Since becoming the first country in Africa to overthrow a military dictator by democratic means, the Republic of Benin has been a highly stable and robust democracy, widely renowned for its good governance, protections of individual freedoms, and consistently free and fair elections. Indeed, according to the 2018 Democracy Index published by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Benin had a stronger democracy than a significant majority of African countries, a substantial number of countries in the Middle East and Asia, and some countries in Europe. Unfortunately, in the last few years, Benin has suffered severe democratic decline under the leadership of President Patrice Talon. With Talon now widely expected to emerge as the victor in the upcoming election on April 11, democratic governance in Benin will likely only continue to weaken.
The potential implications of this likely election outcome are severe.
After the April 2019 parliamentary elections, which were marred by election commission restrictions that prevented opposition parties from fielding candidates, protests of the results prompted arbitrary arrests and a violent police crackdown which resulted in the death of several unarmed protesters. Similar violence is certainly a possibility in the days ahead. What’s more, human rights protections, which have already worsened under Talon, can be expected to deteriorate further if he wins a second term.
In addition to these concerns for the people of Benin, the country’s democratic crisis may fuel broader security challenges. That is of concern not only for West Africa, especially given the region’s recent trend toward democratic backsliding, but also for counterterrorism efforts by the United States against jihadist groups operating in the theater.
Staggered Decline of Democracy in Benin
When Talon was elected in 2016, he had campaigned on the promise that he would serve only one term in office, insisting that he would be able to deliver “miraculous change” in terms of poverty reduction within just five years. Instead of focusing on economic reforms, however, Talon engaged in efforts designed to consolidate his political power, targeting political opponents and appointing his former lawyer and close friend, Joseph Djogbénou, as the head of the Constitutional Court. More significantly, he and his party ushered in new electoral laws that required the payment of exorbitant registration fees to run a candidate for an election, effectively excluding opposition parties from the April 2019 legislative elections. Talon also blocked access to the Internet on the day of the election to limit the ability of opponents to organize. Unsurprisingly, the result was a record low voter turnout as well as a series of protests that ultimately turned deadly.
The sharp turn toward political repression in Benin continued. In November 2019, the country adopted a new electoral law that made it even more difficult for opposition candidates to enter elections. The law required all presidential and vice presidential candidates to be sponsored by at least sixteen parliamentarians or mayors. Because the opposition had so little representation in government, the law rendered it nearly impossible for candidates other than Talon to fulfill the requirements. As a result, although twenty candidates sought to run for president, Talon is competing against only two other opponents, neither of whom is believed to pose a meaningful electoral threat. Similar to 2019, the government has also severely restricted online media since July, and in January, it issued a directive forbidding local media from broadcasting about the presidential elections, which became effective shortly after Talon completed a nationwide media tour. Talon, in short, has left nothing to chance regarding the outcome of the April 11 presidential elections.
Human Rights Risks for the People of Benin
Based on recent history, there are clearly considerable dangers to the people of Benin in the immediate aftermath of the upcoming election. As made clear since at least 2019, extremely limited channels are left for political opponents to effectively express their grievances due to the constraints on electoral participation and sweeping media restrictions. As a result, there is a real possibility of street protests akin to those that followed the April 2019 elections, which could trigger a violent crackdown.
Although the raging pandemic may serve to limit protests, the stakes of this presidential election are, of course, more salient and higher than in previous elections. Because of the common sentiment that the outcome is rigged in favor of Talon, widespread protests would be no surprise. And Talon has shown his willingness to use government force against protesters, especially if he believes the world is not closely scrutinizing his actions.
What about the future of human rights under a second presidential term for Talon?
Near the end of last year, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights ruled that Benin had engaged in several human rights violations related to political participation including the right to participate freely in government and the right to an independent judiciary and impartial electoral bodies. This decision was based on the various legal restrictions which made it more difficult for certain candidates to run as well as the procedures surrounding the enactment of such restrictions. As an example of those procedures, the constitutional revision put in place near the end of 2019 was carried out overnight and without the input of the opposition or the Beninese people.
