Benin: President Patrice Talon’s re-election bid faces little threat from a divided opposition

By Matthieu Millecamps, in Cotonou
Posted on Wednesday, 20 January 2021 04:08

Benin's President Patrice Talon. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

Rather than uniting ahead of the April presidential elections, Benin's opposition is splitting and weakening.

An imposing cowrie, poking out of a calabash, looks as if it is flying for a brief moment. After being removed from the façade of a house by a small crane, the imposing sculpture is placed on the bed of a pickup truck. The sculpture’s removal is a fitting metaphor for the rift that currently divides Benin’s main opposition forces as President Patrice Talon’s term draws to a close.

Extracted on Christmas Eve, the cowrie once decorated the exterior of former president Thomas Boni Yayi’s home in Parakou. It is the symbol of the Forces Cauris pour un Bénin Emergent (FCBE), a party Boni Yayi created in 2007 and that fractured in the wake of the April 2019 legislative elections, from which opposition parties were excluded for failing to obtain the required “certificate of conformity”.

After post-election violence, the “radical” and “pragmatist” wings of the FCBE, deprived of members of parliament, vehemently disagreed on the policy to adopt on Talon’s proposal to establish a national dialogue.

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The “radical” faction accused the “pragmatists” of betrayal for having agreed to take part in Talon’s dialogue and acquiescing to the charter for political parties and the electoral code, reforms the party reviled.

The “pragmatists”, for their part, refused to carry on with this “empty chair” brand of politics, thereby giving free rein to the presidential coalition, which from that point forward enjoyed no opposition in the national assembly.

Consummating the split

A separation was starting to look inevitable in September 2019, when the “pragmatist” faction, led by Paul Hounkpè and Théophile Yarou, received formal recognition of Les Democrates’ legal existence.

In passing, the FCBE agreed to exclude some of its senior officials from the party’s governing bodies. Among them were Komi Koutché, the former finance minister sentenced in absentia in April 2019 to 20 years in prison for embezzlement of state funds by CRIET, Benin’s court with jurisdiction over economic crimes and terrorism, and Valentin Djénontin, another one of Boni Yayi’s ex-ministers, sentenced in November 2019 to two years in jail for theft and illegal distribution of government documents.

In reality, the FCBE’s participation in the May 2020 municipal elections consummated the split. After attempting to patch things up, Boni Yayi permanently cut ties with his former party colleagues shortly before voters went to the polls. In his unceremonious exit, he brought part of the FCBE’s members with him.

At the end of a lengthy preparation process, a new party was born: Les Démocrates. But it took the interior minister some time to formally recognise its legal existence.

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Surprisingly, when the government paperwork finally arrived in mid-December 2020, the former head of state, now honorary president of the newly-created party, gave a speech in which he struck a rather conciliatory tone as far as Talon is concerned. A few days earlier, Talon had offered an olive branch to opposition members, promising an “inclusive” presidential election.

“I’d like to thank our leaders, the government, the interior minister, the president of the republic, civil society and the entire citizenry for helping to make our party’s creation a success,” Bon Yayi said as he stood before a small crowd of supporters assembled in front of Les Démocrates’ headquarters in Cotonou on 14 December, brandishing the party’s registration filings and bylaws like trophies.

The party’s presidential ticket still a work in progress

“Our position is clear,” said Nourenou Atchadé, Les Démocrates’ first vice-president. “To ensure a peaceful presidential election, political talks need to happen beforehand. Opposition candidates living in exile should be permitted to return and the political endorsement rule should be rendered null and void, as well as the constitutional and electoral code reforms.”

The ex-president lost no time in taking his firm stance on the road, travelling to northern Benin, a region over which the Bariba Empire once reigned. Despite coming off as obliging in Cotonou in the days leading up to his visit, Boni Yayi made several pointed criticisms about his southern-born rival, Talon.

“His reforms are focused on establishing a conflict of interest in the highest office of the land, one that allows him to transfer government assets to himself and to his clan,” Boni Yayi said on 20 December in Parakou, the gateway to the country’s northern region, where his hometown stronghold of Tchaourou lies.

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However, Les Démocrates are not yet sure they will be permitted to participate in the election. The new requirements they have to meet include obtaining an endorsement from at least 10% of Benin’s 83 members of parliament and 77 mayors, meaning 16 signatures all told.

Under the Front pour la Restauration de la Démocratie coalition, formed on 13 January, Les Démocrates have joined forces with two other parties, Dynamique Unitaire pour la Démocratie and Grande Solidarité Républicaine.

Up to that time, Joël Aïvo, a constitutional scholar, had been the sole candidate standing for the April presidential election; now he is a member of the coalition. This newly created grouping should help give more weight to any future candidate during the endorsement-seeking process, but doubts remain.

“Elected representatives from the [presidential] coalition want their candidate to win, and that’s only natural. So, what they’re going to do is endorse a candidate who has zero chance of winning – someone who will serve as a foil,” Les Démocrates‘ Atchadé said. “Basically, the sort of candidate who will toe the line once the election is over.”

The most important outstanding item on the Les Démocrates’ agenda is choosing the ticket (i.e., the presidential and vice-presidential candidates) that will represent their party in the election. For the time being, no specific names have emerged.

“We’re going to hold a conclave that will bring together every party body so that we can reach a consensus on our candidate selection,” said the party’s president, Éric Houndété, adding that “our first task will be to overturn the endorsement requirement.”

One thing is certain: an alliance with the FCBE, is out of the question unless it is willing to accept Les Démocrates’ platform. “If they align with our strategy, then we could work together. But if they continue to cooperate with the government, that option won’t be on the table,” Houndété said.

The FCBE plagued by major internal strife

For its part, the FCBE’s senior leadership have been exceedingly discreet on a potential collaboration in recent weeks. And for good reason, as the party is currently plagued by major internal strife.

As early as September 2020, Hounkpè, the FCBE’s national executive secretary, said he was certain that his party would obtain the necessary endorsements. In an interview on national radio, he also defended the political reforms initiated by the majority coalition. This lip service directed at the government fuelled accusations of collusion.

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“Today, our political party cannot go back on our commitment: we supported the endorsement measure and are working to ensure that it doesn’t serve as another means to exclude candidates,” said Yarou, the FCBE’s deputy national secretary.

“It is up to the presidential coalition, particularly the legislative branch, to create the conditions for opposition candidates’ participation in the 2021 presidential election. It is up to us to act like real politicians.”

Like Les Démocrates, the FCBE have not yet nominated its candidate, but two familiar names, Hounkpè and Yarou, have been floated. And, given the bitter debates taking place, the party is not shielded from further division.

In a bid to lower the temperature, a committee tasked with establishing “selection criteria” was set up. But at the end of November, one committee member with close ties to Hounkpè, Bertin Tossou, stepped down over former parliamentarian Idrissou Bako’s attempts to influence the committee’s work. Then, in early January, Hounkpè suspended three officials close to Yarou for misconduct.

When pressed about these internal rumblings and the row pitting the party against Les Démocrates, an FCBE official commented: “We need to stop troubling the Beninese public with our marital disputes.”

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