What is happening to Benin today under President Talon is pathetic says Omar Arouna, a former Ambassador of Benin to the USA. Talon is clueless about what the people of Benin went through to emerge as a democratic success story cited as an example in Africa, says Arouna. While he salutes the great resistance that the people of Benin have showed in the face of repeated assaults on its democracy by the current President, Ambassador Arouna challenges regional bodies and the wider international community to step in more forcefully before more harm is done. The rest of the world cannot just sit silently and watch as a shady businessman turns one of the best functional democracies in Africa into an autocracy, Arouna charges.
Benin has been in the news for the wrong reasons, what is going on and how did things become so ugly for one of the celebrated successes of democracy in Africa?
Allow me first to thank your magazine for inquiring about the situation in Benin and trying to make sense of it. The short answer to your question is that we are witnessing in Benin, a shady businessman turn a fully functional Democracy into an Autocracy while the rest of the world is silently watching.
Indeed, my country The Republic of Benin, until the recent past was dubbed the cradle of democracy on the continent of Africa. However, since his election in 2016, President Patrice Talon, consistently endeavored to undermine all democratic institutions with the goal to establish an autocratic/ plutocratic regime, and to remain in power beyond its constitutional term.
Twice he attempted to change the constitution within a span of two years, and was defeated in parliament due to the popular uprising. Upon his election, he seized control of all economic levers of the country such as the cotton industry, the Port, the railroad, agricultural, and the airport through the companies he owns and operates via his children or close business associates.
The most alarming situation is on the political front where unilaterally, President Talon disqualified all opposition parties from participating in the April 28th, 2018 legislative elections to replace all 83 members of parliament. Ironically, the only two political parties that were allowed to compete in this election are the two newly created and funded parties by President Patrice Talon himself.
President Talon and his team claim the intent is to improve the democratic experience in Benin by reducing the large number of political parties, does he have a point, should it not be of concern that a country with the size and population of Benin should have so many parties?
President Talon is a “Snake oil salesman” who has no interest in a democratic process and a free society. The argument that there are too many political parties in the country is a non-sense argument. It is well understood that Democracy is a system in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections, it is therefore up to the people to choose how to organize themselves in order to exercise that right. Despite the fact that there are a lot of political parties in Benin, during every election since 1990 those parties aggregate into major coalitions or only a handful of coalitions of parties when it’s time to vote. So, the selection is happening naturally and progressively. By trying to unliterary impose the two political parties that are supporting him, he effectively excluded the opposition from the race. This absurdity is the source of the frustration that led to the uprising in the country on May 1st and 2nd. Protests that the government squashed by asking the security force to fire live ammunition on the protestors killing according to reports at least 4 people.
Despite the protests, the elections eventually took place, what next for Benin?
I am hard pressed to believe that, what took place on April 28th, 2019 could be called an election. A legislative election where votes didn’t not take place in two of the largest city in the north of the country and several other localities in the country due to violence’s, an election where more than 90% of the registered voting population didn’t not go to the poll to vote, an election where the constitutional court is still unable to proclaim result and for cities where vote didn’t not take place an election where the government shutdown internet before and during the election… Like I said this wasn’t a free, fair, transparent and inclusive election. This a dramatic and shameful coup by Talon and his partisans NOT AN ELECTION.
In fact, following the parody of election, on May 1st and 2nd, 2019, the Beninese security forces fired live ammunitions at the crowd of people in Cotonou, protesting against the results of the legislative election of which the opposition was excluded. Two (2) people were killed according to the government while the opposition and the international press spoke of seven (7) deaths.
What next for Benin is for the people to take back their country and restore their democracy…Whatever the government will do from now on can only delay that process but will not stop the people. What legitimacy that a national assembly that was practically designated by the president has to pass laws, vote on budgets and ratify loans on behalf of the people?
There were reports that at some point, the residence of former President Yayi Boni was encircled by troops, why him in particular?
