Benin: Talon set for April 11 poll victory with opposition sidelined

By Matthieu Millecamps, in Cotonou and Honoré Banda

Posted on Monday, 5 April 2021 10:32
Benin's President Patrice Talon attends a UEMOA (West African Economic and Monetary Union) meeting in Abidjan
Benin's President Patrice Talon attends in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, April 10, 2017, REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

Despite his earlier promises to govern for only a single term, Benin’s President Patrice Talon is standing for re-election on 11 April and looks to be heading towards victory. Talon’s economic record remains strong and he has sidelined the opposition.

Striding across the stage of the Palais des Congrès, dressed in a safari suit, in December, Talon had all the nonchalance of a Silicon Valley CEO. What he is most proud of, he claims, is “creating a dynamic”: “In reality, this is our greatest achievement – our reforms. Building kilometres of road is not much; bringing water to people – of course it’s vital; but what is most important is to ensure the survival and development of our eternal nation forever.”

New infrastructure and confidence-building

His supporters in the Union Progressiste (UP) and Bloc Républicain (BP) alliance, which holds all seats in the national assembly, point to the new infrastructure and confidence building with international lenders. “Just look at the good results we have with the International Monetary Fund [IMF] or the rating agencies: his mandate has paid off in all aspects, economic and political,” says Gérard Gbénonchi, a member of parliament for the UP.

In December, the IMF approved a further $178m in emergency assistance to fight Covid-19. Since the initial support of $103m, in May 2020, “the macroeconomic outlook has deteriorated further”, says Mitsuhiro Furusawa, managing director of the IMF. “Economic growth is expected to slow to around 2% in 2020, down from almost 7% in 2019.” Meanwhile, inflation is rising – to 3% in 2020, compared to 0.2% in 2018.

Other great challenge

Aside from the pandemic, Talon’s other great challenge in his first term has been the 16-month Nigerian border closure, which officially came to an end in December. Desite it, Benin’s economy has performed better than that of its West African neighbours, most of whom have gone into negative growth of around -2%.

The only opposition leader who has launched substantial attacks on Talon’s economic performance is the academic Frédéric Joël Aïvo, who planned to run in the April elections but whose candidacy was thrown out by the courts.

“Talon’s only record is the roads. What credibility can there be in a growth rate that does not benefit the Beninese people?”, Aïvo tells us.

Reforms have strengthened Talon’s hand

Talon twice failed to pass a constitutional amendment to implement a one-term limit on the presidency, and yet he has reformed the electoral code and established a charter for political parties. Rather than strengthen democracy, however, these reforms have strengthened Talon’s hand.

Under the newly reformed code, prospective candidates need the support of at least 10% of the country’s 93 members of parliament and 77 mayors. Since Talon’s allies were the only ones allowed to run in the 2019 legislative vote, and the opposition largely boycotted the 2020 municipal elections in protest, Talon’s supporters are the ones who get to chose who runs against him.

The courts validated only two candidates to run against Talon. One is Corentin Kohoué: his party, Les Démocrates, has suspended him, claiming he is an ally of Talon picked to give a veneer of democracy to the vote. The party’s choice of candidate, Reckya Madougou, was arrested on 4 March on terrorism charges after protesting at the imprisonment of her colleague Bio Dramane Tidjani on the same charge. Alassane Soumanou of the Forces Cauris pour un Bénin Emergent (FCBE), Thomas Boni Yayi’s old party, has been similarly decried as Talon’s patsy, causing a schism in the FCBE.

Talon’s opponents say he “instrumentalises” the justice system.

In April 2020, the Cour de Répression des Infractions Economiques et du Terrorisme (CRIET) [Court for the Suppression of Economic Crimes and Terrorism] sentenced former minister Komi Koutché to 20 years in prison for embezzle­ment.

The same court sentenced businessman Sébastien Ajavon, leader of the Union Sociale Libérale, to 20 years for drug trafficking in 2018. Ajavon fled to France, where he has been granted political refugee status.

In early December, the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights demanded the repeal of the 2019 constitutional reforms and a return to the 1990 constitution. The government is brandishing this ruling as proof that “the conditions for the presidential election to be held in a democratic manner are not met”, according to Léonce Houngbadji, president of the Parti pour la Libération du Peuple.

With 2021 looking like a foregone conclusion, eyes are already trained on the 2026 race to replace Talon. The alliance between the UP and the BR is fragile, and tensions rose to the surface during the May 2020 municipal campaign.

A  minister, who asked to remain anonymous, says: “For the moment, we want the reforms to move forward. But in 2026, it is a certainty: there will be a fierce challenge for the conquest of power.”

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