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Boni Yayi, the new president of Benin, was able to consolidate his power with a victory for his political coalition in the March 2007 legislative elections. The vote, which the international community deemed free and fair despite a week-long delay in polling, saw 80 of the 83 seats in the National Assembly change hands, demonstrating the people’s intense desire for new leadership.
Six decades of French colonial rule in Benin ended in 1960, and Mathieu Kerekou took power 12 years later, ending a series of coups and countercoups. He imposed a one-party state and pursued communist 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 returned to power in the 1996 election.
The 2001 presidential election was marred by technical and administrative problems, as well as allegations of fraud against Kerekou that led to a boycott of the runoff by the second- and third-place finishers in the first round of voting. The boycott gave Kerekou a solid victory in the second round as he ran against an obscure fourth-place candidate from the first round. Several members of the Autonomous National Electoral Commission (CENA) stepped down in protest, citing a lack of transparency and poor administration of the election.
In March 2003, legislative elections gave the ruling coalition, the Presidential Movement, a majority in the National Assembly for the first time since democratization. While the elections were considered free and fair, voter turnout was low, there were a number of logistical problems, and the opposition accused the ruling party of voter intimidation. Local elections were held ahead of the legislative polls in a move toward decentralization, and pro-Kerekou candidates came out ahead in that voting as well.
Both Kerekou and Soglo were ineligible to run in the 2006 presidential election, having exceeded the constitutional age limit of 70. With Kerekou refusing to name a successor, the contest for the presidency was particularly competitive. In the end, Boni Yayi, an independent candidate and former president of the regional development bank, dominated both the first and second rounds of the election. However, the absence of Kerekou and Soglo had caused divisions within the country’s traditional parties, resulting in uncertainty about the new president’s ability to build adequate support in the legislature.
Nevertheless, in March 2007, Benin held National Assembly elections that were widely considered to be a vote of confidence for Yayi. The coalition of parties he pulled together, the Cowrie Forces for an Emerging Benin (FCBE), won 35 of the 83 seats in the Assembly. The main opposition bloc, the Alliance for a Dynamic Democracy (ADD), won 20 seats and was primarily comprised of traditional parties angered at their exclusion from the new government. In the end, all but three of the seats in the Assembly changed hands, demonstrating the public’s desire for new leadership.
Although the election was generally considered free and fair, the first round was held a full week after it was originally scheduled. On March 23, two days before the original date, CENA requested an extension due to “practical difficulties.” The request was approved by the government and the Constitutional Court. The difficulties apparently included inability to transport voting equipment nationwide and an inadequate review of the electoral list. In addition, CENA’s request had come a day after the removal of the commission’s president, Antonin Akpinkoun, over a dispute about which company should be hired to print the ballot papers.
In keeping with his campaign promise to bring “young, new, and honest people” to government, Yayi composed his new cabinet primarily of political novices and refused to appoint members of the traditional parties even during a reshuffle in June 2007. Yayi has made it one of his objectives to fight corruption and has, among other things, ordered an audit of 60 state-run companies, suspended the activities of the two principal foreign telephone operators for alleged irregularities, and ordered investigations into the operations of Beninese embassies abroad.
In May, Yayi decided to reintroduce compulsory national service, intended to direct much-needed skills to sectors such as education and health and to help improve youth training. The recruits are contracted for a year and paid $82 per month. Compulsory national service had not existed in Benin since the 1980s, prior to the establishment of democracy.
In September, much of West Africa was hit by severe flooding. By the end of the month, at least 50 villages had been destroyed and more than 43,000 people were displaced. There were few recorded deaths in the short term; however, the World Health Organization and other groups expressed concern that the floods could further spread waterborne diseases and increase the number of fatalities from malaria.
Benin is an electoral democracy. The country held its first multiparty elections in 1991 and now has dozens of political parties. Despite delays and disorganization, the 25-member independent electoral commission effectively oversaw the conduct of the 2007 legislative polls, which were 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.
Historically, Benin has been divided between northern and southern ethnic groups, which are the main roots of current political parties. However, since the 2006 presidential election, traditional parties like former president Mathieu Kerekou’s Presidential Movement and former president Nicephore Soglo’s Renaissance Party of Benin have given way to a plethora of smaller parties and new political alliances. These include the FCBE bloc, built around President Boni Yayi, and the ADD, billed as the primary opposition coalition.
Yayi has made the fight against endemic corruption a top priority, and he refused to nominate members of the previous administration to his cabinet. In 2006, he signed into law an official code of conduct for governmental management, and authorities that year arrested Sefou Fagbohoun, an influential petroleum tycoon and politician, on charges of fraud. In 2007, in addition to ordering an audit of 60 state-run companies and launching an investigation of the spending habits of Beninese embassies, Yayi participated in a 10-kilometer “walk against corruption” in the capital. Benin was ranked 118 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression are largely respected in practice. An independent and pluralistic press publishes articles that are highly critical of government and political party leaders. However, in a disturbing move in 2007, Golf Media Group appears to have been targeted by the government. In December, a cameraman with the group’s newspaper La Gazette du Golfe was arrested and beaten while covering a demonstration, and in February, a court in Cotonou sentenced the group’s president and three of its former directors to six months in prison and a $10,000 fine for criminal defamation linked to a story about presidential corruption under Kerekou. A draft law to ban prison sentences for criminal defamation remained under consideration in the National Assembly at year’s end.
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 religious rights and the separation of church and state, particularly within public schools. Religious groups must register with the Ministry of the Interior, and public schools are prohibited from providing religious instruction. Religious institutions are permitted to run private schools.
Freedom of assembly is respected in Benin, and requirements for permits and registration are often ignored. In 2006, demonstrations protesting a proposed election delay were conducted peacefully and went undisturbed by the police. Numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights groups operate throughout the country without hindrance.
The right to organize and join unions is constitutionally guaranteed, and unions played a central role in the country’s democratization. In January 2006, six of Benin’s seven trade unions mounted strikes in response to the proposed election delay, temporarily immobilizing schools, government offices, and media outlets. No strikes or substantial demonstrations took place in response to the week-long delay in the legislative elections in 2007.
The judiciary is generally considered to be independent of and respected by the government. However, it is inefficient, susceptible to corruption, and not widely trusted among the population. More than 90 percent of cases for overdue payments are never resolved in the courts. Harsh prison conditions continue to impede progress; in Abomey Prison for example, 1,000 inmates live in a space intended for 150. 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 regional divisions occasionally flare up, particularly between the north and the south. Minority ethnic groups are well represented in government agencies, the civil service, and the armed forces. Societal prejudices against women in the workplace and blatant homosexuality are evident, though not ubiquitous. These prejudices tend to manifest themselves in a nonviolent manner.
As in much of West Africa, human trafficking is widespread in Benin and primarily targets women and children. Following the signing of a regional antitrafficking accord, the National Assembly passed a law formally outlawing human trafficking in 2006. However, the country still needs a more detailed legal framework to cover all potential violations, as well as the financial means to enforce such laws.
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. A family code promulgated in 2004 improved women’s inheritance, property, and marriage rights, and prohibited forced marriage and polygamy. Nonetheless, legal rights pertaining to family matters are frequently unknown or ignored.