April 2019 legislative elections marred by civic space violations

Benin has been engulfed in a political crisis following the organisation of legislative elections on 28th April 2019, elections that saw the political opposition excluded from the electoral process. In March 2019, the National Autonomous Electoral Commission (CENA) rejected the electoral lists of all the opposition parties as they were unable to meet the stringent requirements under the new Electoral Code, with the result that only two political parties competed in the elections - the Bloc républicain and Union progressiste, both close to Benin's president Patrice Talon. Under the new Electoral Code, adopted in September 2018, the deposit payable by candidates for the presidential and legislative elections saw a steep increase, with a 249 million francs CFA (417,800 USD) deposit due for candidates for the legislative elections (up from 8.3 million francs CFA). Additionally, the Code introduced an electoral threshold of 10 percent for political formations at the national level in order to have a seat in the National Assembly.

In the run-up to, during and following the legislative elections several civic space violations took place - including blanket bans on protests, the shutdown of the internet, excessive use of force by security forces, including lethal force, leading to the killing of several people, the shutdown of the internet on election day and arbitrary arrests.

The voter turnout was at an all-time low of 22.99 percent, later adjusted by the Constitutional Court to 27.1 percent. Several incidents were reported during election day: the Electoral Platform of CSOs in Benin, a platform consisting of more than 250 networks and CSOs, said it observed several incidents, including acts of intimidation, harassment, threats and violence. The platform concluded that these elections, with the current political-judicial context and the incidents observed during the electoral process 'did not honour Benin'. Some civil society groups, such as Social Watch, even suspended their activities in the electoral process. The human rights group Mouvement Béninois pour la Défense des Droits Humains (MBDH; Benin Movement for the Protection of Human Rights) called upon the government to cancel the election results due to several incidents they observed including vote-buying, stuffing of ballot boxes, militarisation of the streets and polling stations, violence, the internet shutdown, recorded deaths, and injuries in relation to protests in certain departments.

On 31st October 2019, following a political dialogue between the ruling and opposition parties, Benin's National Assembly approved a draft law giving amnesty for 'all facts constituting crimes, offences and infringements committed' in the context of the legislative elections in the months of April, May and June 2019. The amnesty law was criticised by human rights group Amnesty International, as the law denies the right to justice for victims of human rights violations committed in the context of the elections. 

CIVIC SPACE VIOLATIONS IN THE CONTEXT OF THE LEGISLATIVE ELECTIONS OF 28TH APRIL 2019

In the run-up to, during and in the aftermath of the elections on 28th April 2019, several civic space restrictions took place in Benin, including blanket bans on protests, arbitrary arrests, the excessive use of force against protesters and restrictions to internet access.

François Patuel of Amnesty International said a few days before the elections:

"The growing wave of arrests and detentions in Benin is extremely troubling, particularly in the context of elections. Banning peaceful protests and detaining those who speak up against the exclusion of opposition parties from the legislative election will only fuel political turmoil."

Internet shutdown

On 28th April 2019, the day of the parliamentary elections in Benin, access to social media and the internet was shut down. According to the digital rights CSO NetBlocks, who analysed network data, the internet had been totally cut off in Benin as of 11 AM UCT on 28th April 2019. Prior to that day, access to social media networks and communication platforms - including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Telegram and Viber - was blocked by internet providers. NetBlocks also found that several VPN services were unavailable on the morning of 28th April 2019. Internet connectivity started to resume after a 15-hour national internet blackout, with full connectivity restored on the morning of 29th April 2019.

According to NetBlocks, the internet was again partly disrupted on 1st May 2019, when post-electoral protests and violent clashes erupted (see below).

Blanket bans on protests during pre-electoral period

Several local authorities in Benin issued blanket bans on protests in the run-up to the elections. The mayor of Parakou, Charles Toko, issued a ban 'until further notice' on protests on 25th February 2019. The mayor substantiated the ban by saying that it is 'in light of the current social climate and in the preservation of peace'. The ban followed opposition protests in several localities in Benin earlier that day (see below). Local authorities in the departments of Zou and Collines issued a decree on 18th March 2019 prohibiting any protest in the context of the legislative elections 'until further notice', also using the grounds of 'preservation of peace and social tranquillity'.

Arbitrary arrests and prosecution of journalists

On 18th April 2019, police officers arrested Casimir Kpédjo, journalist and editor for the newspaper La Nouvelle Économie, following a complaint by the Caisse autonôme d'amortissement (CAA), the government institution that monitors external finance. The complaint relates to two articles published in Le Nouvelle Économie on 17th April on Benin's debt. According to a statement of the Union des Professionnels des Médias du Bénin (UPMB, Union of Media Professionals of Benin) the journalist was held at the Central Office for the Repression of Cybercrime (ORCR), and stands accused of distributing false information on the economic performance of Benin on social media, notably the Facebook page of the newspaper. Angela Quintal of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said:

"This arrest and detention are clearly meant to intimidate Kpédjo into silence, and the ongoing legal proceedings send a chilling message that journalists in Benin are not safe to cover the economy."

