Benin Votes in First Round of Presidential Elections Amid Calls for Calm

President Patrice Talon of Benin

Elections are underway in Benin where President Patrice Talon is seeking re-election in what is described as a tense ballot, with critics accusing him of rigging the race in his favour by sidelining opposition leaders. The US, German, French and Dutch embassies as well as the EU delegation all called for calm and for the vote to go ahead in a free and transparent manner.

More than 4.9 million people are eligible to vote across 15,531 polling stations. Polls opened at 7.00 am (0600 GMT), and final results are not expected until Monday or Tuesday.

Incumbent Patrice Talon, first elected in 2016, faces two little-known rivals, Alassane Soumanou and Corentin Kohoue.

Tensions rose ahead of the vote, with protests breaking out in several cities in opposition strongholds.

In central and northern Benin, protesters blocked hundreds of cars and trucks travelling between the coast and the north.

On Thursday, in the central city of Save, two people died and five others suffered gunshot wounds after troops fired tear gas and live rounds in the air to break up a demonstration.

Delays in electoral material deliveries

"I don't understand what Talon is doing," said Philomene M'Betti Tepa, a resident of the northwestern town of Boukoumbe.

"If the president has issues with opponents, he should spare the people."

Talon's backers have rejected accusations the election will be fixed, saying all the conditions are there for a fair vote.

The electoral commission's president Emmanuel Tiando told AFP on Saturday that despite delays in dispatching electoral material to the north, there was "nothing preventing this election from taking place".

Journée de vote au Bénin pour le premier tour de la présidentielle - RFI Afrique (@RFIAfrique) April 11, 2021

Memories of violence still fresh

Following 17 years of military rule along Marxist-Leninist lines, the former French colony opened up into a multi-party democracy in 1990.

But since Talon won power as an independent candidate, critics say he has used a special economic crimes and terrorism court and electoral reforms as tools to disqualify the opposition.

Still fresh in the memories of many is the political crisis and violence across the country that followed a disputed parliamentary election in April 2019.

Slotted between Africa's powerhouse Nigeria and neighbouring Togo, Benin has seen some economic successes under Talon, who has played up his record while campaigning.

"I support the president because we had so many problems before. Water shortages and power cuts... now it's much better," said Ulrich Adjalla, who lives in the economic capital Cotonou.

"The president can't be good for everyone," said the unemployed 28-year-old, but "I trust him to create jobs for this country's youth."

(with newswires)

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