Benin remains among the most stable democracies in sub-Saharan Africa, having witnessed multiple free and fair elections and peaceful transfers of power since its transition to democracy in 1991. Freedom of expression is generally respected, although critical media outlets are occasionally suspended. Under President Patrice Talon, opposition politicians have increasingly been targeted for prosecution, while judicial independence has been undermined by the appointment of the president’s personal attorney as president of the Constitutional Court and the creation of a new anticorruption court, which has been accused of targeting Talon’s political rivals.
Key Developments in 2018:
- In February, President Patrice Talon appointed his personal lawyer as president of the Constitutional Court (he was confirmed in June), raising concerns about a potential erosion in judicial independence.
- In June, the Constitutional Court reversed its January decision that struck down a law passed in 2017 banning strikes by many public-sector workers; while in September, the legislature passed a new law that limited strikes by private-sector workers and eligible public employees to 10 days per year.
- In July, the parliament rejected constitutional amendments which would have required presidential, parliamentary, and local elections to be held concurrently, among other provisions.
- In October, a newly formed anticorruption court, the Court of Punishment of Economic Crimes and Terrorism (CRIET), sentenced Sébastien Ajavon, one of President Talon’s most prominent rivals, to 20 years in prison for drug trafficking. Critics have accused the court of being politicized and used as a tool to pursue the president’s political opponents.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 32 / 40 (–1)
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 9 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4
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. Former president Thomas Boni Yayi respected the constitutionally mandated term limits and did not seek reelection in 2016. None of the 33 candidates who ran in the 2016 presidential election won a majority of votes in the first round, leading to a second round in which Patrice Talon defeated former prime minister Lionel Zinsou with 65 percent of the vote. Talon, Benin’s richest businessman, ran as an independent, supported by the business sector and a number of small political parties. Zinsou represented the incumbent party, the Cowry Forces for an Emerging Benin (FCBE). The election was generally held in accordance with international standards, although some delays in voting were reported due to voter card shortages and the late delivery of materials to polling stations.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4
Delegates to the 83-member, unicameral National Assembly serve four-year terms and are elected by proportional representation. International observers deemed the last legislative elections held in 2015 to be credible, noting only minor logistical issues, including delays in poll openings and shortages of voting materials.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 3 / 4
Elections are conducted by the Autonomous National Electoral Commission (CENA), which includes representatives from both the ruling party and the opposition. The CENA generally administers elections fairly and transparently. However, concerns about the accuracy of the computerized voter roll introduced in 2013 have persisted; due to resource constraints and organizational shortcomings, the voter roll has not been updated frequently enough.
In July 2018, the parliament voted against a constitutional reform which would have required presidential, parliamentary, and local elections to be held concurrently, among other provisions. The amendment had enough support to be put to a vote in a referendum, but President Talon decided to abandon the reform effort in late July.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 15 / 16 (–1)
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4 / 4
Dozens of political parties operate openly regardless of ethnic or regional affiliation, and there are no unreasonable constraints on the formation of new parties. Five major parties and several minor parties are represented in the legislature. However, the parliament passed amendments to the electoral code in September 2018 that could impact the viability of many parties. One of the provisions in the law imposes an unusually high 10 percent threshold for party lists to win representation in the parliament. Additionally, the new code drastically increased candidate registration fees; fees for presidential candidates increased from $27,000 to $445,000, while candidate-list fees for parliamentary elections rose from $15,000 to $443,000.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 3 / 4 (–1)
The opposition has historically had a realistic opportunity to gain power through elections. Talon’s defeat of Zinsou, the incumbent president’s chosen successor in the 2016 election, marked Benin’s fourth electoral turnover at the presidential level since multiparty elections were restored in 1991.