On 12th August 2019, journalist for the online media outlet Benin Web TV, Ignace Sossou, was sentenced to a suspended one-month prison sentence and a fine of 550,000 francs CFA (930 USD) by a court in Cotonou for 'publishing false news on the internet' under the 2017 Digital Code law. The journalist was prosecuted after a defamation complaint by Jean Luc Tchifteyan, owner of the Tchifteyan Group of Companies, over two articles Sossou wrote and published alleging that the businessman owns a Panama shell company and is involved in tax evasion and illicit financial flows. In April 2019, it was reported that the journalist was summoned several times by the Central Office for the Repression of Cybercrime (ORCR). Ignace Sossou was part of the 2018 West Africa Leaks investigation, a collaboration between the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), the Norbert Zongo Cell for Investigative Reporting in West Africa and journalists in 11 countries in West Africa.

Benin dropped 12 places, from 84 to 96 in Reporters without Borders' (RSF) 2019 World Press Freedom Index.

Arrests 

On 19th April 2019, the second deputy to the mayor of Dangbo (Ouémé Department) Julien Agossou Bodé was arrested at his house in Dangbo. Agossou Bodé, of the party Parti du Renouveau Démocratique (PRD), is accused of 'incitement to violence' related to a video interview on the elections that was posted on social media. On 23rd April 2019, another member of PRD and then member of parliament Yibatou Sanni Glélé was arrested along with another member of the PRD during a gathering with women at the market of Ouando in the city of Porto Novo. According to Amnesty International, the group was protesting against the exclusion of the PRD in the elections. The two were detained for six hours, charged with 'holding an unauthorised gathering' and 'incitement to hold an unauthorised gathering', before being released on bail.

According to news reports, member of the trade union Confédération syndicale des travailleurs du Bénin (CSTB, Trade Union Confederation of Benin) Joseph Aimassè was arrested on 28th March 2019 in the city of Porto-Novo for having 'called for an unauthorised protest'. On 1st April 2019, a court in Porto-Novo sentenced Aimassè to a prison term of two months and a fine of 200,000 francs CFA (336 USD).

Excessive force by security forces

On several occasions, security forces have used excessive force against protesters, including the use of tear gas, batons and compressed air cannon. Amnesty International documented the repression of opposition protests on 1st, 4th and 19th April 2019. The organisation also said that officers of the armed forces and police officers were seen carrying firearms at the protest sites.

On 1st April 2019, security forces prevented opposition parties’ supporters from protesting in Cotonou against the exclusion of opposition parties from the 28th April legislative elections through the use of force. As hundreds of protesters made their way to the headquarters of the National Autonomous Electoral Commission (CENA), security forces used tear gas and batons to discourage the protesters. A few days later, on 4th April 2019, opposition protests were banned and dispersed in Cotonou, while protests were reported to have taken place in Djakotomey and Klouekanmey.

According to news reports, several protests against the exclusion of the political opposition from the legislative elections took place throughout the country on 25th and 26th February 2019 - in Porto-Novo, Tchaourou, Kilibo, Allada, Savè, Abomey-Calavi and Cotonou - in which four people were killed, including a security officer, 32 protesters and 11 security officers were injured, and about 30 people were detained. One person was killed and four injured during clashes between opposition protesters and armed forces in Kilibo, in the department of Collines on 26th February. A protest planned for 25th February 2019 in Cotonou by opposition parties was banned by administrative authorities on grounds of 'failure to comply with the deadline required in the declarative regime of public protests'. 

Post-electoral protests, violence and repression

According to Amnesty International, at least four people were killed during post-electoral protests between 28th April and 2nd May 2019 through the use of live ammunition. Security forces used live ammunition, tear gas and anti-riot water cannon to disperse the protesters. Security forces resorted to arbitrary detentions, including of people believed to have participated in the protests or people suspected to be close to the political opposition. The human rights organisation also documented cases of harassment, reprisals and even arbitrary arrests of people who were injured.

Violent clashes broke out between security forces and supporters of former president Thomas Boni Yayi on 1st and 2nd May 2019 in Cotonou's neighbourhood of Cajhehoun, killing at least two people. On 1st May 2019, just hours after the announcement of preliminary results of the legislative elections, hundreds of supporters mobilised at Boni Yayi's residence in Cajhehoun in response to rumours that security forces were about to arrest the former president after surrounding his residence. Security forces reportedly used tear gas to disperse the protesters, and units of the Rapid Intervention Battalion were deployed throughout the city. Protesters reportedly set fire to small businesses and banks. Clashes resumed on 2nd May 2019, and according to witnesses, security forces fired shots. Boni Yayi had called for a boycott of the elections and, together with other opposition leaders, issued an ultimatum addressed to President Patrice Talon to cancel the electoral process, calling the elections an 'electoral coup d'état'.

