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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.

In the past several years, through the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the United States has funneled more than $300 million to Benin to help improve the nation’s infrastructure. A condition to the grants included Benin adhering to a certain standard of human rights and respect for the rule of law. Now, a substantial new grant is under consideration. But no additional funding from the U.S. should be sent to Benin without a guarantee that the government restores respect for human rights and the rule of law.

The American government should insist upon the release of Soumanou, who has been in prison under deplorable conditions for more than nine months without any substantive charges against him. He has a daughter and son-in-law who reside in Virginia. Soumanou’s son-in-law is an American citizen and his daughter is a permanent U.S. resident. As such, they are entitled to the assistance of our government.

Benin has been an important ally in an area critical to U.S. interests. Located on the Gulf of Guinea, Benin shares a long and porous border with Nigeria, an important trade partner. Its northern region is in close proximity to areas eyed by Islamist terrorists as havens. Benin’s stability and cordial relationship with the West is an important, even vital, objective. The United States needs to bolster the forces of democracy and strengthen human rights wherever possible as the best bulwark against aggression and radicalism.

Benin appears to be on the cusp of sliding backwards, away from progress and toward an ugly past. The United States should make its displeasure known and should refuse to make additional funds available to Benin until President Yayi pledges to respect his nation’s democratic institutions, protect human rights and adhere to the rule of law.

Former Sens. Robert Bennett, R-Wyo., and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., are senior policy advisers at Arent Fox LLP. The firm represents Patrice Talon.

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