In recent years, however, the government has introduced obstacles that could reduce the competitiveness of opposition parties. Notably, opposition parties have accused the government of targeting potential presidential candidates and other opposition figures with criminal investigations. Sébastien Ajavon, a business magnate who finished third in the 2016 presidential election, was sentenced in absentia (Ajavon is living in exile in France) in October 2018 to 20 years in prison for drug trafficking by a newly established anticorruption court, the CRIET. Critics condemned the decision as politically motivated and part of a pattern of intimidation against opposition figures. The charges, which date to the seizure of cocaine at one of Ajavon’s businesses in 2016, had previously been dismissed by a Cotonou court. In December, the African Court on Human and People’s Rights ordered that the sentence not be imposed on Ajavon, which the government had not complied with at year’s end. Additionally, in July, the National Assembly voted to lift the parliamentary immunity of three opposition deputies so they could face corruption charges.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 because the targeting of prominent opposition figures for investigation and prosecution reduced the competitiveness of opposition parties.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 4 / 4
Politics are generally free from interference by the military or other powerful groups.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 4 / 4
Women and minority groups are not legally constrained from participation in the political process, but cultural factors do limit women’s political engagement. Women won just 7 percent of the seats in the 2015 parliamentary elections.
Benin has historically been divided between northern and southern ethnic groups, but presidential candidates from both the north and the south have won the presidency.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 8 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 3 / 4
The president and the National Assembly generally determine government policies. In many rural areas, the government struggles to deliver basic services and citizens rely on local customary and religious leaders to fulfill those functions.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2 / 4
Corruption remains a widespread problem in Benin. The government’s main anticorruption body, the National Anti-Corruption Authority (ANLC), has the ability to hear complaints, recommend measures, and pass cases to the courts, but it has no enforcement authority. Corrupt officials have rarely faced prosecution, contributing to a culture of impunity. Parliamentary immunity is often used to avoid corruption charges.
The CRIET was established in August 2018 to focus on the prosecution of corruption, drug trafficking, and terrorism cases. However, critics have complained that the new court has targeted the government’s political opponents, including Ajavon.
In June, authorities issued two international arrest warrants for former Cotonou mayor Léhady Soglo, who was removed from office in 2017 over corruption allegations and is living in exile in France. Opposition parties claimed that this and other anticorruption cases pursued by the government in 2018 were thinly veiled attempts to neutralize the president’s opponents.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 3 / 4
The 2015 Information and Communication Code provides for access to government information. However, information deemed sensitive, including national security, trade, and judicial documents, remains restricted.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 47 / 60 (–2)
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 15 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 3 / 4
Constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression are largely respected in practice. Print media exhibit pluralism of opinion and viewpoints. However, most media outlets receive direct financial support from politicians and few are considered genuinely independent.
Defamation remains a crime punishable by fine, and media outlets critical of the government have increasingly risked suspension in recent years. In May 2018, the High Authority for Audiovisual Media and Communication (HAAC) suspended one of the country’s most popular newspapers, La Nouvelle Tribune, for publishing articles critical of the president. The suspension remained in place at year’s end, although the publication was still accessible to readers online.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4
Religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed and generally respected in practice.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4
Academic freedom is largely respected. However, in February 2018, police arrested nine students at the University of Abomey-Calavi in Cotonou for protesting increased enrollment fees. The students were released after three days, following a strike by three student unions.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4
Individuals are generally free to express their views on politics without fear of surveillance. A controversial social media tax on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, as well as a tax on text messages and mobile phone calls, went into effect in September 2018. However, in response to a public outcry against the measures, the government repealed the taxes after just three days.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 11 / 12 (–1)
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4
Freedom of assembly is generally respected; permit and registration requirements for demonstrations are not always enforced. In February 2018, security forces prevented a women’s march in Cotonou from traveling along the organizers’ planned route, even though the demonstration was approved by the authorities. The event was ultimately cancelled.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including human rights groups, generally operate freely.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 3 / 4 (–1)
The right to form unions is respected. However, employees in the public sector are restricted in their ability to bargain collectively.
