Protests and violence precede controversial presidential elections without main opposition

On 11th April 2021, close to five million people were called to vote in Benin's presidential elections, a tense and controversial election as electoral reforms introduced in 2019 require candidates for the offices of president and vice-president to be sponsored by at least ten percent of the total members of Parliament and/or mayors (16 representatives). Following the disputed legislative elections in April 2019 – in which opposition parties could not participate due to stringent requirements under the 2018 Electoral Code – and the municipal elections in April 2020, in which only one opposition party gained a majority of councillors in seven municipalities. On 27th November 2020, the African Court on Human and People's Rights (ACHPR) rendered a decision calling on authorities in Benin to annul the contentious reforms to the electoral code. 

As a result of the electoral reforms, only three candidates were eligible to run for president: incumbent president Patrice Talon, Alassane Soumanou and Corentin Kohoué, both relatively unknown to the public. Main opposition leaders are either in exile, have been arrested,  charged with various offences and crimes or have been declared ineligible to run. 

Just days before the poll, protests broke out throughout the country, with some turning violent and other dispersed by excessive force, killing at least two people in Savè. 

The Electoral Platform of Civil Society Organisations, that deployed electoral observers throughout the country, said at the end of election day that 'in all counties, attempts to pressure, intimidate, threaten, disturb public order, corrupt or harass voters have been observed'. 

Unsurprisingly, the presidential elections were won by Patrice Talon. The Autonomous National Electoral Commission (CENA) announced the provisional results of the poll - a reelection of Patrice Talon with 86,57 percent of votes cast. 

As reported previously on the Monitor, the April 2019 legislative elections were marred by civic space violations, including blanket bans on protests and 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.

Peaceful Assembly

Opposition protests break out days ahead of presidential elections

On 5th April 2021, opposition protests broke out in several cities throughout the country, in particular in opposition strongholds, to demand the departure of president Patrice Talon, with some turning violent. In Cotonou, protesters briefly occupied the Place de l’Étoile-Rouge late on 5th April 2021 and burned tyres before being dispersed by security forces. In Parakou and Tchaourou roadblocks were set up by protesters and a radio station, Urban FM in Parakou was attacked and set on fire (see under Expression). Material damage, including to property of pro-government politicians, was reported. 

At least two people were killed and several injured in Savè, central Benin, after the military was deployed in Savé on 8th April 2021 to break up the protesters' roadblock on the highway that links Savè, Tchaourou and Parakou. Military officers reportedly used tear gas and fired live ammunition. 

Opposition leaders called for the mobilisation to denounce the exclusion of the main opposition leaders from the presidential poll. 


Radio station ransacked

Unidentified perpetrators, believed to be anti-Talon protesters, ransacked and looted the headquarters of Urban FM headquarters in Parakou on the night of 5th to 6th April 2021. The private radio station is owned by the deputy mayor of Parakou, Charles Toko. According to Angelo Ahouanmangnan, the radio's promotor, the perpetrators 'destroyed everything in their path: studios, control room, offices and all the technical and computer equipment'. The radio station resumed broadcasting on 12th April 2021. 

UN Working Group: arrest of investigative journalist Ignace Sossou was arbitrary

In October 2020, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion concluding that the detention of investigative journalist Ignace Sossou was arbitrary. The Working Group further said that Sassou's trial was unfair, his conviction had no legal basis and resulted from Sossou's exercising freedom of expression. The Working Group also criticised the 2018 Digital Code, under which Sassou was convicted, as containing many vaguely-worded provisions, combined with heavy criminal penalties, that could penalise the exercise of human rights. Assagne Diagne of Reporters without Borders (RSF) said

'We urge the Beninese authorities to ensure that a thorough and independent investigation is conducted into the circumstances in which this journalist was arbitrarily detained and to take appropriate action against those responsible for violating his rights. We also call for the Digital Law to be brought into line with international law, so that it can no longer be used to arrest, convict and arbitrarily detain a journalist. And finally we ask the supreme court to invalidate the judgment and sentences pronounced at the end of his trial and appeal.'

As reported previously on the Monitor, investigative journalist and editor for the online news outlet Benin Web TV, Ignace Sossou was arrested on 20th December 2019 at his home in Cotonou by officers of the Central Office for the Suppression of Cybercrime (ORCR). The journalist was questioned at the ORCR offices about posts he published on Twitter and Facebook quoting the public prosecutor Mario Metonou at a media workshop on 18th December 2019 on the topic of fake news. A few days later, on 24th December 2019, a court in Benin sentenced Sossou to a prison term of 18 months and a fine of 200,000 CFA francs (335 USD) for 'harassment by means of electronic communication' under the 2018 Digital Code, later reduced to 12 months' imprisonment, of which six months was suspended, and increased the fine to 500,000 CFA francs. According to media freedom group Reporters without Borders (RSF), after comparing the social media post with the transcript released by the workshop organiser, they found that the journalist had quoted the prosecutor 'word by word, with a few very minor exceptions that in no way distorted what he said'. 


Arrests of opposition members

According to Amnesty International, at least 12 opposition members and government critics have been subjected to summons, were detained, charged or condemned since January 2021. This includes: 

  • On 1st March 2021, opposition member of Les Démocrates (LD) Bio Dramane Tidjani and one of his collaborators Mamadou Tidjani were charged with 'criminal association and terrorism' and placed under provisional detention, according to the duo's lawyers. 
  • LD member Abdoul Razak Amadou was sentenced to six months in prison, of which four months were suspended, for 'incitement to violence and rebellion'. According to Amnesty International, Razak Amadou was accused of having shared a publication via WhatsApp. He was released on 25th March 2021. 
  • Rékiatou Madougou of LD, who was barred from running in the presidential elections, was arrested on 3rd March 2021 in Porto Novo. She was charged with 'financing terrorism'. Later, a magistrate of the Court for the Repression of Economic Offences and Terrorism (CRIET) claimed that the Court is not independent and received 'instructions' from political power holders, claims described as political manipulation by the ruling party. 

More recently, on 16th April 2021, academic Joël Aïvo, whose candidacy for the presidential elections was rejected, was arrested in Cotonou, reportedly related to the pre-electoral protests and unrest. Aïvo was reportedly charged with 'threats against state security' and 'money laundering'. His trial is due to start on 15th July 2021.