Freedom in the World 2022 : Benin, Freedom House, 2022

Freedom in the World 2022 : Benin, Freedom House, 2022

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Organization : Freedom House

Type of publication : Report

Site of Publication : Freedom House

Date of publication : 2022

Link to the original document



Benin had been among the most stable democracies in sub-Saharan Africa, but President Patrice Talon began using the justice system to attack his political opponents after taking office in 2016, and new electoral rules and a crackdown on his political opponents enabled him to consolidate his power in 2021. Deadly police violence at political protests, arrests of activists, and other restrictions on civil liberties have become increasingly problematic in recent years.

Political Rights

A.   Electoral Process

Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?

The president is elected by popular vote for up to two five-year terms and serves as both the chief of state and head of government. In April 2021, Patrice Talon won reelection as president with 86 percent of the vote. The authorities had disqualified, arrested, or forced into exile the major opposition candidates, leaving only two opponents who posed no significant competition. The electoral code adopted in Talon’s first term gave elected members of progovernment parties veto power over which candidates qualified for the ballot. Some opposition parties boycotted the election.

Peaceful protesters against the unfair and noncompetitive contest were injured, and two people died after security forces fired tear gas and live ammunition into the air. Voter turnout was 50 percent, a historic low for the country’s multiparty presidential contests

Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?

Delegates to the 83-member, unicameral National Assembly serve four-year terms and are elected by proportional representation. The 2019 legislative elections were neither free nor fair, as new electoral rules effectively prevented all opposition parties from participating. Observers canceled poll-monitoring plans for fear of violence, turnout fell to about a quarter of eligible voters amid an opposition boycott, there was an internet shutdown on election day, and security forces violently suppressed protests before and after balloting, resulting in several deaths.

Peaceful protesters against the unfair and noncompetitive contest were injured, and two people died after security forces fired tear gas and live ammunition into the air. Voter turnout was 50 percent, a historic low for the country’s multiparty presidential contests

Only the two progovernment parties, Progressive Union and Republican Bloc, on the ballot won seats. Municipal elections were held in 2020, ignoring an AfCHPR order to suspend them and ensure opposition participation. The Progressive Union and the Republican Bloc won most local council seats, while the Cowry Forces for an Emerging Benin (FCBE), the only opposition group to field candidates, won 14 percent of them.

Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?

In 2019, CENA approved only two party lists, both loyal to the president, for the legislative election. Despite electoral and constitutional reforms approved that November, key rules barring opposition parties remained in force. CENA barred most opposition groups from the 2020 local elections, again favoring progovernment parties.

B. Political Pluralism and Participation

Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?

After multiparty elections were restored in 1991, Benin generally had a large number of active political parties. However, the 2018 electoral code established restrictive rules including an unusually high 10 percent national threshold and an onerous increase in obligatory financial deposits. Costs for presidential candidates were reduced in November 2019, but other requirements were introduced, including the need for endorsements and a vice presidential candidate.

All opposition parties were excluded from the 2019 parliamentary contest, though the FCBE gained legal recognition after the election and fielded candidates in the 2020 local elections. A candidate for another party was shot shortly after filing his paperwork. The leader of a disqualified front of opposition parties, law professor Joël Aïvo, was arrested shortly after the polls.

Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?

Talon’s defeat of Lionel Zinsou, former president Thomas Boni Yayi’s chosen successor in the 2016 election, marked Benin’s fourth presidential transfer of power between rival groups since 1991.

However, Talon’s government has since introduced significant obstacles to opposition parties and presidential candidates, including the endorsement rule introduced in 2019, and leading opposition figures have faced harassment and prosecution.

Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?

Politics have generally been free from military interference. The role of personal wealth in politics has increased in recent years, with higher campaign costs and clientelist structures boosting the careers of wealthier politicians. Talon developed his private businesses in part by financing the campaigns of Boni Yayi and other elites and then securing lucrative contracts. After becoming president, Talon allegedly attempted to bribe lawmakers while working to secure passage of constitutional amendments.

Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities ?

Women and minority groups are not legally excluded from political participation, but cultural factors limit women’s engagement. Women won just 7 percent of the seats in the 2019 parliamentary elections. Constitutional amendments passed that November reserved 24 seats for women in the next legislative term. Benin’s first vice president, Mariam Chabi Talata, is a woman.

Benin has historically been divided between northern and southern ethnic groups, and political parties often rely on ethnic bases of support. Southern-born Talon selected most of his political appointees from the southern Gbe-speaking region. The 2019 election of a southerner as National Assembly president broke with a tradition where legislative leaders and chief executives come from different regions. Vice President Talata is from the north.

C. Functioning of Government

Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?

The president and the legislature generally determine government policy.

However, the president and legislative representatives were not elected freely or fairly, and the lack of opposition members seriously undermines the legislature’s role as an independent branch of government. The government does not consistently implement policy throughout Benin. In many rural areas, the state struggles to deliver basic services, and citizens instead rely on local customary and religious leaders.

Does the government operate with openness and transparency ?

The 2015 Information and Communication Code provides for public access to government records. However, information deemed sensitive, including national security, trade, and judicial documents, remains restricted.

