Academics, students help end constitutional change bid
Among the 43 proposed amendments was a bid to reduce the maximum number of terms to be served by elected presidents from two terms of five years to one non-renewable term of six years.
While such a move would seem to go against the third-termism trend among some African leaders, critics say the move would encourage abuse of the office as the president would not have to win the support of voters at the end of his term, but, according to news reports, Talon said the move was aimed at combatting complacency.
After two weeks of sit-ins, peaceful demonstrations and social media campaigns by civil society organs as well as academics and students, largely drawn from the faculty of law at the National University of Benin, parliamentarians voted against this and other amendments in an emergency meeting of the country’s unicameral National Assembly on 4 April.
The vote, which fell short of the required four-fifths parliamentary majority, has challenged Talon’s political support in the first year of his five-year term. In a nation-wide broadcast after the vote, Talon announced that he would not pursue the matter further.
Among the other proposed constitutional amendments was a bid to have the electoral commission rather than the Constitutional Court as the final authority to validate election results.
Another proposal was that the majority of judges of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, High Court and the Constitutional Court should be appointed by the president rather than by the Constitutional Court and the National Assembly.
A further amendment proposed that, while an immunity clause would not cover any offence committed by parliamentarians before assuming office, at the end of the political career of any minister, immunity would be determined and interpreted by the judiciary.
The bid to amend the constitution drew swift criticism when it was tabled in mid-March. Staff and students on the five campuses of the National University of Benin led the mobilisation of society through popular meetings, street demonstrations and social media campaigns.
Demonstrations were held in Porto-Novo, Cotonou, Lokossa, Natitingou, Dassa-Zoumé, and Grand-Popo. At the height of the protests about 5,000 people could be found demonstrating at the gates of the National Assembly in Porto-Novo.
Students and staff groups managed to successfully convince the country’s confederation of workers, or Centrale des Syndicats des Travailleurs du Benin, of the need to stop any constitutional changes and argued that the major problem was how to find practical solutions to the economic hardship confronting citizens.
The National University of Benin, referred to locally as 'Francophone Africa’s University of Sorbonne' in reference to the 1968 revolt by students and lecturers against French President Charles de Gaulle, has a tradition of resistance against political dictatorship.
In support of the mobilisation strategy of the students and university teachers, civil society organisations held daily sit-ins in front of the National Assembly warning legislators of the dangerous consequences of changing the constitution and reminding politicians of the circumstances surrounding the ousting of President Blaise Compaoré who fled Burkina Faso in the face of civil society protests centred on the National Assembly in Ouagadougou.
According to Dr Nathaniel Kitti, senior lecturer in constitutional rights at the faculty of law of the National University of Benin's Calavi campus in Cotonou, even before news of Talon’s constitutional plans emerged, tensions over Talon’s leadership were high following the president’s New Year decree that all roadside kiosks be demolished as a “security measure” against crime.
The demolitions have had a massive impact on the informal sector which makes up a large proportion of the country’s workforce and includes the families of students.
“Unfortunately, President Patrice Talon, who is a businessman, knows perfectly well that it is this informal and dynamic sector that provides jobs and a means of livelihood to the vast majority of our countrymen and women including members of his own extended families. He did not provide any employment alternatives to this demolition,” Kitti told University World News.
“Many of my students cannot pay their tuitions and other necessities of life on campuses. The pressure on my fellow colleagues to come to the aid of victims of these demolitions is heartrending and unprecedented.
“This explains why the opposition to these constitutional amendments are loudest on the campuses,” he said.
While the proposals have been greeted with disdain by some sectors of society, Babacar Gueye, professor of public and private law in the faculty of law at the Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Senegal, has openly supported the amendments. Well-known in academic circles in Benin and Senegal as a private consultant to Talon, Gueye was invited to Benin prior to the national assembly meeting to galvanise support for the constitutional changes.
At a press conference held in Cotonou he urged parliamentarians to support the changes, arguing that the constitution was outdated and irrelevant.
The appeal did not go down well with Gueye’s legal counterparts in Benin, including professors Alvo Joel, Ibrahim Alami Dadi Gnamou and Victor Topanou of the National University of Benin’s faculty of law, all of whom have been at the forefront of opposition to the proposed constitutional revisions. Topanou was justice minister under Talon’s predecessor Thomas Boni Yayi.
At a joint conference, the legal academics revisited attempts by past Benin presidents to amend the constitution with a view to putting themselves above the law.
“We fought very hard to prevent General Mathieu Kerekou and Dr Boni Yayi who, as sitting presidents, wanted to emulate some other presidents on this continent to perpetuate themselves in power. We shall not allow Patrice Talon to convert our country into another Banana Republic. Never. We shall stop him,” said Topanou.
The announcement of the constitutional changes by Secretary-General of the Presidency Pascal Irenee Koupaki was made at the same time as news of the reintroduction of a tax system known as 'PVI', which was initiated by Talon during the tenure of the former president and former friend Boni Yayi, who reportedly announced on television that Talon stood to make CFA400 billion (US$655 million) a year from the new system.
Talon’s stakes in Benin Control, the company given the licence to oversee customs duties, and major cotton seed company SODECO are major issues of concern to his critics.
Although Talon has publicly claimed to have disinvested from the two commercial entities by handing over their management to his children, sectors of civil society are sceptical.
“Patrice Talon wants to tailor-make the constitution to protect his private interests. We shall stop him,” said Michel Akle, president of National University Students Union.