Academic voices help to bring focus to electoral crisis

A group of 50 African American scholars has added their voice to concerns from the local academic community over the political instability in Benin following the holding of national elections on 28 April which effectively excluded any legitimate opposition parties.

The group, which includes Nigerian-born academic Wole Soyinka, Henry Gates Jr, Jacob Olupona, Ropo Sekoni, Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch and Francis Affergan, reportedly wrote a letter to Benin President Patrice Talon, calling on him to invalidate the results and hold a new round of voting, according to the Premium Times.

The call from the international scholars comes in the wake of several initiatives by local academics to intervene in the political crisis.

On 26 April – hours before the controversial elections were due to take place – trade union members from the University of Benin in Cotonou issued a statement in which they denounced the exclusion of opposition political parties from the election, the use of security forces to quell dissent, as well as the erosion of university freedoms.

“Benin has taken a dangerous turn, the outcome of which threatens to be fatal in the immediate future,” they said.

They called for the release of political prisoners and an end to the arrest, prosecution, beating and intimidation of protestors and those who exercise their freedom of expression.

We “call on the entire university community to mobilise in the coming days to end arbitrariness in order to save their universities and … our country, Benin”, the statement said.

Multiparty democracy

According to AFP, five years ago voters in Benin could choose from 20 parties for 83 parliamentary seats. This year only two parties, le Parti Républicain and le Parti Union Progressiste – both of which are loyal to Talon – qualified to run in the elections after the introduction of new electoral laws. In terms of such laws, a political party was required to pay about US$424,000 to field a list for parliament.

According to the national electoral commission, this year’s election saw a turnout of only 27% of the electorate, a record low.

Quoted in the Premium Times, the global scholars said: “We respectfully appeal to the democratically-elected President, Patrice Talon, to courageously invalidate the results of these highly-contested elections … We ask President Talon to call new elections on a new basis that guarantees, instead of excluding it beforehand, the effective participation of the opposition in an open and transparent national competition.”

They highlighted the fact that Benin, “a country of rich African culture and civilization has allowed opposition to flourish over the past 30 years of uninterrupted constitutional democracy … Today, however, this democratic model is in great danger.”

The country’s 1990 constitution successfully ushered in a multiparty democracy in Benin. Since then, there have been peaceful transitions of power from one party to another after elections judged to be among the most transparent and free on the African continent.

Fatal clashes with security forces

According to diplomatic sources, clashes involving protesting students and security forces have taken place in some parts of the country, with unconfirmed deaths.

According to The Washington Post of 10 May, police used tear gas to disperse demonstrations in the days before the elections led by former presidents Nicéphore Soglo and Thomas Boni Yayi, who called for an elections boycott. The government reportedly blocked social media and messaging apps on the internet.

According to The Post, there were two reported deaths and 206 incidents of violence during the election and soldiers fired on “hundreds” of protesters.

Benin national Dr Ladislas Prosper Agbesi, executive chairman and founder of the Pan African Business Forum (PABF) and now resident in Johannesburg, South Africa, told University World News he has called on the International Criminal Court in The Hague to investigate 17 military personnel who were involved in a government crackdown on 2 May in Cadjèhoun which resulted in civilian deaths.

Academic debate

Talon’s new electoral laws, which whittled down to two the number of “opposition parties” eligible to contest elections, have been the subject of vigorous academic debate at the law faculties of Benin’s five universities. Two opposing camps have emerged.

Leading the team of lawyers supporting the amended electoral law is Professor Joseph Djogbenou, president of the Constitutional Court, and former professor of private law at the University of Abomey-Calavi.

He is of the opinion that “dissolving” existing parties would put an end to the “chaos” and “anarchy” prevailing in the country’s political landscape. “Our country needs development-oriented political parties in order to pave the way for meaningful development,” he said in an exclusive interview with University World News.

Asked what other country has chosen such a model, he said: “Benin is a sovereign country. She has the right to choose and implement the model she thinks fit to suit her political and cultural environment.”

No public debate

Dr Nathaniel Kitti, a constitutional lawyer and senior lecturer at the same university, represents a large pool of teachers who decry the current situation and claim there was neither public debate nor a public hearing in the National Assembly before the legislators passed the law on the new electoral code which was speedily approved by the president.

Kitti has said he is concerned that the National Assembly failed to play its role of watchdog and that legislators failed to carry out their constitutional responsibilities in ensuring that the electoral laws did not give rise to a dictatorship. He warned that the implementation of such laws would destroy the separation of powers and pose a threat to freedom and human rights.

“This is the 21st century. No single individual has any right to confiscate the rights of the citizens. This confiscation may lead to social strife,” he has warned.