Rivals sidelined, Benin’s Talon looks assured of re-election

Benin’s elections are still nearly three months away, but President Patrice Talon went out on the road in November, stealing a march on a campaign that formally kicked off only last week in the poor West African country.

“I will continue to take action to strengthen good governance. I am running for that reason, just for good governance, that’s why I’m a candidate,” Talon pledged last Friday.

He was speaking in Adjohoun, a rural community less than an hour’s drive from the capital Cotonou — his last stop on a tour that covered all of Benin’s 77 districts.

When he was first elected in 2016 on a modernising platform and a vow to stamp out corruption and mismanagement, the cotton baron said he intended to serve only one term.

But opposition parties were in no doubt that Talon, 62, would seek re-election.

They are already despairing of being able to unseat a ruler they accuse of leading a country once famed for multi-party democracy down an authoritarian road.

Notably, detractors accuse Talon of being behind a crackdown that drove key rivals into exile.

Businessman Sebastien Ajavon, who came third in the 2016 presidential poll, was convicted of drug trafficking in 2018 and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

From exile in Paris, Ajavon turned to the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the judicial arm of the African Union, which ruled that the judgement against him was illegal. But Benin has refused to overturn the conviction.

Lionel Zinsou, runner-up in 2016 who is also now in Paris, was handed a six-month suspended jail term in 2019 over campaign breaches and banned from standing in elections for five years.

Another potential rival, ex-finance minister Komi Koutche, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for embezzlement and lives in exile in Washington.

– ‘Not to bend the knee’ –

The opposition says the election is already sewn up for Talon, pointing to a new provision of the electoral law that requires each candidate to be formally sponsored by 16 mayors or members of parliament.

Early this month, Benin’s Constitutional Court declared itself incompetent to hear an appeal against the new rule.

The opposition has faced other hurdles in the recent past in the former French colony with an economy dependent on subsistence agriculture and cotton.

During parliamentary elections in April 2019, no opposition parties were allowed to present lists of candidates for the vote. 

A year later, only six opposition challengers to sitting mayors won in municipal elections that were boycotted by some opponents.

Part of the opposition last week founded a broad coalition, the Front for the Restoration of Democracy, to join forces against Talon, uniting behind a single candidate, the little known academic Joel Aivo.

“Men and women have chosen not to bend the knee, not to abandon the country but to go to its rescue to champion democracy and competition,” Aivo told a news conference.

Under the new qualifying rules however, Aivo will have to line up 16 endorsements — going cap in hand to MPs and mayors who are currently in the presidential camp.

“We’ve known for a long time that Mr Talon would be a candidate. He hasn’t done all that he has done to not be a candidate,” Donklam Abalo, spokesman for Ajavon’s Liberal Social Union (USL) party, told AFP earlier this week.

“If the president can run… he should also allow us to take part in this election,” Abalo said.

by Josue Mehouenou