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These are grave times, not just for Benin Republic and its people, but for the spread of democratic good governance, the rule of law, social justice, human rights and improved living standards around the worldwide community of nations and indeed all the people of the global village that our world has become. Simply put, the very concept of democratic rule is under assault in West Africa’s oldest ongoing democratic dispensation, from forces of autocracy and thinly disguised dictatorship.
Thirty one years after Benin Republic returned to a truly democratic era which has flourished since then to the benefit of its people, democracy is being forcible discarded and replaced with autocracy, right before our very eyes. This has been quietly in the making for several years now but over the past few months, it has exploded into an open agenda, executed by Beninoise President Patrice Talon and his cohorts in government.
Today, Benin has been transformed into what is effectively a one party state. The over ten political parties in opposition – which instructively have been reduced from about 200, by Talon’s legislative changes – in Benin have no representation at all in the country’s 83 member legislature, the National Assembly, having been barred from contesting the most recent parliamentary elections held in March, through sudden and unconstitutional changes to the electoral code, introduced a month to those elections. It is instructive that the new legislature, comprising entirely members of the president’s party and his closest political allies, was elected into office by just 27% of the registered electorate, which translates into less than 10% of the country’s entire population.
Crucially, those changes and the electoral results they have generated have been roundly rejected by the Beninoise people, who are now out on the streets in masse, demanding their reversal, and are being met with violent responses by elements of the security forces, including army units that the President has deployed to ruthlessly crush the people and their collective will.
It is clear that the international community, having closely followed Benin’s path to this terrible situation are in complete agreement with the people. But, President Patrice Talon, intended to complete what can be described as the beginnings of a civilian coup against democracy in Benin, is listening to neither his own people nor the international community of which the country is part.
It is crucial to note that this is a first for Benin Republic. Since becoming the first country in West Africa to institute full multi-party democracy, back in 1991, it has served as a model not just for the rest of the sub region but indeed the entire continent. Benin can take credit for helping push Africa into its ongoing political renaissance. Indeed the international community has used the country as a lever for advocating for and succeeding in getting African countries to democratize, all across the continent.
But now for the first time, the sustainability of Benin’s democracy is at risk and with it arguably the best model for sustainable democracy that Africa has. President Talon and his cabal are making an open bid for autocratic, unchallenged power. This is the clear and present reality and the President is not even trying to hide it.
Already, the President has achieved much in his effort towards establishing his autocracy in Benin. The National Assembly is no longer an independent legislative arm of government. Now it is simply a rubber stamp extension of the President’s executive arm.
This is key because it empowers him to move on to the next stage, which is his actual end game – constitutional reform which legalize the autocracy he is bent on establishing.
It is important to consider that constitutional reform was a key campaign pillar on which he contested the 2016 presidential elections. Now he claims he is ready to fulfill that promise. However, he has deliberately kept the nature of those reforms from everyone.
Information about the planned reforms has focused primarily on his intention to reduce the president’s tenure from a maximum of two five year tenors to one six year tenor, a move meant to create the impression that he wants to curb presidential powers rather than expand them. Instructively, an attempt to implement this change in 2017 failed.
Question – is a President who at the very first parliamentary election during his tenure, has unconstitutionally introduced last minute changes in the electoral laws in order to bar the opposition from even running for seats, a President who seeks to enhance our democracy by reducing presidential powers? The evidence incontrovertibly evidences the opposite.
Right now he is ruling without any legislative checks and balances whatsoever. And the overwhelming majority of the people, who are actively protesting what he is doing, are being met with armed force, and thus are being injured, maimed and even killed on the streets of their own country by agents of the very government which claims it is in office through the mandate those people gave it.
The next phase, comprising constitutional reforms that ultimately would legalize his autocracy, will be much worse if President Talon is not stopped now. The people realize it which is why each day they are willing to risk their very lives to thwart his evil agenda.
Already the Beninoise people are suffering the effects of Talon’s inordinate personal ambition and the selfish, single minded, immoral way in which he is striving to fulfill it. Benin Republic, for nearly 30 years, a model of democracy, is fulfilling the requirements to be classified as a failed state. Civil unrest has brought economic activity to nearly a standstill and is collapsing individual household economies as well as the nation’s macro-economy as a whole.
