Freedom in the World
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President Boni Yayi’s coalition in the National Assembly fell apart in 2008, threatening his progress on corruption reform and privatization. Yayi passed a number of laws by decree in July, drawing accusations that he had abused his powers. Separately, the election commission was heavily criticized for corruption and mismanagement of the year’s local elections, in which the opposition performed well.
Six decades of French rule in Benin ended in 1960. Mathieu Kerekou took power 12 years later, ending a series of coups and imposing a one-party system along with other 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 1996 through a democratic election, and he secured another term in 2001 after his two main opponents boycotted a runoff due to administrative problems and alleged fraud.
In March 2003, legislative elections gave the ruling coalition a majority in the National Assembly for the first time since democratization, and the voting was generally considered free and fair despite low voter turnout and logistical problems. Pro-Kerekou candidates also performed well in the country’s first ever local elections, which were held ahead of the legislative polls in a move toward decentralization.
The presidential election in 2006 featured unprecedented competition, since both Kerekou and Soglo were ineligible due to their ages, and Kerekou had refused to name a successor. Boni Yayi, an independent candidate and former president of the regional development bank, emerged as the victor after running on the slogan “young, new, and honest.” In keeping with this theme, Yayi composed his new cabinet primarily of political novices and set about tackling government corruption, transferring power and finances to municipalities, and privatizing state companies.
The absence of Kerekou and Soglo also caused divisions within the country’s traditional parties ahead of the 2007 legislative elections. A coalition of parties supporting Yayi, led by the Cowrie Forces for an Emerging Benin (FCBE), won a majority of the seats. All but three seats changed hands, demonstrating the public’s desire for new leadership. The elections were generally considered to be free and fair despite a delay due to “practical difficulties.”
Technical problems with elections are common in Benin owing primarily to the country’s poverty and limited infrastructure. However, the 2008 local elections proved to be especially problematic and were characterized by disorganization, significant delays, and serious irregularities. Initially slated for February, the balloting was postponed until April due to the usual logistical issues, such as voter registration and ballot transportation. Electoral irregularities then led to contestation of the results in 24 districts; these had to be annulled and the elections rescheduled, some for as late as September. According to final results, opposition parties performed particularly well.
In the period before the local elections, the Supreme Court reprimanded the board of the Autonomous National Election Commission (CENA) three separate times for “politicization” and “lack of probity,” and five CENA members were later arrested for stealing 50,000 electoral cards. While the five were eventually released and charged with lesser crimes, the incidents significantly undermined public confidence in the commission. The government promised to create a permanent computerized electoral register, and work on the project officially began in September.
In February, the government set up a committee, led by a former member of the Constitutional Court, to recommend constitutional changes with the aim of eliminating lingering elements of communism from the charter. However, many opposition leaders argued that Yayi would use the opportunity to increase executive power. During the year, Yayi drew increasing opposition criticism for alleged abuses of power, and the pro-Yayi parliamentary majority gradually unraveled. As a result, many of Yayi’s anticipated anticorruption reforms failed to win passage, decentralization and privatization measures were postponed, and Yayi took the extraordinary step of passing three laws by decree in July, using a power that is usually reserved for times of crisis. The president offered to take more opposition members into his cabinet, but the positions he proposed were deemed unsatisfactory.
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 CENA effectively oversaw the 2007 legislative polls, which were considered free and fair. However, the commission’s performance noticeably deteriorated in the 2008 local elections, which were plagued by delays, corruption, and irregularities.
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 support bases 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 fragile political alliances.
Current president Boni Yayi has made the fight against endemic corruption a top priority, refusing to appoint members of the traditional parties to his cabinet. In 2006 he signed into law an official code of conduct for government officials that led to the arrest of an influential petroleum tycoon on fraud charges and the audit of 60 state-run companies as well as overseas Beninese embassies. Many of these anticorruption efforts stalled in 2008 due to the disintegration of the pro-Yayi alliance in the legislature. Benin was ranked 96 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perception 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 party leaders. In 2008, the four largest opposition parties released a list of complaints about the Yayi administration to the public, including their dissatisfaction with the government’s treatment of the press. However, few specific press freedom violations were reported in 2008. The most serious was an independent journalist’s report that he had been repeatedly threatened and intimidated by a high-ranking military official while trying to cover the parliament.
The government actively seeks to ensure religious and academic freedom. Through a number of recent high-profile cases, the Constitutional Court has reaffirmed religious rights and the separation of church and state. Religious groups must register with the Ministry of the Interior. While religious institutions are permitted to run private schools, public schools are prohibited from providing religious instruction.
Freedom of assembly is respected in Benin, and requirements for permits and registration are often ignored. Demonstrations are typically allowed to proceed peacefully. However, when an impromptu protest erupted in 2008 over a roadblock that remained after a presidential motorcade had passed, presidential guards fired on the crowd and killed two people; by year’s end, no one had been held accountable for these deaths. Numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights groups operate throughout the country without hindrance.
The right to organize and join labor unions is constitutionally guaranteed. Unions played a central role in the country’s democratization and remain powerful today. 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 such election-related protests have taken place since, but the teachers’ and paramedics’ unions mounted strikes throughout 2008 to demand improvements in salaries and benefits.
The judiciary is generally considered to be independent of and respected by the executive branch. Still, the majority of current Supreme Court judges were appointed either by Yayi or by the National Assembly when it was led by a pro-Yayi alliance. The judiciary as a whole is also considered to be inefficient, susceptible to corruption, and painfully slow. More than 90 percent of cases for overdue payments are never resolved in the courts, and there are now more pretrial detainees than convicts behind bars. Harsh prison conditions aggravate the situation; cells in Cotonou and Abomey prisons, for example, hold six times the intended number of inmates. Amnesty International included Benin in its annual State of the World’s Human Rights report for the first time in 2008, citing the country’s horrific prison conditions and police brutality.
Relations among Benin’s ethnic groups are generally good, although regional divisions occasionally flare up, particularly between the north, where Boni Yayi is from, 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 open homosexuality are evident, though not ubiquitous. These prejudices tend to manifest themselves in a nonviolent manner.
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, and a number of traffickers were arrested in 2007 and 2008. However, the 2006 law does not prohibit all forms of trafficking, and the sentences handed down to date—ranging from three months to one year—are far short of the 20-year maximum sentence provided for by the law.
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.