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Benin’s King of Cotton Makes Its Democracy a Sham

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When Patrice Talon, the “king of cotton,” was elected president of Benin in 2016, few predicted that the country’s democracy would be on the verge of collapse just five years later. Benin had been considered one of West Africa’s strongest democracies, and Talon had run on a pledge to serve just one term. Yet on April 11, not only will Talon be on the ballot for a second stint in office, but his only opponents will be two weak candidates essentially handpicked by his coalition.

Whether Talon ever intended to respect his one-term promise is unclear, but there is little doubt that over the course of his presidency he has rapidly concentrated power. One political rival after another has faced prosecution, while a carefully executed series of procedural reforms has shut opposition parties out of the vote. Although some aspects of the April 11 election remain uncertain—including the turnout rate, the risk of violence, and whether the government will shut down the internet—the result is not. Talon is all but certain to win, punctuating Benin’s slide into autocracy and bringing three decades of democratic success to an end.

The country transitioned to democracy in 1991, helping spark a wave of democratization across the African continent. Although its political system was far from perfect when Talon—who is among the richest people in Francophone Africa today—took office in 2016, the country was rightfully seen as a regional leader. “Beninese people took legitimate pride in it,” Theodule Nouatchi, a law professor at the University of Abomey-Calavi, told me. “That perception does not seem to be there today.”

Benin’s autocratic turn is an alarming example of a broader trend of democratic backsliding in West Africa, where leaders in Guinea and Ivory Coast recently changed their constitutions to enable a third term and Senegal’s president has become increasingly repressive. But the country is also a test case for how the international community treats superficially democratic elections.

On the surface, Talon has an ambitious vision for Benin. He has had some economic successes and has sought to market himself as a fiscally responsible businessman modernizing a corrupt and inefficient state.

Yet on a deeper level, it is apparent that Talon has eliminated almost all possibility of legitimate opposition. The judiciary’s independence has evaporated. Talon’s former personal lawyer became president of Benin’s Constitutional Court. And a new judicial body ostensibly created to fight corruption and terrorism has targeted Talon’s political rivals. After the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights repeatedly ruled against his administration’s policies, Talon’s government prevented the court from hearing cases brought against him by individuals and nongovernmental organizations.

Without a check on its power from the judiciary, the government has been able to quickly eliminate threats to Talon’s continued rule. Lionel Zinsou, who finished second in the 2016 election, was barred from contesting elections for five years for alleged campaign law violations. The candidate who finished third, Sébastien Ajavon, lives in exile in France after a court sentenced him to 20 years in prison on drug trafficking charges.

Meanwhile, Reckya Madougou, Talon’s strongest remaining challenger, is likely to watch the upcoming election from a prison cell. Madougou would have been Benin’s first female presidential candidate from a major party, but her candidacy was rejected due to Talon’s reforms to the electoral code. Shortly after a rally challenging that decision, Madougou was arrested for allegedly plotting to assassinate political figures.

Renaud Agbodjo, a lawyer for Madougou, says the charges are entirely baseless. “She is a political prisoner,” he told me, adding that her meetings with her lawyers are recorded. Just this week, a judge on the court overseeing the investigation into Madougou fled the country and said political pressure had compelled them to detain her.

Talon’s procedural reforms are a master class in entrenching autocracy while preserving the sheen of democracy: None of the reforms explicitly target the opposition, and his supposed concern—Benin’s fragmented party politics—is a legitimate problem. The country of 12 million people had over 200 parties, most of which had no ability to compete on a national scale.

Talon supporters argue that electoral reforms like raising the bar to enter legislative elections address this problem by encouraging coalition-building and the consolidation of parties. But the real effect of these reforms has been to shut out of power anyone but Talon and his allies.

Among Talon’s changes to the electoral code are a 1,500 percent increase in the fees required for parliamentary candidates to run, and a rule that parties with less than 10 percent of the national vote could not enter parliament. These reforms prevented any opposition parties from running in the 2019 legislative elections. In the 2020 local elections, all but one opposition party was either blocked from running or boycotted the election.

But the pièce de résistance in his electoral strategy is the new sponsorship system, which requires that presidential candidates be sponsored by at least 10 percent of the total number of mayors and members of parliament—all of whom were elected in the 2019 and 2020 elections in which almost no opposition parties took part. As a result, Talon’s coalition controls enough mayorships and seats in parliament that it could have blocked all opposition candidates from running. But rather than a single-candidate election that would appear blatantly uncompetitive, members of Talon’s coalition sponsored two weak opponents and excluded stronger challengers.

The first among this hollow opposition, Alassane Soumanou, is a member of the Cowry Forces for an Emerging Benin party, previously headed by Talon’s predecessor Thomas Boni Yayi, who left the party arguing that Talon supporters had become excessively powerful in it. The second, Corentin Kohoue, has little national profile, and suspicions surround his recent break from Madougou’s party, the Democrats. In turn, “the dominant opinion is that this is a closed election,” said Steve Kpoton, a consultant in political affairs and democratic governance. “Soumanou and Kohoue do not embody the opposition in the eyes of public opinion.”

But because Talon can point to the presence of challengers as evidence of a fair election, international observers may well treat the result as legitimate. So far, the United States has only released a relatively tepid statement that urges respect for democratic norms without saying that the upcoming election deviates from them. The Economic Community of West African States and the European Union have also avoided challenging the legitimacy of the vote.

International actors may be tempted to let Talon’s autocratic tendencies slide. His business-friendly attitude has endeared him to investors, and he can point to a number of economic successes. Talon has significantly improved Benin’s dilapidated roads and increased the production of a number of agricultural commodities, especially cotton. In 2018, Benin became West Africa’s largest producer. And in the midst of a pandemic that has triggered debt crises in many low-income countries, Moody’s recently upgraded Benin’s credit rating.

Yet even those successes are ambiguous: Critics argue Talon has sought to promote his own business interests, and he has had a contentious relationship with workers in a number of sectors. In 2018, for example, thousands of teachers went on strike for months due to unpaid wages and poor working conditions, nearly leading to a nationwide cancellation of the school year. It is thus difficult to weigh the president’s successes against his failures, and the extent to which the Beninese population approves of Talon’s performance is difficult to ascertain. There is almost no polling, and many Beninese express fear of publicly criticizing the government.

What is certain, however, is that the population has come to see elections as illegitimate. In the 2019 elections that lacked opposition, voter turnout plummeted: 23 percent as compared to 66 percent in the previous legislative elections. The government shut down the internet on Election Day, and its forces killed at least seven protesters. Former president Boni Yayi was put under house arrest. Protests have already started ahead of this election. On Tuesday, opposition supporters demonstrated in several cities and blocked a national highway.

Still, Talon is not without support. It is entirely possible that he could win a competitive election, as he did in 2016. But Sunday’s result was decided long ago. Judd Devermont and Idayat Hassan of the Center for Strategic and International Studies argue that the United States should not send election observers to oversee a process with a preordained outcome, and this move would be a good start. Outside actors have relatively few ways to reverse Benin’s slide into autocracy, but they can deny Talon international legitimacy.

Talon’s strategy is canny. He likely wagered that few will look beneath the surface in a country with as small an international profile as Benin, particularly as long as he allows a semblance of opposition and a favorable investment climate. A couple countries may release vague statements alluding to democratic norms and human rights, but they can be expected to quickly drop the subject. It would be a shame if Talon were proven right.

This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.