By Paul Ejime*
At least one person has been killed and six others reportedly injured following three days of anti-government protests ahead of Sunday’s presidential vote in Benin Republic.
Incumbent President Patrice Talon is widely expected to be reelected in the high tensioned poll, with the main opposition leaders either disqualified, forced into exile or facing charges under the government’s controversial economic crimes, terrorism-related and electoral reform laws.
Of the 20 candidates that had applied to contest against Talon, a 62-year-old cotton tycoon, only two were cleared and are believed to enjoy government sponsorship.
Opposition supporters have been clashing with riot police in parts of the country from Tuesday, including in the central town of Save, where health officials reported the fatality and injuries.
Tension continued through Thursday, with Talon’s opponents accusing him of going back on his earlier promise to serve for only one term after his election in 2016.
He is also accused of shutting off rivals with a change to the electoral law, which he pushed through in 2018. One of the provisions of that law requires presidential aspirants to have their applications endorsed by 16 MPs or Mayors, with most of these belonging to the ruling party.
Benin’s record of relative political stability was shattered by the violence that followed the 2019 parliamentary elections, in which Talon’s party swept the seats.
His supporters also obtained absolute majority of seats from the opposition boycotted municipal elections held in May 2020.
Amid the latest protests, Benin’s estimated five million registered voters from a nation of 12 million people, head to Sunday’s poll under a shadow of uncertainty.
ECOWAS, which is deploying more than 100 observers to monitor Sunday’s vote has in a statement appealed for calm. But it is unclear if that appeal would reduce the political tension and allow peaceful election or guarantee the transparency of the exercise.
Already, civil society groups have questioned the credibility of the electoral process with Mr Mathias Hounkpe, a senior official of the Dakar-based Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), saying the process “lacks openness and inclusivity,” and therefore skewed for an inevitable Talon victory.
Under business-minded Talon, Benin became West Africa’s highest exporter of cotton in 2018 and saw some economic growth before the Covid-19 outbreak.
However, the country with agri-based economy remains among the pootest in the world with Talon’s critics accusing him of undermining the democratic progress.
Benin, a former French colony that shares borders with Nigeria, risks joining the growing list of ECOWAS countries scarred by instability because of political intolerance and dubious constitutional changes for presidential tenure elongation.