forced Kerekou to agree to a national conference that ushered in democracy. The transition culminated in his defeat by Nicephore Soglo in the 1991 presidential election, and the country's human rights record subsequently improved. Kerekou made a comeback in the 1996 presidential poll.
Presidential elections in 2001 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. Former president Soglo and Adrien Houngbedji claimed fraud after they won 29 percent and 14 percent, respectively, in the first round of voting, compared with incumbent president Kerekou's 47 percent. The boycott gave Kerekou a solid victory, with 84 percent of the vote in the second round of voting, in which he ended up running against an obscure fourth-place candidate. Several members of the Autonomous National Electoral Commission had stepped down in protest before the second round of voting, citing a lack of transparency and poor administration of the election.
In March 2003, Benin held National Assembly elections that gave the ruling-party coalition-the Presidential Movement-a majority in parliament for the first time since multiparty democracy was introduced more than a decade ago. The ruling party and its allies hold 65 seats, compared with 18 seats for opposition parties. Fourteen political parties participated in the elections. Voter turnout was low, and there were some logistical problems, but the polls were considered free and fair. Opposition party members had accused the ruling party of intimidation ahead of the elections, and the government banned "anti-fraud brigades" that had been organized by the opposition.
The legislative polls followed local elections, which had been among the last steps in Benin's decentralization process, and helped reinstate voter confidence following the flawed presidential elections in 2001. Pro-Kerekou parties came out ahead in the local polls.
The 2006 presidential poll is considered a true test of Benin's democracy because the two key players on Benin's political stage will have retired. Kerekou pledged during the year that he would step down at the end of his five-year term and ruled out changing the constitution to stay in power, as some African leaders have done in recent years. Former president Soglo cannot run for the presidency because he is over the age limit of 70, as is Kerekou. Among those who might run are Houngbedji, a lawyer and former Speaker of the National Assembly who leads the Democratic Renewal Party (PRD), and Bruno Amoussou of the Alliance of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), who has contested previous presidential polls. Another potential contender is Yayi Boni, chairman of the Lome-based West African Development Bank.
In July 2005, Benin lost a long-running dispute with Niger over 25 islands in the Niger and Mekrou rivers. The International Court of Justice at The Hague awarded most of the islands to Niger.
Political unrest following the April 2005 disputed presidential elections in neighboring Togo affected Benin. More than 20,000 Togolese fled across the border, and there were fears that their presence might spark tension between the two countries if political activists continued their struggle against Togo's rulers from Benin's soil.
Benin uncharacteristically made headlines in 2005 when an American company was found guilty of bribery under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which makes it illegal for American companies to bribe foreign officials. The Titan Corporation agreed to pay $28.5 million after it was accused of funneling more than $2 million into the 2001 reelection campaign of Kerekou, although there was no suggestion that the president was aware of any wrongdoing. Shortly after the 2001 election, Beninese officials reportedly agreed to substantially increase Titan's management fee.
Benin is a poor country whose economy is based largely on subsistence agriculture. The International Monetary Fund said in May 2005 that there was no short-term relief in sight for the cotton industry in Benin and neighboring countries. The industry has been suffering from low prices partly due to production subsidies in Western countries and new competition in other parts of the world.
Citizens of Benin can change their government democratically. Benin held its first genuine multiparty elections in 1991 and now has dozens of political parties. The 25-member Autonomous National Electoral Commission is to oversee the conduct of the 2006 presidential poll.
The president is elected by popular vote for a five-year term and serves as both the chief of state and head of government. Delegates of the 83-member unicameral National Assembly serve four-year terms.
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. Major political parties include the Democratic Renewal Party, the Coalition of Democratic Forces, the Social Democratic Party, and the Renaissance Party of Benin. The Presidential Movement is the ruling party coalition. Northern ethnic groups enlisted during President Mathieu Kerekou's early years in power still dominate the military, although efforts have been made in recent years to rectify this situation.
Corruption, although not as bad as in some neighboring West African countries, is endemic in Benin. Kerekou has acknowledged publicly that senior cabinet members have been involved in corruption. The government has made efforts to combat the practice through an anticorruption commission. As part of an investigation into misused government funds, almost 90 judges, court clerks, and public accountants were tried in 2004 on corruption charges. Sixty-two defendants received sentences of six months to five years in prison, and 25 were acquitted. Benin was ranked 88 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
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. Benin has dozens of daily newspapers, magazines, and private radio stations. It also has at least two private television stations. Internet access is unrestricted.
The government respects religious and academic freedom. However, protesters clashed with security forces in February 2005 over the government-appointed rector at the University of Abomey-Calavi. Seven protesters were detained and released several days later. The demonstrators wanted the rector replaced by someone chosen by university peers, arguing that a government decree stated that rectors of the country's two universities would be chosen by fellow academics.
Freedom of assembly is respected in Benin, and requirements for permits and registration are often ignored. Numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights groups operate without hindrance.
The right to organize and join unions is constitutionally guaranteed and respected in practice. Strikes are legal, and collective bargaining is common. However, in June, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions said there were frequent violations of workers' rights in Benin. It cited discrimination of women, forced labor, child labor, human trafficking, and violation of union rights. The confederation said there were excessive restrictions on the notice period required before a strike could take place. The majority of Benin's workforce is employed in the informal economy, mainly in subsistence agriculture. Women are employed in low-wage and low-skilled jobs.
The judiciary is generally considered to be independent, but it is inefficient and susceptible to corruption. The executive retains important powers but generally respects court decisions. The Constitutional Court has demonstrated independence, but was accused of bias in favor of the president during the 2001 presidential elections. Harsh prison conditions are marked by poor diet and inadequate medical care. Relations among Benin's ethnic groups are generally good, although regionalism occasionally occurs along ethnic lines. Minority ethnic groups are well represented in government agencies, the civil service, and the armed forces
Human rights are largely respected, although concern has been raised about the operation of anticrime vigilante groups and the failure of the police to curb vigilantism. Although the presence in 2005 of more than 20,000 refugees strained Togo's resources, the refugees stayed in Benin with little hindrance from the local population.
Smuggling children into neighboring countries for domestic service and meager compensation is reportedly widespread, and many, especially young girls, suffer abuse. Authorities during the year intercepted dozens of children on their way to being smuggled to work abroad. However, efforts are under way in Benin to fight child abuse and child trafficking through media campaigns and education. In 2004, the government established a 15-member child protection committee that includes representatives of the government, political parties, and child welfare organizations. A law against human trafficking was drafted and sent to the Supreme Court in 2005, and Nigeria and Benin signed an accord against human trafficking in June.
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. A new Family Code was promulgated in 2004 that improves women's inheritance, property, and marriage rights. The code includes a prohibition on forced marriage and polygyny. The National Assembly passed a law against female genital mutilation in 2003, and NGOs have been working to raise awareness about the health dangers of the practice.