In fact, the former head of state›s home is still surrounded and under surveillance by security forces two weeks after the protests ended. Since May 1st 2019, former President Dr. Thomas Boni Yayi is prevented from leaving his residence Cadjèhoun in Cotonou. His home is under constant surveillance by a military force. Visiting him has become difficult if not impossible. Any visitor is subjected to a meticulous search even forbidden to visit. The police force in front of the home have prevented even the visit of his counsel, The situation is all the more worrying as the former president sent a letter to the Head of State of Nigeria in his capacity as President-in office of ECOWAS, asking him to not forget Benin, and protect him and his family whose life would be threatened by the regime of President Patrice Talon. If you ask me, I will say that president Dr. Thomas Boni Yayi is under house arrest.
Talon is particularly targeting his predecessor because Boni Yayi has become the de-facto opposition leader of the Benin and lately his popularity has skyrocketed. On Monday March 29th an ultimatum was issued by two former heads of state asking the government to suspend the electoral process. The ultimatum expired Tuesday, the night of the proclamation of the results. Former President Nicéphore Soglo had invited all the opposition to his home on May 1 for a new slogan. But, Boni Yayi could not come. He dispatched his bodyguard to tell his comrades that his house was surrounded. All joined him at his home, the population spontaneously decided to form a human shield to protect the former president’s house and quickly blocking by firing tire fires and throwing stones at the police who responded with tear gas.
Benin has had a history of successful elections and political transitions since 1990, what is it about President Talon that is unraveling the country?
President Talon doesn’t have a moral compass, nor does he understand the historical nature of the Country’s attachment to democracy and to that effect he is at odds with the country. Furthermore, Patrice Talon did not support the idea that his project of constitutional reform was rejected twice by the Parliament. Some say he was strongly marked by his meeting with Rwandan President Paul Kagame three months after taking office. And «He wanted to focus his mandate on a charismatic political model, he found in Kagame.» But he didn’t not take into account the Rwanda’s context when Kagame took the reign in his country. He didn’t realize that Kagame didn’t have his private business interests entangled with the state, he didn’t realize that to lead a country such as Benin one needs a serious dose of empathy, compassion, and a lot more of integrity and selflessness… NO Patrice is not Paul and Benin is not Rwanda. Transforming a fully functional democracy into an autocracy will not develop the country.
Going back again to the 90s and the exciting democratic experiment that Benin has had, what kind of institutions have been put in place to cushion the kind of overreach that we are seeing under Talon and how are those institutions working?
Several democratic institutions were put in place following the national conference in 1990. These institutions played the role of checks and balance in the country until April 2016 when President Talon took over power…then all hell broke loose.
For example, the national assembly that controls the government actions and pass laws, became a rubber stamp under Talon regime. Corrupted and subdued lawmakers have been asked by president Talon to “vote with their eyes closed”. Now with this past April 2019 legislative election and its cohort of deputes lacking the necessary legitimacy, it is highly unlikely that the new national assembly plays its institutional role of checks and balances. It is therefore anticipated that the newly formed body will become an appendix of the government. The constitutional court which is the court of last results in our judicial systems was highjacked by President Talon when he decided to appoint his personal attorney as its president . This is another blow to Benin democracy.
Another example of a democratic institution that was beaten into submission by Talon’s bulimic appetite for power grabs since 2016 is the High authority for the regulation of the Audio-Visual media and Communication in Benin –known by its French acronym as HAAC– The institutions mission to ensure freedom of speech and transparency in the media and promote best practice has been sacrificed. The institution lost its autonomy and is now been instrumentalized to ban independent newspapers, and Radio and Television stations with opposing views. In addition, the government has instituted a new judicial court of exception the CRIET that so far has judged opponents to the regime on trump up charges that have been overturned on appeal in international or African regional courts.
What has been the reaction of the regional bodies like ECOWAS, the AU and the wider international community?
To my dismay the regional bodies have been weak in their response to the situations in the country although they sent envoys to talk to President Talon, their approach came across as the proverbial “lips service”. I think the ECOWAS, THE AU and the WIDER INTENATIONAL COMMUNITY, must take a tougher stands and notice that Benin once upon a time the cradle of democracy in Africa is no longer a flag bearer for freedom, liberty and transparency. This is not only bad for the Region, but this is also a major blow to the aspiration and dreams of all that cherish those values around the world.
