Sub-Saharan Africa is a continent notorious for recalcitrant dictators, authoritarian tendencies, and extensive patron-client networks. However, since the Third Wave of Democratization, the state of Benin has garnered laudable sentiments in its efforts to strengthen democracy, routinely generating respectable metrics. This nascent democracy was cultivated under a National Conference held in 1991. Civil society, political leaders, and religious figures banded together to create a new constitution that is inclusive and remains sacrosanct to the majority of the population in Benin. However, Democratic erosion in Benin is underway, and threats of an authoritarian regime are palpable, led by cotton magnate, President. Patrice Talon and his hostile takeover of salient institutions, particularly the judiciary.
President Patrice Talon assumed Benin’s presidency in 2016. Choosing to run as an independent, he promised to reinvigorate the economy, fight corruption, and even decrease the presidential term limit. His estimated fortune of 400 million dollars also played well with voters as it displayed his business acumen, alas, Trump. However, as Levitsky and Ziblatt (2018) accurately state, warning signs of authoritarianism, including violating civil liberties, antagonism towards democracy, and a blatant disregard for opponents, would materialize rather shortly in Benin.
Talon began to challenge or propose amendments to the constitution of Benin early in his presidency. His demands included granting legislators immunity, decreasing presential term limits to a single term limit composed of six years, and numerous other legislative imperatives. Subsequently, the national assembly would deny the proposed changes, citing a hasty process devoid of transparency and public participation, potentially undoing the hard-fought gains made under the constitution of 1991. Dejected by such outcomes, Talon sought his eyes on the judiciary.
One of Talon’s most consequential moves to date was the empowerment of his former lawyer, Joseph Djogbenou, as Minister of Justice in 2018. Talon and his acolytes began the process of power consolidation via the judiciary swiftly. This involved the creation of courts designated to target individuals suspected of terrorism and economic malfeasance. Consequently, numerous opposition figures were charged under dubious claims and allegations. Furthermore, Talon sidelined many potential rivals, including former presidential candidate and ally Sebastian Ajavon, who was tried in absentia for purportedly drug-trafficking. Despite condemnation from the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the judiciary remained steadfast and aggressive in their approach.
Furthermore, Dahl (1972) illustrates the core tenants of representation, preferences, and autonomous civic institutions as instrumental in the democratic process. Benin’s government would rank extremely low as of recent in using Dahl’s theoretical underpinning and conceptualizations of democracy, particularly in representing their citizenry’s preferences. This is crystallized in the arbitrary electoral laws enacted before the 2019 legislative elections. With Djogbenou at the helm of the Constitutional Court, sweeping electoral reforms were introduced. The reforms included obtaining a certificate from the interior minister coupled with a registration fee of $427,000, which is rather extortive. As a result, opposition parties were barred from fielding candidates, and parties allied with Talon gained seats, effectively sealing the National Assembly’s legal control in favor of Talon. The legislative elections also featured arbitrary arrests, intimidation, and internet shutdowns. A new point in Benin politics unseen before democratization in the early ’90s was reached, compounded by a meager voter turnout of less than 25%, a demonstrative indictment on the current epoch of the political landscape in Benin.
In the backdrop of 2019, the Legislative also loomed the presidential elections, set for April 2021. Stringent requirements mandated by the constitutional courts required presidential hopefuls to receive the endorsements of 16 members of the national assembly or mayors. This stipulation unquestionably Benefited Talon. In addition, The covid-19 pandemic has further emboldened president Talon to overreach his presidential powers. As highlighted by Pozen and Scheppele (2020), Chief executives in the Global South and North alike have used the pandemic as a pretext to implement draconian measures and policies. President Talon is not an exception. As of late, he has employed the military to arrest the leader of Benin’s largest opposition party and is also accused of being complicit in the shooting of opposition figure, Ganiou Soglo. Moreover, the electoral commission has recently approved the candidacy of two unproven presidential contenders, cementing his eventual victory.
In less than five years, the King of Cotton has subverted the judiciary, one of the most salient institutions responsible for safeguarding the democratic ethos enshrined in Benin’s constitution coupled with an acquiescent security apparatus ready to conduct his dreadful bidding. Consequently, Benin’s political trajectory is headed towards autocracy, a sad reality for one of the few success stories of democracy in Africa. However, the frail aspects of a young democracy are also a significant reality that warrantees an enhanced understanding. Lastly, numerous incumbents across Sub-Saharan Africa have instituted similar schemes to remain in power by personalizing and leveraging the judiciary powers to substantially consolidate power and weaken any semblance of opposition, however, a young continent desperate for democracy is ready to challenge such anti-democratic approaches.
I find it interesting that Talon was able to win the Presidency and then maintain an effective hold on power as an independent. Most authoritarians, while they do often run as an outsider to national politics, are usually in a political party. Obviously this can take multiple forms, like Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party, or Geert Wilder’s party that is built around him. But to come into national politics without that framework supporting him seems surprising. How was he able to do so much without the support of a party? Did he get some parties in the National Assembly to support his agenda? The idea that a party would support a president’s anti-democratic rhetoric when the president doesn’t belong to their party sounds rather far-fetched, but I’m not familiar enough with the politics of Benin or with Talon to understand how good a question that is. I also don’t know how much power the National Assembly has to stop him, especially since given your writing it sounds like the Judiciary responds mostly or only to the President and not to the National Assembly. In either case, hopefully the parties or the people can stop his continued rise to power.
As the author of another Benin-centric post on the Democratic Erosion blog (https://democraticeros.wpengine.com/2020/11/22/benin-2021-what-is-an-election-in-the-absencye-of-competition/), I would like to compliment your concise and direct summary of Benin’s dramatic backsliding. I was particularly driven to read this article because when I finished my own research around November 2020, I knew that Benin would continue to experience democratic backsliding. What I did not know at the close of my research, was that in less than a year the impact of COVID-19 would be felt across the globe. This was shockingly true for the status of Benin’s democracy. I can see in your article how Talon used the pandemic to quickly escalate his consolidation of power. When I studied Benin, there was still a strong resistance movement that held frequent protests. This movement even drafted a new constitution titled, “Manifesto for the Restoration of Democratic and Republican Order in Benin.” My point to emphasizing this is, in your opinion what has the pandemic done to the momentum of opposition groups in Benin?
Furthermore, while we both seem to agree in our articles that Talon is the primary driver of this erosion, what do you anticipate would happen if Talon were to leave office tomorrow? Has Benin retained the quality of institutions to revive its democratic traditions? Personally, I believe that a significant contribution to Benin’s current state, outside of the influence of Talon, is the fact that Benin is becoming increasingly ignored and less visible in the international sphere. Especially due to a newer development of media crackdowns and wrongful imprisonment of Talon’s former opposition Reckya Madougou. Because Benin withdrew from the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights in April, nothing can be done to counter this on a legal level, but do you think another piece of the puzzle is amplifying the voices of Beninnese people on an international level?