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Benin

A trio of presidential elections exposes democratic downturn

Arrest of opposition candidates and mass boycotts in elections over the weekend signal a wider attack on political freedom

A succession of presidential elections in Benin (11 April), Chad (11 April), and Djibouti (9 April) followed a familiar playbook with opposition voices excluded, in some cases violently, allowing easy victories for the incumbents amid derisory voter turnouts.

They follow a pattern of politics under the pandemic and a general weakening of political institutions, repeated in Tanzania in October, Uganda in January, Congo-Brazzaville in March, amid rising concerns about the credibility of elections due in Ethiopia in June and Zambia in August.

Djibouti's interior ministry announced on 10 April that President Ismail Omar Guelleh had won 97% of the votes cast. The only challenger, Zakaria Ismail Farah, who took 2.48% of the votes, noted that the results were 'far from reality'. His election agents were barred from entry into polling stations where he complained of ballot box stuffing.

Strategically located in a tumultuous region, Djibouti hosts military bases for China, France, Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Under President Guelleh, born in Ethiopia, Dijbouti has moved still closer to the Addis Ababa government. Djibouti stands to lose from closer ties between Eritrea and Ethiopia under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, but the country has little choice. Within hours of Guelleh's victory announcement Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Somalia's President Mohamed Abdullah Mohamed 'Farmajo' sent congratulations (AC Vol 52 No 5, Stirring the regional pot).

A constitutional amendment in 2010 abolished term limits but retained an upper age limit of 75 for presidents, meaning that this should be the last term Guelleh, who is 73 (AC Vol 58 No 8, Guelleh quells opponents).

In Chad, President Idris Déby Itno faced much more forthright opposition to his re-election plan as his security forces arrested scores of opposition activists last week, accusing some of planning to attack the electoral commission headquarters in Ndjamena.

Déby faced six opposition candidates in the elections on 11 April, after the Supreme Court barred seven others. One candidate, Yaya Dillo, has been in hiding since February when his mother was killed when armed men attacked his house. And Dinamou Daram, the leader of Chad's socialist party has been detained.

Few doubt the outcome of the vote. President Déby was clear on that point before the election: 'Of course we are going to win … I know in advance that I will win as I have done for the past 30 years.' (AC Vol 61 No 8, No more heavy lifting).

Yet pushback against democracy and accountability is starkest in Benin which, unlike Chad and Djibouti, had established a track record for political pluralism and accountability. That has changed in the last five years under businessman President Patrice Talon, who had initially pledged to serve just one term.

Talon, known as the cotton king for his extensive agricultural interests, now says he needs another term to consolidate 'the gains' of the last five years. Despite the closure of land borders with Nigeria for much of 2019-2020, Benin's economy has been growing at an average of 5% a year under Talon. Benin is also the biggest cotton exporter in the region, and the value of Talon's companies have soared (AC Vol 60 No 25, Talons on display).

Although the economy has been growing, so has corruption, arbitrary governance and political repression. Several opposition candidates were barred from standing in the 11 April elections, some were detained on terrorism charges.

Official election results from Chad and Benin are due this week but the incumbents look certain to be announced the winners.



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