During the year, union rights were threatened by two new laws limiting strikes. In January 2018, the Constitutional Court ruled against a controversial law that prohibited public-sector workers in the defense, health, justice, and security sectors from striking. In June, newly appointed justices on the court reversed the earlier decision and ruled in favor of the ban. In September, the legislature passed a law limiting strikes to a maximum of 10 days per year for private-sector workers and public employees not covered by the aforementioned ban.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 because newly appointed members of the Constitutional Court upheld a ban strikes by many public-sector workers, and a new law was passed limiting strikes by private-sector workers and eligible public employees to 10 days per year.
F. RULE OF LAW: 11 / 16 (–1)
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 2 / 4 (–1)
Although the judiciary has demonstrated some independence, the courts are inefficient and susceptible to corruption. The process of nominating and promoting judges lacks transparency.
Judicial independence was further threatened by the February 2018 appointment of President Talon’s personal lawyer, Joseph Djogbénou, as president of the Constitutional Court, followed by his confirmation in June. Prior to Djogbénou’s appointment, the court had served as a strong check on executive power, ruling in 2017 that a government ban on student associations was illegal, among other displays of independence. The decision by the Djogbénou-led court to reverse the earlier ruling on public-sector strikes intensified concerns about a potential erosion in the court’s independence.
Further more, critics claim that the newly formed CRIET lacks independence. In addition to allegations that the court has been instrumentalized to prosecute the president’s political opponents, judges on the court were appointed in July by government decree, in lieu of a confirmation process.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 because judicial independence has been threatened by the appointment of the president’s personal lawyer as president of the Constitutional Court, as well as the apparent politicization of the Court of Punishment of Economic Crimes and Terrorism, which has prosecuted the president’s political opponents.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 3 / 4
Due process usually prevails in criminal and civil matters. However, judicial inefficiency, corruption, and a shortage of attorneys in the north inhibit the right to a fair trial. Lack of resources contributes to often lengthy pretrial detentions. Arbitrary arrest and detention occasionally occurs.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3 / 4
Benin is free from war and insurgencies. Prison conditions are often harsh, and prisoners face overcrowding, lack of access to food and water, and occasional physical abuse, despite a ban on torture. Police brutality remained a problem in 2018, including beatings and torture of suspects. Perpetrators are frequently shielded from prosecution by their superiors.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 / 4
Relations among Benin’s ethnic groups are generally amicable. Minority ethnic groups are represented in government agencies, the civil service, and the armed forces. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, and disability, but not sexual orientation. The only legislation directly restricting the rights of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people is the penal code of 1996, which imposes a higher age of consent for same-sex sexual activity (21) than for heterosexual activity (13). LGBT people face social stigma and discrimination in practice.
Women experience discrimination in employment and access to credit, healthcare, and education.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 10 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 3 / 4
Individuals can generally move freely throughout the country. However, in some rural areas, cultural traditions force women to remain indoors for extended periods. Roadblocks set up by the police can make travel difficult, and police officers occasionally demand bribes for travelers to pass through.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 3 / 4
Improvements to the business registration process, anticorruption efforts, and regulatory reform since 2010 have improved Benin’s commercial environment.
It is difficult to register property in Benin, and the enforcement of contracts is uneven. Despite laws guaranteeing equal rights to inheritance for women, many women are denied the right to inherit property in practice.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2 / 4
Domestic violence remains a serious problem, and women are often reluctant to report instances of domestic abuse. A 2003 law that prohibits female genital mutilation (FGM) reduced the incidence of the practice, but it still persists, particularly in the northeast. Although the law prohibits marriage for those under 18 years old, the government allows exceptions for 14- to 17-year-olds if there is parental consent. Child marriage and forced marriage remain common in rural areas.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 2 / 4
Human trafficking is widespread in Benin, despite a recent uptick in prosecutions for the crime. Trafficking of children is illegal; legislation that specifically addresses adult trafficking remains under review. The practice of sending young girls to wealthy families to work as domestic servants has led to cases of exploitation and sexual slavery. Children from low-income families are less likely to attend school, hindering social mobility.