The Republic of Benin will hold its presidential elections on April 11, 2021. The incumbent, Patrice Talon, will face former minister Alassane Soumanou Djimba from the Cowry Forces for an Emerging Benin (FCBE), and Corentin Kohoué, a growing figure in the political arena in Benin.
The election comes against the background of deteriorating democratic standards and backsliding press freedom situation over the past few years. This retrogression is evidenced by increasing incidents where civil society activists are threatened, media outlets shut down and journalists jailed.
According to Freedom House, Benin's rapid decline in democratic standards has pushed its freedom status from free to partly free. The Media Foundation for West Africa's (MFWA) monitoring also shows a decline in freedom of expression in the country.
The 2021 elections will determine the future of Benin's democracy. Already, the political atmosphere is tensed, as the main opposition candidate has been jailed, raising a lot of concerns.
The three key issues shaping this year's elections are the adoption of a new electoral code and a sponsorship system for candidates; the stifling media landscape; and the fear of internet shutdown before and during the election.
The New Electoral Code
In November 2019 the National Assembly adopted a new Electoral Code regulating general elections. Among the provisions of the new code is the creation of a vice president position and a sponsorship system which requires that all candidates must be sponsored by at least 10% of elected officials in the country either Mayors and/or Members of Parliament). Currently, Benin has 83 Members of Parliament (MPs) and 77 mayors. Per the new electoral code, a presidential candidate needs not less than 16 elected officials to sponsor him/her to be eligible.
Political watchers and analysts say with 100 percent of Members of Parliament on the side of the President and 90% of Mayors supporting the President, the number of sponsors provided by the law leaves no possibility for a political change in government in the April 11 polls. This has heavily dented the electoral process.
The current political architecture in Benin stems from the 2019 parliamentary election in which no opposition party was allowed to participate due to stringent eligibility criteria. This resulted in a unicameral parliament in favour of the government. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and political tensions from the 2019 parliamentary elections, the opposition boycotted the 2020 municipal elections, and so have almost no sponsors among the mayors.
The country's major opposition party - The Democrats - has accordingly rejected the new code and described it as a strategy for the ruling regime to handpick candidates for the elections. In February 2021, the election management body "CENA" rejected 17 applications including those of main candidates of the opposition. All applications were rejected mainly due to the lack of sponsorship. President Patrice Talon however secured 118 endorsements.
The Democrats indicated that they had taken steps to secure an endorsement from elected officials, but the latter were not free to make their choices to sponsor a candidate capable of challenging the sitting president. Political analysts in the country have dubbed the contest "Talon versus Talon". As the political landscape gets increasingly tensed, some senior officials of the opposition party, The Democrats, have been arrested and are being prosecuted for "terrorism financing" while other opposition members have fled the country.
The opposition's absence in the upcoming presidential election is likely to undermine the credibility of the polls and the legitimacy of the elected president. In the longer term, the lack of opposition voices in political and governance processes and the absence of political consensus will restrict the political space and undermine democracy.
Stifling Media landscape ahead of the polls
Benin is home to a diversified and vibrant media landscape made up of 70 radio stations, over 60 newspapers, and 15 TV channels. The electoral management body has assigned each candidate air time on selected media outlets to share their manifestos with the electorate.
In January 2020, the media regulatory body, the High Authority of Audio-visual and Communication (HAAC) adopted a policy to regulate the pre-campaign period spanning from January 25 to March 25, 2021. The policy bans media outlets from publishing or producing any content announcing a candidacy; reports on activities organised to support a candidate, and reports on propaganda to the benefit of a political party.
According to Guy Constant Ehoumi, former President of ODEM, the Media Self-regulatory Body in Benin "This measure constitute a limitation to media freedom and the media's role in informing the citizenry".
Considering the role the media plays in providing critical information to educate the citizenry in making informed voting decisions during elections, the current context clearly undermines the role of the media and could result in low turnout on election day.
Since 2016, the HAAC has shut down several media houses, adopted repressive legislation towards the press, and jailed several journalists in recent years. This has instilled fear amongst media practitioners in Benin as they operate with a high sense of self-censorship and resulted in a considerable decrease in the number of public debates on governance issues and critical analysis of major issues in the media.
Fears of Social Media shutdown
Social media has become vital for elections campaigning in Benin. Since the eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, laws limiting social gathering and mass rallies are still in place. Consequently, many candidates have resorted to social media platforms to communicate with the electorate. The main social media platforms in the country are Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter. According to internet world stats, 30% of the population in the country has access to internet and 1,538,000 Facebook users.
Ahead of the polls, public officials in the country have warned against the dissemination of false information. The dissemination of fake news and preservation of national security are often cited as the reasons by governments across Africa to shut down the internet. In the face of the increasing political tension and calls by major opposition figures for massive public protest, many fear that the internet could be shut down. even before the election.
"We are really worried as we believe that with the current political contest in the country, internet could be shut down even before the election" said a prominent journalist in Benin who spoke with the MFWA on condition of anonymity.
In 2019, the government disrupted the internet in the wake of massive public protests against the conduct of parliamentary elections. The current context lends itself as a recipe for another shutdown.
In the light of the above, the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) urges all stakeholders in the 2021 electioneering process in Benin - government, opposition, media, elections management body, security agencies, and CSOs -to prioritise and make all efforts to safeguard the peace in the country.
Specifically, the MFWA urges the Benin Government to urgently open dialogue channels with the opposition and find a middle ground aimed at deflating the political tension in the country, put in place measures, including safety measures, to facilitate the media's coverage of the elections and endeavour to keep the internet on before, during and after the elections.
The MFWA also urges the media to continue advocating for peace, tolerance, and a level playing field for all political parties; persevere in their effort to provide factual, accurate, and credible coverage of the electoral process, and endeavour to stay safe while covering the elections.
The Regional body, ECOWAS, should impress on the government of Benin to resort to dialogue with the opposition and to mediate between both parties in addressing the political impasse.