Benin’s Democracy: What has happened to it?

Benin’s Democracy: What has happened to it?

The aftermath of April’s legislative elections in Benin laid bare the public’s displeasure with President Patrice Talon’s administration. Only two parties participated in these elections. Immediately following the elections, protesters took it to the streets. They decried Talon and his efforts to end political pluralism in the West African country. Such protests come at a time of considerable challenges to democracies both in the region and around the world.

Recent developments

Protests and a climate of heightened security have gripped the West African country of Benin for several months now. The protests in response to the country’s recent legislative elections held on 28 April. Benin has proved to be one of the most stable democracies in sub-Saharan Africa. It has hosted several free and fair elections since its transition to democracy in the early 1990s. However, this time was different.

The country’s electoral commission declared that only two parties were eligible to contest seats in the 83-member National Assembly. These are both loyal to President Patrice Talon. The decision came out after the said commission blocked all opposition parties from participating in the election. The electoral commission’s decision to ban the opposition was informed by recent changes to the electoral code. These changes require parties to pay nearly 250 million CFA francs ($450,000) to field candidates. Parties are also obliged to obtain a “certificate of conformity” from the Ministry of the Interior. These new requirements were ostensibly supposed to rein in the proliferation of political parties, more than 200 of them, in the country.

The aftermath of the election

The ban ultimately prompted a mass boycott of the election. In the end, less than 23% of all registered voters cast their ballots. This is the first time the turnout rate has dropped below 50% since the country’s democratic transition. Prior to the opening of the polls, Internet access in the country was completely shut off, making Benin the ninth African country where Internet access has been restricted this year.

Protesters, supported by former presidents Nicéphore Soglo and Boni Yayi, have taken to the streets since March to demand the restoration of political plurality. Recently, the protests have turned deadly after police used water cannons and live ammunition to break up demonstrations. As a result of his support for the protesters, the authorities placed Boni Yayi under virtual house arrest, as security forces surrounded his home in Cotonou. The aggressive response by police followed Amnesty International issuing a report. The report noted “a wave of arbitrary arrests of political activists and journalists” and broader crackdown on peaceful protests in the days and months preceding the election.

Benin’s democratic transition

The recent elections and violence stand in sharp contrast to the last three decades of political history in Benin. They are more reminiscent of the various military dictatorships that ruled the country in the three decades following its independence from France. Up until 1985, Benin held the dubious record of most coups since independence in Africa. However, this changed in 1990 when President Mathieu Kérékou began the country’s transition to democracy by convening the National Conference.

The National Conference sat for ten days in February 1990. This resulted in a new constitution and multiparty elections the following year. As such, the Beninois model became the standard for democratic transitions in the region. Kérékou famously lost the 1991 presidential election and conceded defeat to his opponent Nicéphore Soglo. Since the first presidential elections, the country has seen four transitions of power.

Democracy meets Talon

Such transitions of power increased Benin’s profile as an exemplar of democracy in Africa, stunning observers along the way. Analyses and reports characterised the country in 2016 as “the new field of dreams and promises kept”. Many of these commendations were perhaps premature. Weak political parties, clientelism, and corruption continue to shape the political landscape in Benin. These practices undermine efforts at “democratic deepening” and pave the way for a more authoritarian figure to rise to power. Enter Patrice Talon, a businessman who made his wealth in the cotton industry and thus earned the title “the King of Cotton”.  

Talon entered the 2016 presidential race promising change and reform. Key among his campaign promises was the implementation of a one six-year term for the presidency, replacing the two five-year term limit enshrined in the constitution. Talon even stated that he would not seek reelection if he won.

Since taking office, however, it has become increasingly clear that the changes and reforms Talon intends to enact threaten the vitality of Beninois democracy. In 2018, Talon targeted the independence of the judiciary. Through this, he co-opted the Constitutional Court and created a special court. In turn, he used the court to prosecute his political rivals and push forward his legislation.

The National Assembly pushed back against Talon’s moves to form a “new republic”. As such, they effectively rejected his proposed amendment to presidential term limits. Unfortunately, the legislature now finds itself co-opted by the president following April’s elections and thus unable to check his authority.

Troubling trends in the region

Benin’s slide away from democracy is part of a larger story in West Africa. Freedom House has noted that the democracy in the region has faced serious challenges in the past year. In Nigeria, elections held earlier this year included irregularities, delays, and bouts of violence. Senegal’s President Macky Sall’s victory at the polls was overshadowed by overt efforts to sideline his political rivals via criminal proceedings. Additionally, in Guinea, President Alpha Condé has made it clear he will defy the constitution and seek a third mandate. In Burkina Faso, Islamist and intercommunal violence threaten to upend the fragile democracy that was established following the ouster of longtime strongman Blaise Compaoré. Finally, in Togo, Benin’s neighbour, brute force by security forces has greeted democratic protesters as President Faure Gnassingbé has sought to maintain his grip on power.


Though the situation in West Africa becomes increasingly dire, the protests in Benin have been incredibly successful in putting a spotlight on Talon’s authoritarian tendencies. The recent unrest has brought much unwanted international attention to and condemnation of Talon and his administration, a major victory for the protesters.

However, despite their success, Talon still commands considerable leverage after having captured all three branches of government. Talon has stated he intends to contest the upcoming presidential election  and has already taken steps to ensure a second term in office. An electoral code akin to the one regulating the legislative election was adopted last year. Thanks to this new code, opposition leaders fear they will not be able to participate in this contest. Excluding their participation will likely result in another election that is neither free nor fair. As a result, it would also allow Talon even more time to consolidate his power.

While Talon might have an iron grip over the government, he enjoys no such control over the public. This year’s voter turnout shows that Talon and his allies do not maintain much support across the country. A move to sideline other presidential contenders is likely to cost Talon much needed public support. The opposition must pounce at the opportunity to poach Talon’s supporters and increase their leverage, especially as the protests reach a fever pitch.

About Author

Adam Valavanis

Adam Valavanis is a Washington-based analyst for GRI. His research interests include democracy, authoritarianism, and security, specifically in West Africa. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in International Affairs from Lafayette College and a Master of Science in Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics and Political Science.