On 12th June 2019, following the arrest of two people accused of post-electoral violence, violent clashes broke out between security forces and protesters in Boni Yayi's birth city of Tchaourou in central Benin, lasting five days. Two days later, clashes broke out in Savè when people blocked the road, preventing security forces from proceeding to Tchaourou. According to the mayor of Savè, two people were killed 'due to lost bullets' and another seven were injured. In a press conference, an advisor to the Minister of the Interior said 50 security officers were injured. Former president Boni Yayi remained under effective house arrest, accused of incitement to violence, until he left the country on 22nd June 2019. 

Expression

In a more positive development, the Cotonou Court of Appeal ruled on 16th May 2019 that the suspension of the newspaper La Nouvelle Tribune by the national media regulator HAAC in May 2018 is an "affront", and ordered HAAC to lift the ban. As reported previously on the Monitor, HAAC suspended the newspaper 'until further notice' on 23rd May 2018 on grounds of violating both the Code of Information and Communication and the Code of Ethics of the press in Benin. In its official notification, HAAC accused the newspaper of engaging "in a crusade of insults and outrageous reporting on the private life of the Head of State, using very demeaning words” in a series of articles since January 2018.

In August 2018, Benin attempted to follow fellow African countries Zambia and Uganda in introducing a tax on the use of online services and social media. Decree 2018-341 of 25th July 2018 introduces a tax of 5 CFA francs (0.009 USD) on every megabyte consumed by Over the Top services such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Viber and Telegram. Additionally, a five percent fee will be levied on communication services such as SMS and calls. The new regulation was heavily criticised by civil society groups as the taxes will enlarge the digital divide in the country and violate the principle of internet neutrality.

Qémal Affagnon of Internet sans Frontières (Internet without Borders) said:

"Regulations to tax the use of messaging applications or social networks are tariff barriers to free expression, which must be denounced. We understand the wish of governments to make all digital players, including content platforms and internet access providers, contribute to the financing of digital development in Africa, but to put the burden of this funding on the shoulders of users is a unjust choice that violates freedom of expression, and threatens access of all to a free and open internet." (Translated from French).

The hashtag #TaxePasMesMO (Do not touch my megabyte) trended on social media, calling for the withdrawal of the decree. In addition there were calls for citizens to unsubscribe from government accounts and to boycott government pages, both part of a campaign by the Association des blogueurs du Bénin (Association of Bloggers of Benin). Following the outrage, the Benin government decided to repeal its decision to introduce the social media tax on 22nd September 2019. 

Peaceful Assembly

On 13th September 2018, hundreds of people gathered in Cotonou to protest against a new law limiting the right to strike for civil servants to ten days per year. Law 2018-34 modifying and complementing Law 2001-09 of 21st June 2002 on the exercise of the right to strike in Benin, approved by the National Assembly on 4th September 2018, considers all strikes that do not follow the new law or any solidarity strike as illegal. The protest, organised by trade unions Union des syndicats des travailleurs du Bénin (UNSTB) and the Confédération des syndicats des travailleurs du Bénin (CSTB), occurred without incidents.

The new law follows the decision of the Constitutional Court, on 28th June 2018, that a previous law inhibiting certain public servants' right to strike, affecting workers in the sectors of defence, security justice and health, conforms with the Constitution. This decision is contrary to a previous decision of the Constitutional Court in January 2018. As reported previously on the Monitor, the Court ruled on 19th January 2018 that article 50 of a new law inhibiting the right to strike in some public sectors was unconstitutional. The new interpretation follows the renewal of members of the Constitutional Court in early June 2018, which occurs every five years. The decision was criticised by trade unions, such as the National Union of Magistrates (UNAMAB) and the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Benin (COSI-Benin). 

Association

On 25th September 2019, the Constitutional Court of Benin dismissed a legal challenge to Decree no. 2017-485 of 2nd October 2017, which regulates the modalities of collaboration between student organisations and the state, and public university administration. Two students, Gilbert Kingbé and Ralmeg Gandaho, initiated the legal challenge saying that the decree violates article 25 of the Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of association and freedom of assembly, and article 10 of the African Charter on Human Rights. The Court ruled that the decree does not restrict the students’ right to associate. As reported previously on the Monitor, the decree was adopted in October 2017 in response to a ruling of the Constitutional Court that rendered a government ban on all student associations, federations and unions, adopted in October 2016, 'null and void'.