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The Erosion of Freedom in Benin | Commentary

With the world’s attention focused on upheavals in the Middle East, from the terrible civil war raging in Syria to the overthrow of the Egyptian president, we shouldn’t overlook a presidential power-grab and human rights violations in another part of the world that is threatening the democracy of a strategically important country.

Benin, a small West African nation that unfortunately is sliding into dictatorship, has increasing abuses of human rights and rising hostility toward the West. But this is also a situation where modest actions by the United States — using the leverage of foreign aid — can help restore basic principles of law in a nation critical to regional stability.

In the early 1990s, in a rather remarkable transformation, the sub-Saharan nation of Benin converted itself from a dictatorship into a vigorous democracy. Since that transition, Benin has continued on a democratic path — until recently.

The current president of Benin, Thomas Boni Yayi, is prevented by the nation’s constitution from seeking a third term. In an effort to retain his power, Yayi has tried to amend the constitution — an effort that was rejected by the National Assembly. Meanwhile, businessmen, journalists, political leaders and prominent citizens have joined the opposition to the president’s efforts, which have led to systematic repression, including the jailing of political opponents.

In late 2012, the president claimed that he had been the object of an assassination plot, allegedly organized by Patrice Talon, one of the most prominent businessmen in Benin and an individual who had publicly indicated his strong opposition to the president’s efforts to stay in power. The attempted assassination purportedly involved an effort to poison the president by tampering with his off-the-shelf medication. A number of individuals, including the former minister of commerce, Mojaidou Soumanou, a close business associate of Talon, were promptly arrested by the presidential guard and incarcerated.

After comprehensive tests by our FBI, the “poison” was discovered to be a mixture of laxatives and hallucinogens — hardly the ideal tools for assassination. In May, a criminal court judge dismissed all of the charges against most of the accused. In accordance with Benin criminal procedure, the exonerated defendants should have been released immediately. They were not.

Despite an order from an appeals court, the president and his minister of justice have continued to hold their political opponents in prison.

Recently, Yayi proposed that a “more democratic” constitution be adopted that would effectively establish Benin’s “Second Republic.” As a convenient result, his service during the “First Republic” would no longer count and he could run for two more terms. With widespread intimidation of his political opponents, the new constitution is likely to be enacted.

As part of his campaign to consolidate power, Yayi has steadily tried to grab the levers of business and commerce, seizing businesses and imposing heavy-handed government controls on the private sector. He has also chosen some unusual allies and friends. Recently, he hosted Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and awarded him Benin’s highest award.

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