Prior to 2016, Benin was considered to be a very stable democracy. Between 1991, when it became a democracy, and 2016, Benin experienced many free and fair elections, following which power transferred peacefully. Things took a turn, however, when the current President of Benin, Patrice Talon, won his first term in office. President Talon’s continued leadership has been characterized by oppression of opponents, a distinct hallmark of democratic decline.
Upon taking office, it seemed like Talon might make some positive change by, as he promised on the campaign trail, tackling corruption in Benin’s government. These efforts to squash corruption have, in practice, however, been targeted mostly at Talon’s political opponents. This pattern seems to indicate that genuine corruption is not the thing that he really seeks to eliminate.
In June 2019, Talon’s administration detained former President Benin Thomas Boni Yayi for allegedly inciting violence against the government. In reality, however, Boni Yayi seems to have been guilty mostly of distaste for the actions of the Talon administration and past personal issues with Talon. The inciting incident for his detainment was a speech in opposition of election rules put in place by Talon to make running for office more difficult for anyone but his supporters. Boni Yayi was confined within his home for 52 days before fleeing to Togo.
In July 2019, Talon’s government released a list of political figures allegedly wanted for evading justice. All of these figures were political opponents of Talon. These charges reflect a pattern of intentionally attempting to delegitimize opposition figures. Framing the opposition as criminals serves to reinforce the power of the incumbent by treating the opposition as if they are wholly unworthy of being a viable choice for the voters.
In April 2020, former State Finance Minister Komi Katouché, who notably served in the Boni Yayi administration, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for alleged embezzlement. The trial, though, was, according to Katouché, a blatantly political sham. The charges and questionable trial against Katouché can likely be attributed to the fact that at that time, he was viewed as a potential candidate to run against Talon in the 2021 election. Sentencing him to prison time served to eliminate him as a potential source of competition.
In April 2021, not long before the Benin presidential election, Reckya Madougu, presidential candidate and leader of Benin’s main opposition party, had her candidacy rejected by the electoral commission and was arrested under accusation of plotting to assassinate several politicians. This represents another addition to the standing pattern of silencing opposition by leveling questionable charges against them with no speedy trial to speak of.
The oppression of opponents is a key tool of initiating democratic backslide. For a democracy to be strong, the voters must have real options when it comes to choosing who will represent them in government. While individuals running for office can disagree, and even find each other distasteful on a political and personal level, strong democracy relies on candidates recognizing their opposition as a legitimate choice for the voters and allowing them to have a fair shot at competing with them. Throwing opponents in prison under questionable or false charges is a bad faith strategy to maintain power by illegitimate means. The strategies employed by Talon and his administration undermine democracy by forcibly taking the choice away from the voters.
In April of 2021, despite the fact that he had initially claimed that he would only serve one term, President Talon won reelection with 86% of the vote, winning a higher percentage of the vote than he did in his first run (though voter turnout was lower). At least part of victory, however, can be attributed to the continued outright oppression of his opponents. Out of 20 individuals who submitted paperwork to run in the 2021 election, only three were deemed fit to compete by the government’s electoral commission. This number, of course, does not include anyone who was silenced or intimidated away from running before filing any paperwork.
This is by no means a comprehensive survey of all of the individuals detained in the process of the Talon administration’s push for increased power over the government in Benin. Many more individuals who attempted to politically oppose Talon and his increasingly authoritarian regime have been jailed, exiled, or otherwise silenced for speaking out or running against him. Continued use of these tactics can have a chilling effect on those who might wish to create opposition. A potential opposition candidate may avoid running out of fear of being facing jail time or other consequences for doing so. By silencing and intimidating opposition, Talon’s government displays a blatant pattern of oppression which undermines free and fair elections.
Democracy demands elections where two or more candidates who recognize each other as legitimate opponents compete for the votes of the electorate. When one party attempts to delegitimize its opponents or forcibly remove them from competition (or both), the choice is taken out of the hands of the people and the democratic process is weakened. Without free, fair, and competitive elections, democratic backsliding is imminent. The strategies employed by President Talon to eliminate competition and further entrench his power are actively weakening democracy in Benin.