Freedom in the World
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President Boni Yayi faced serious challenges in 2010 ahead of the 2011 presidential election, with a newly unified opposition blocking attempted electoral reforms. Yayi also suffered a high-profile corruption scandal that tainted his administration and nearly resulted in his impeachment. Meanwhile, Benin saw the worst flooding in 50 years that displaced some 100,000 people.
Six decades of French rule in Benin lasted until 1960. Twelve years later, Mathieu Kérékou took power, ending a series of coups and counter-coups and imposing a one-party Marxist-Leninist government that lasted nearly 20 years. However, by 1990, economic hardship and rising internal unrest forced Kérékou to hold a national conference that eventually ushered in a peaceful democratic transition. Following his defeat by Nicéphore Soglo in the 1991 presidential election, the country’s human rights record improved. Kérékou 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.
The 2003 legislative elections, which were generally considered free and fair, gave the ruling coalition a majority in the National Assembly. Pro-Kérékou candidates also performed well in local elections, which were held for the first time that year in a move toward decentralization.
The 2006 presidential election featured unprecedented competition, since both Kérékou and Soglo were ineligible due to their ages, and Kérékou had refused to name a successor. Boni Yayi, an independent candidate and former president of the regional development bank, emerged as the victor promising transparency, a hard line on corruption, decentralization of government, and the privatization of state companies.
A coalition of parties supporting Yayi, including the Cowrie Forces for an Emerging Benin (FCBE), won a majority of seats in the 2007 legislative elections. All but three seats changed hands in generally free and fair voting.
While the country’s poverty and limited infrastructure often lead to technical and logistical problems during elections, particularly serious irregularities caused the 2008 local elections to be postponed by two months and resulted in the eventual annulment and rerun of contests in 24 districts. In the run-up to the elections, the Supreme Court reprimanded the Autonomous National Electoral Commission (CENA) three separate times for instances of politicization. Since then, Yayi has tried unsuccessfully to pass electoral reforms, including the implementation of electronic voting and a new voter roll.
By 2009, the optimism that followed Yayi’s 2006 election had waned, as the FCBE—already a loose alliance of diverse political parties—broke apart, hampering Yayi’s efforts to enact promised electoral and economic reforms. By 2010, Yayi lost his parliamentary majority after a number of FCBE members defected to the opposition. In August, more than half of the National Assembly’s members called for Yayi’s impeachment, accusing him of involvement in a high-profile Ponzi scheme in which a large investment firm was found to have stolen $130 million in savings from more than 100,000 people. Although parliament was unable to secure the necessary two-thirds majority to impeach Yayi, the president’s reputation suffered greatly as a result of the scandal, and he was forced to fire his interior minister for involvement.
The political opposition became more unified in 2010 in advance of the March 2011 presidential election, with the five major political parties of the south uniting for the first time since independence into the Union for the Nation (UFN). Despite a history of infighting among its members, the UFN put forward a single candidate—Adrien Houngbédji, who had lost to Yayi in the second round of elections in 2006—for the 2011 presidential poll.
In October, Benin experienced its most serious natural disaster since independence, as heavy rains caused flooding that killed 43 people, displaced approximately 100,000, and had a serious economic impact on nearly 700,000. The government and international aid organizations responded by mobilizing temporary shelters and emergency food supplies.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Benin is an electoral democracy. 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 during the 2008 local elections, and concerns persist about how it will perform in the 2011 presidential election.
The president is elected by popular vote for up to two five-year terms 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. President Boni Yayi’s support comes primarily from the north, while the main opposition parties hail primarily from the south. All political parties, regardless of ethnic or regional affiliation, operate freely throughout the country. In 2010, the influence of diverse opposition parties and political perspectives increased when they united against the president in advance of the 2011 presidential election.
President Yayi came to power in 2006 on an anticorruption platform and subsequently enacted a number of measures to combat corruption, including an official government code of conduct, full disclosure of assets by high-ranking officials, and a formal audit of 60 state-run companies, for which he received international praise. However, in 2009, he was rumored to have offered lucrative ministerial positions to opposition members in order to obtain their support. In August 2010, he was implicated in a high-profile Ponzi scheme for which he was nearly impeached and which led to the dismissal of his interior minister for involvement in the scandal.
Constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression are largely respected in practice. A pluralistic and frequently politicized press publishes articles that are highly critical of government and opposition party leaders. However, in August 2010, the government threatened to close media outlets which did not cover the unfolding Ponzi scheme scandal fairly and halted Radio France International’s transmission for 14 hours to prevent it from broadcasting a program on the subject. The government also indicated that it intends to censor media coverage in the run-up to the 2011 election. The government does not restrict access to the internet.
The government actively seeks to ensure religious and academic freedom. While the majority of Beninese identify themselves as either Muslim or Christian, most practice some form of voodoo as well. Confrontations between religious groups are rare. Primary education is mandatory under the constitution, and the state plans to provide free universal primary education by 2015.
Freedom of assembly is respected, and requirements for permits and registration are often ignored. In 2010, demonstrations were held on a variety of issues, including frequent power outages, government corruption, and a proposed new electronic voter list, and many of these were led by opposition politicians. While the government generally respected the right to assemble, a number of protests erupted into riots, particularly those concerning the Ponzi scheme scandal. Nongovernmental organizations and human rights groups operate freely.
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 2010, the government banned a number of planned strikes because the unions did not announce the strike the required two days in advance.
The judiciary’s independence is generally respected by the executive branch, but the courts are considered to be highly inefficient and susceptible to corruption. Nevertheless, the country’s most high-profile court, the constitutional court, demonstrated remarkable independence in 2010, particularly in its rulings on a number of complex issues regarding electoral reform. Prisons are harsh and overcrowded. In 2009, five people were reportedly sentenced to death, the first time capital punishment had been imposed since 1987; however, the sentences have not yet been carried out.
Benin has earned a reputation as one of the most peaceful and stable countries in the region. While there were reports of an increase in armed robberies and violent crime linked to small-arms trafficking and drug smuggling in 2008 and 2009, there were no such reports in 2010.
Relations among Benin’s ethnic groups are generally amicable, although regional divisions occasionally flare up, particularly between the north, where President Yayi is from, and the south, where most opposition leaders are from. 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.
Although the constitution provides for gender equality, women enjoy fewer educational and employment opportunities than men, particularly in rural areas. A family code promulgated in 2004 improved women’s inheritance, property, and marriage rights, and prohibited forced marriage and female genital mutilation. However, these laws are not well known outside of urban areas and are not adequately enforced. In April 2009, to address the country’s high maternal mortality rate, the government began helping women pay for caesarean births.
Human trafficking is widespread in Benin; most victims are girls trafficked inside the country from rural to urban areas. A law formally outlawing human trafficking was passed in 2006, but there were no reported arrests under this law in 2010.