As required as a West African Economic and Monetary Union member, Benin converted the Chamber of Accounts into a more independent Court of Auditors to examine government finances. However, a new law passed in 2020 repealed asset declaration provisions for presidential candidates and government officials, and a June 2021 joint report by the Clingendael Institute and the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) indicates that the government is deliberately concealing increasingly violent communal conflicts in the north from the public.

Civil Liberties

D.Freedom of Expression and Belief

Are there free and independent media?

Constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression are somewhat respected, and print outlets have expressed a wide variety of viewpoints. However, media outlets have encountered new scrutiny and restrictions under the Talon administration.

Defamation remains a crime punishable by fines, and media outlets critical of the government have increasingly risked suspension. In 2020, the HAAC banned all “unauthorized” online news outlets, suspending three outlets temporarily; others ignored the order.

A 2017 digital media law allows for the prosecution and imprisonment of journalists for online content that is allegedly false or harasses individuals. In 2021, at least five journalists were arrested under this law.

Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private ?

Religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed and generally respected in practice.

Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?

Academic freedom is largely respected.

Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution ?

There are no major restrictions on personal expression, and individuals generally are not subject to surveillance or reprisals when discussing political or other sensitive matters.

E. Associational and Organizational Rights

Is there freedom of assembly?

Freedom of assembly has traditionally been respected; permit and registration requirements for demonstrations are not always enforced. Security forces violently dispersed opposition protests before the election in 2021 by firing tear gas and live ammunition into the air, resulting in at least two deaths. In 2020, protesters were killed by police in multiple incidents.

A 2017 digital media law allows for the prosecution and imprisonment of journalists for online content that is allegedly false or harasses individuals. In 2021, at least five journalists were arrested under this law

Authorities have prevented political opponents from organizing meetings and rallies using restrictions established in 2020 to control the spread of COVID-19. Gatherings of more than 50 people remain banned.

Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including human rights groups, generally operate freely, but individual activists have been arrested in increasing numbers. According reports from Amnesty International, over 12 political figures and activists were arrested leading up to the 2021 presidential election. After the April poll, human rights organizations claimed there had been a wave of ongoing arrests of activists and opposition figures by the authorities, with reports ranging from 36 to 150 people detained.

Beninese NGOs can no longer bring cases to the AfCHPR, after Benin withdrew from a relevant protocol in 2020.

Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations ?

Workers, except certain civil servants and public employees, have the right to form and join unions, and to bargain collectively, with some restrictions. Public employees in the defense, health, justice, and security sectors are barred from striking; workers in other sectors may strike for a maximum of 10 days per year.

F.Rule of Law

Is there an independent judiciary ?

Although the judiciary has demonstrated some independence, the courts are susceptible to corruption, Judges are not nominated or promoted transparently.

Judicial independence was undermined when President Talon’s personal lawyer, Joseph Djogbénou, was named Constitutional Court president in 2018. Critics argue CRIET also lacks independence. Judges were appointed by decree in 2018, in lieu of a transparent confirmation process. A CRIET judge resigned and fled the country in April 2021, complaining that the court is used to prosecute Talon’s political opponents.

Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters ?

Due process usually prevails in criminal and civil matters. However, judicial inefficiency, corruption, and a shortage of attorneys in the north inhibit the right to a fair trial. Lack of resources contributes to often lengthy pretrial detentions. Arbitrary arrests and detentions occasionally occur, sometimes with extreme sentencing, particularly in the CRIET. During the 2021 presidential election period, reports suggest that large numbers of oppositions leaders and activists were arrested by the authorities.

Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies ?

The population is free from war and other major physical threats, though the threat of terrorism may be growing in the north. In December 2021, two soldiers were killed by presumed jihadists in the north, and there has been a rise in violent, sometimes lethal, incidents between herders and farmers in the north.

Prison conditions are harsh. Prisoners face overcrowding, lack of access to food and water, and occasional physical abuse. Police brutality remains a problem, including beatings and torture of suspects. Superiors often shield perpetrators from prosecution.

Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population ?

Relations among Benin’s ethnic groups are generally amicable, despite recent political tensions. Minority ethnic groups have typically been represented in government agencies, the civil service, and the armed forces. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, and disability, but not sexual orientation. The 1996 penal code imposes a higher age of consent for same-sex sexual activity (21) than for heterosexual activity (13). LGBT+ people face social stigma and discrimination in practice.

Women experience discrimination in employment and access to credit, health care, and education.

G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors ?

Reforms to the business registration process, anticorruption efforts, and other regulatory changes since 2010 improved the business environment. However, property registration is difficult, and contract enforcement is inconsistent. Despite laws guaranteeing equal rights to inheritance for women, many women are denied the right to inherit property in practice.

Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance ?

Domestic violence remains a serious problem, and women are often reluctant to report domestic abuse. A 2003 law that prohibits female genital mutilation (FGM) was somewhat effective in reducing its occurrence, though the challenge persists. Marriage for those under 18 years old is prohibited, though exceptions are allowed for 14– to 17-year-olds with parental consent. Child marriage and forced marriage remain common in rural areas.

Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation ?

Legal protections against forced labor and other exploitative working conditions are unevenly enforced. Poor conditions are prevalent in the large informal sector, which was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Human trafficking is widespread, despite increased prosecutions for the crime. The practice of sending young girls to wealthy families to work as domestic servants has led to cases of exploitation and sexual slavery. Children are also exploited for agricultural labor and work in various trades.