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Benin received an upward trend arrow due to free and fair March presidential elections, which allowed for the peaceful transfer of power to an independent candidate.
Despite doubts that Mathieu Kerekou would refuse to abdicate the presidency and fears that this might result in election delays, presidential power was officially and peacefully transferred to an independent candidate, Boni Yayi, in 2006. Winning out over 25 other candidates from around the country, Yayi—the former president of the regional development bank of West Africa—had been a relative novice to the Beninese political scene.
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 a series of 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 hardship and rising internal unrest forced Kerekou to hold a national conference that eventually 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 allegations of fraud against Kerekou that led to a boycott by the second- and third-place finishers in the first round of voting. The boycott gave Kerekou a solid victory, with 84 percent of the vote in the second round of voting, in which he ran against an obscure fourth-place candidate. Several members of the Autonomous National Electoral Commission (CENA) 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. 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. As part of the country’s decentralization process and in an effort to rebuild voter confidence after the flawed election in 2001, local elections were held ahead of these legislative polls. Pro-Kerekou parties came out ahead in the local polls.
The 2006 presidential election was widely anticipated as a true measure of Benin’s democratic progress because both Mathieu Kerekou and Nicephore Soglo—the two key players on Benin’s political stage—were ineligible to run as they had both exceeded the constitutional age limit of 70. Despite Kerekou’s vowing in 2005 not to change the constitution to remain in power, as many other African leaders have done in recent years, doubts persisted about his sincerity until the day of the election. In December 2005, the government announced a funding shortage in the election coffers and hinted that the date of the election might be pushed back to accommodate further fund-raising. This announcement created widespread concern that Kerekou was using a lack of funds as an excuse to hold onto power. A national outcry manifested itself through mass protests in the streets of Cotonou, strikes by trade unions, and independent efforts to raise money for the election. More than rhetoric, these efforts resulted in nongovernmental representatives raising more than $13 million, which was presented to CENA on the eve of election day.
With the two historic candidates out of the race, the presidential contest was relatively open, and Kerekou’s refusal to name a successor confounded traditional political party alliances. Despite some delays in opening voting booths and a few irregularities in voter registration, 26 separate candidates, including 2 women, competed in the first round of elections, held, as originally scheduled, on March 5. With 35.8 percent of the vote, Boni Yayi—an independent candidate and former president of the regional development bank—surprised most observers by dominating the first round. Yayi went on to win the second round of elections on April 6 against Adrien Hougbedji, the candidate for the Democratic Renewal Party, capturing 75 percent of the vote. The high voter turnout in both rounds of the election, presence of independent monitors who considered the election to be free and fair, and widespread support that he received from opposition political parties in the second round of the election, have all given Yayi substantial legitimacy with which to govern in the coming years.
In keeping with his campaign promise to bring “young, new, and honest people” to government, Yayi composed his new cabinet primarily of political novices. However, the divisions within Benin’s traditional political parties leading up to the election have resulted in a disorganized legislature, where alliances for or against the new government continue to be ambiguous. Any significant political progress will be improbable until the next legislative elections, originally scheduled for 2007. However, in June, the National Assembly voted to revise the constitution, seeking to extend the term of a legislator from four to five years; it has yet to be seen whether this proposed revision will be upheld.
Approximately 6,000 of the 25,000 Togolese refugees who fled politically instigated violence in 2005 have returned home as the political situation across the border has quieted slightly. Nonetheless, the presence of a persistently large population of foreign refugees receiving international aid has frequently created tensions with the local population. In February 2006, when inhabitants of the Lokossa refugee camp took 10 employees of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees hostage in an effort to expedite their emigration papers, violence sparked between refugees and the local population. Nine Beninese homes and 92 refugee tents were burned, and the entire population of the refugee camp was temporarily relocated to a school building 7 kilometers away.