Fundamental human rights, such as the freedom of expression and association have to all intents and services, been revoked.
A people determined to retrieve their country from emergent autocracy are coming up against a ruthless emergent dictator who has blatantly shelved constitutional rule and respect for fundamental human freedoms – and who continually shows a willingness to use armed force to enforce his will.
As human history has vividly shown us time after time, this situation presents the likelihood of an impending blood bath. While the people of Benin only have the moral arms and ammunition, the forces they are opposing have all the physical weapons and the will to use them without restraint.
At this point it is necessary to consider the mettle of President Talon himself. This is a man who as a businessman and close ally of then President Yayi Boni, was embroiled in a corruption scandal where he was accused of misappropriating over US$20 million in public funds.
Instructively he fled to France and was then implicated in a plot to poison President Yayi.
Indeed, Talon is the beneficiary of misplaced mercy, which allowed him the chance to become President in the first place. Obviously, the Presidency has not reformed him; it has only given him the ultimate platform on which to be his immoral, unethical self.
This is why, we the political opposition, who have come together to co-ordinate the effort to save our country, want to avert a physical showdown between unarmed civilians and armed agents of a repressive government led by a proven unethical leader.
The only way to avert Talon’s bid for autocratic power and restore Benin to normalcy without sacrificing the precious lives of countless innocent Beninoise is to apply non-violent pressure. This means a combination of passive civil disobedience at home and international pressure in the form of sanctions from abroad.
Sanctions from the international community have proved to be an effective way of persuading repressive regimes to conform to internationally acceptable standards of conduct, even though this is not universally recognized because their effects tend to be gradual, rather than dramatic, like with military options. The effect of sanctions correlates with the international dependency of the target country’s economy.
Here Benin makes for a workable target because its economy is indeed, highly dependent, especially on trade, investment and official economic assistance from the European Union. Benin has a small economy measured by international standards, which unfortunately is the primary reason why the ongoing blatant assault on its democracy has not attracted the intensity of international indignation and practical response that it deserves as a model for African countries to follow to achieve the continent’s renaissance for the benefit of the entire global village that the world has become.
However, that small economic size is also what makes it possible for economic sanctions to have the desired effect.
For instance Benin is heavily reliant on Ghana for its power supply. It is also heavily reliant on transit trade and re-exports to land-locked neighbours for its economic performance.
Of course, the more tightly focused the proposed sanctions are, the better – general economic sanctions would have a quicker effect but at great cost to the Beninoise people who are victims, not culprits of the ongoing misbehaviour by internally acceptable standards of conduct.
Therefore, sanctions targeting specific members of government – President Talon himself most particularly – are the very best option, with the scope of the sanctions being expanded based on the practicalities of implementation and the need for them to have the desired effect as quickly as possible.
We the political; opposition in Benin, desire a change of government at the executive level, followed by new, inclusive legislative elections and accompanied by the restoration of the civil liberties that have gradually been eroded since Talon took office. However we acknowledge that the international community on whom we are now relying may not necessarily desire an immediate change of the executive arm of government. We are willing to accept this as long as our other objectives are pursued, with the confidence that existing governance structures and legislations, prior to Talon’s autocratic coup, set the grounds for a peaceful, fully constitutional change of government soonest; and that with the awareness that the Beninoise people now have, they will implement such change at the earliest opportunity.
The future of Benin and its people now lies largely in the hands of the international community which we trust will do the right thing in the best interests of the entire global village by showing clearly that it will not allow any groups of people to openly replace democracy with autocracy at the expense of the populace of any one country or group of countries.
The political opposition in Benin, is hopefully looking forward to immediate discussions with bilateral development partners and the multilateral political and economic institutions to which we are signatories, particularly ECOWAS, the AU, the EU and the United Nations, in this regard.
Please assist us in restoring democracy to Benin, as a crucial step towards ensuring the spread and sustenance of true democracy across Africa and indeed the rest of the world.
I thank you for the attention.
DR LADISLAS PROSPER AGBESI
ALLIANCE FOR SUSTAINABLE DEMOCRACY IN AFRICA (ASDA)