The African Court also determined that Benin had violated other important human rights including the right to life, the right not to be subjected to torture, and the right to human dignity. This finding was reached on the basis of evidence that the army and police had fired live ammunition into a large group of protesters in the days following the April 2019 elections. Worse, the African Court noted that the government of Benin had passed a law granting amnesty for crimes committed in the context of these elections, indicating that those responsible for the violence would not be held accountable.
The government of Benin quickly indicated that it would ignore these African Court rulings. In fact, Benin recently withdrew its declaration to the protocol establishing the African Court, ending the ability of individuals and non-governmental organizations to file cases directly with the judicial body. That action becomes effective later this month. All these developments suggest that it is highly probable that human rights abuses in Benin will continue or worsen if Talon wins the election as expected.
Growing Fragility of Democracy in West Africa
The political unrest in Benin constitutes only part of a larger regional trend as many countries in West Africa have recently exhibited signs of democratic decline. Early in 2019, Senegalese President Macky Sall was accused of sidelining his political rivals through targeted criminal prosecutions, and the run-up to elections in Togo in February 2020 saw significant violence against democratic protesters. More recently, elections this past October in Guinea were marred by violence committed by government security forces against the political opponents of President Alpha Condé, who had controversially pushed through a series of constitutional revisions just a few months prior which permitted him to run for a third term in office. In the same month, President Alassane Ouattara pulled a similar stunt in Côte d’Ivoire, easily winning as opposition parties boycotted in protest. To the extent that political instability can spread across countries, as some research has suggested, the situation in Benin may foment instability in other fragile democratic states in West Africa, endangering the safety and livelihoods of people in other parts of the region.
Consequences for U.S. Counterterrorism Efforts
Compounding the human rights implications of the democratic crisis in Benin are national security considerations for the United States, specifically with respect to ongoing counterterrorism efforts against jihadist groups in West Africa. Despite the expenditure of significant military assistance, the establishment of military training programs, the provision of intelligence sharing and logistical support, and even the deployment of hundreds of American soldiers in the region, the U.S. counterterrorism strategy in West Africa has suffered monumental setbacks, according to U.S. government assessments and current and former officials. Indeed, early last year, military officials expressed concern that extremist groups with ties to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State were working together to conquer and hold territory in countries as the groups rooted deeper into places like Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Boko Haram also appears to be making a comeback in Nigeria. Although former Defense Secretary Mark Esper contemplated a large-scale pullback at the end of 2019, U.S. military engagement in West Africa currently remains robust.
So how then might the situation in Benin implicate U.S. counterterrorism policy in the region?
According to the U.S. State Department, Benin is a “motivated and strong partner” in regional security operations, including with respect to combating terrorist groups in West Africa working with the United States and other partners in the region. Political instability in Benin undoubtedly affects its ability to contribute to necessary military efforts and accordingly impairs counterterrorism efforts in West Africa. Looking at the region and Benin’s democratic decline, the International Crisis Group observed: “Political conflicts undo years of investment in training and force governments to use the security apparatus to monitor and punish their rivals. All these factors weaken their ability to tackle well-trained and well-prepared armed groups.”
As if not more importantly, Benin borders Burkina Faso, Niger, and Nigeria, all of which are struggling to combat violent extremist groups. As such, the continued weakening of democratic governance in Benin may allow violent extremists to establish themselves in poorly governed areas and then rely on porous borders to recruit, regroup, or launch attacks from Benin into its neighboring countries. In short, the stability of Benin is important to effective counterterrorism in West Africa. Whether such stability is maintained depends greatly on the outcome and aftermath of the upcoming presidential elections – including how President Talon responds to potential unrest, and how foreign capitals respond to Talon.
It is yet to be determined which policies the new Biden administration will pursue in West Africa, including how this region will figure into any effort to wind down so-called Forever Wars. There is no doubt, however, that there should be significant interest in the rapidly approaching presidential elections in Benin on the basis of both human rights concerns as well as broader national security concerns. Some have argued that U.S. diplomats should boycott the elections in Benin to “stand up for shared values.” Perhaps this is the correct approach, but regardless, it is clear that these elections have significant stakes for Benin, West Africa, and far beyond.