In May, while locals were siphoning petrol from a tanker after the driver lost control, the heat from the vehicle’s engine mixed with the leaking fuel and caused an explosion that resulted in 75 people dead and many others injured. The event caused the government to officially ban the sale of smuggled petrol products, predominantly brought across the border from Nigeria. The sale of contraband Nigerian fuel has traditionally been a standard of the Beninese economy, as the majority of the population cannot afford to pay the high price for permissible fossil fuels.
Benin is an electoral democracy. Benin held its first genuine multiparty elections in 1991 and now has dozens of political parties. The 25-member independent electoral commission, CENA, oversaw the conduct of the 2006 presidential poll, which was widely considered to be free and fair.
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 to the 83-member, unicameral National Assembly serve four-year terms, though the legislature has recently proposed extending the term limit to five years.
Historically, Benin has been divided between northern and southern ethnic groups, which are the main roots of current political parties. Major political parties include the Democratic Renewal Party, the Social Democratic Party, and the Renaissance Party of Benin. In the build-up to the 2006 presidential election, many of the political parties and alliances fractured over whom to nominate. The Presidential Movement—a union of parties that supported Mathieu Kerekou’s regime—had won a historic majority in the last legislative election. But in 2006, unsure of whom to support now that Kerekou could no longer run, the Movement crumbled as many of the parties within it chose to support rival candidates. Absent a united Presidential Movement, control of the National Assembly is currently uncertain and little effective legislation can be expected to come out of the National Assembly before the next legislative election in 2007.
Corruption, although not at the level of some neighboring countries, continues to be endemic in Benin. Two separate bodies have been established to combat corruption in recent years, both with little visible impact. In a symbolic step to reassure the public of his intention to fight corruption during his tenure, the newly elected president, Boni Yayi, signed into law an official code of conduct for governmental management. Also under Yayi, Sefou Fabohoun, an influential petrol businessman and politician, has been arrested on charges of fraudulent business management. Benin was ranked 121 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression are largely respected in practice. However, in September 2006, three newspaper editors were detained for allegedly insulting the president; all were released three days later by order of the state prosecutor, and all charges were dropped. An independent and pluralistic press publishes articles highly critical of government and political party leaders. Benin has dozens of daily newspapers, magazines, and private radio stations and at least two private television stations. Internet access is unrestricted, though limited by financial means.
The government actively seeks to ensure religious and academic freedom. In recent years, through a number of high-profile cases, the Constitutional Court has reaffirmed the right of access to religion and the separation of church and state, particularly within public schools.
Freedom of assembly is respected in Benin, and requirements for permits and registration are often ignored. Protests were conducted peacefully and went undisturbed by the police following the government’s announcement that it was financially unable to hold the 2006 presidential election on time. Numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights groups operate without hindrance.
The right to organize and join unions is constitutionally guaranteed, and unions played a central role in the democratization of Benin in the early 1990s. Six of Benin’s seven trade unions organized strikes in January 2006 in response to proposed government delays in the election, temporarily immobilizing schools, government offices, and media outlets.
The judiciary is generally considered to be independent and among the more sophisticated in West Africa, but is inefficient and susceptible to corruption. Nonetheless, court decisions are largely respected by both the legislature and the presidency. Harsh prison conditions and occasional unjustified arrests continue to impede progress. Moreover, according to a local NGO, Dispensary of Prisoners and Indigents, only 10 percent of prison inmates in Benin have been successfully tried and sentenced.
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 trafficking to and from neighboring countries and from rural to urban neighborhoods continues to be widespread despite government efforts to combat it. Following international accords signed with other West African nations attacking regional trafficking operations, the National Assembly passed a law formally outlawing human trafficking in January 2006. However, Benin has not exhibited the financial means with which to enforce these ambitions.
Although the constitution provides for gender equality, women enjoy fewer educational and employment opportunities than men, particularly in rural areas. In cooperation with UNICEF, the government has enacted a campaign to increase awareness of the need to educate women, including ads promoting education for girls on the shirt backs of motorcycle taxi drivers and billboards. A new Family Code, promulgated in 2004, improves women’s inheritance, property, and marriage rights, and prohibits forced marriage and polygamy. Nonetheless, in family matters, these legal rights are frequently ignored.