President Talon is almost midway gone into his first mandate, with the power grab and immense fortune he has, could it be possible for an opposition candidate to unseat him?
Since taking over the country President Talon has unleashed an unprecedented wave of arbitrary arrests of political activists and journalists, and the crackdown on peaceful protests, have reached an alarming proportion in Benin. Many oppositions leaders are now in exile in France, the United-States, Canada, Nigeria, Togo and Ghana. The recent legislative election exclusive of all opposition parties have given “the coupde-grace” to the democratic process in the country. The president effectively dismantled any opposition to his regime and has no intent to open up competition. I don’t think anyone should expect a free, fair, transparent and inclusive election in Benin anytime soon so long as the President remains on his autocratic track. No one could unseat him under these conditions, he wouldn’t allow any competition. He said so himself during an interview a year earlier when he was running for the seat and I quote: “the capacity of an incumbent to get reelected in a country such as ours, is not so much about his past results or performance. It is essentially being able to prevent the competition; it is knowing how to subdue or dismantle the opposition and coerce the electoral college.
From your point of view, has the current President registered any positive achievements so far, and if his administration came to you for advice on how to get things back on the rails in Benin, what will you tell them?
According to a recent World Bank report “Growth accelerated from 5.6% in 2017 to 6% in 2018 (3.1% per capita GDP), driven by vibrant port activity and a sound agricultural sector buoyed by record cotton production and the emerging diversification of sectors. Growth was also driven by an increase in public investments (particularly infrastructure) and the performance of the service sector”. This is an indication that on the Macroeconomic level some progress is being made. However, poverty has increased in Benin while the basic tenets of a democratic society are now dismantled.
For me democracy and development are intertwined, and democracy has an important role to play in promoting sustainable development. Free and fair elections, independent media, accountable government, as well as other basic democratic principles, are all critical components of an environment conducive to growth. Strong democratic institutions, a robust rule of law, and inclusive economic policies that create a level playing field for everyone are essential elements of a development agenda with lasting impact and if the President and his government don’t change course rapidly the country will sink further in to poverty and any timid progress observed on a macroeconomic level will be lost soon enough.
Recently your successor at the Embassy of Benin in USA was recalled under dramatic circumstances, any word on this development on this, and in follow up to that, in the light of recent developments, how are relations between Washington and Cotonou?
Yes indeed, all information I have received and verified from sources close to the situation indicate that the Ambassador was asked by the Americans to leave the country ASAP. It’s also no secret to anyone close to the diplomatic community in Washington DC that Ambassador Hector Posset have had for (4) police complaints lodged against him with the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police department for sexual assaults and sexual harassment by at least 4 of his female staffs and that some of his stands, tenures, and reaction vis-àvis his superiors, his staff, colleagues and U.S. officials were unbecoming of someone in that position. All these incidents of personal nature obviously are embarrassing to their author and I will safely assume that they can be dissociated from the relation between the countries that I think remain in a very good shape.
We end with a last question with your prediction on the future of Benin, what are your hopes and what are your fears and what other contributions is Ambassador Arouna capable or willing to make to help Benin forge ahead?
I am afraid that a country once hailed as the cradle of democracy in Africa will have some tumultuous moments ahead for its people as the rule of law is no longer upheld, and freedom of speech and assembly are being denied and basic legal due process stomped upon. I am afraid that the immediate future for the country is one of terror that has already been installed by the regime have installed. According to Amnesty International «The repression reached disturbing levels in Benin where four people were killed during the post-election demonstrations, and the families of the victims are still struggling to recover their bodies,» Some politicians have left the country, saying they are victims of legal “persecution” and others are currently in jails. Despite all of that I remain hopeful that some of us that cherish values such as liberty, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness via a democratic process will remain steadfast in our position to bring back the rule of law and democracy in our beloved country. And we hope that our American and other international friends will help us with that effort as these are shared values.