After 52 days under virtual house arrest, the former president of the West African nation of Benin was set free and fled across the border to Togo last week without a word to his supporters or the media.
Who had held him? The country’s current president, Patrice Talon, a businessman whose grip on the country – formerly one of Africa’s most stable democracies – has grown increasingly autocratic since his election in 2016.
Benin had long prided itself on two things: its bountiful cotton crop and a robust democracy that allowed freedom of speech, fair elections and peaceful transitions of power for nearly the last three decades.
OVER 5,000 NIGERIAN MEN HAVE OVERCOME POOR BEDROOM PERFORMANCE SYNDROME DUE TO THIS BRILLIANT DISCOVERY
But recent crackdowns on free speech, repression of political opponents, and the detention of the former president, Thomas Boni Yayi – all once unthinkable here – have sent the country reeling. Mr. Yayi was detained after he spoke out against new electoral rules imposed by his successor, Mr. Talon, that essentially made it impossible for anyone other than Mr. Talon’s supporters to run for office.
“The release of Boni Yayi shouldn’t be the tree that hides the forest. The former president is free but there are numerous opposition activists and journalists who are facing trial and prison,” François Patuel, the West Africa researcher for Amnesty International, said by email.
Mr. Talon had once been a donor to Mr. Yayi’s political campaigns, but things between the men soured: In 2012 Mr. Talon was accused of attempting to poison Mr. Yayi, and fled to France. He was pardoned by Mr. Yayi in 2014 and returned to Benin.
The detention of Mr. Yayi, on grounds that he was inciting violence against the regime, set off deadly civil unrest last month. For three days in early June, protesters laid siege to the eastern city of Tchaourou – the former president’s hometown – barricading roads with overturned trucks and massive iroko trees.
On June 12, a squadron of 700 troops sent from Cotonou in the south arrived in Tchaourou to clear the barricades from the roads. A multiday clash left at least seven protesters dead, according to local news reports – a number the military would not confirm.
The military said that civilians fired on the troops with hunting rifles. More than 50 troops were injured, 10 critically, according to Colonel Spero Lewis Gouchola, a spokesman for the military.
But residents of Tchaourou accused the military and the police of using indiscriminate force, describing chaotic scenes with tear gas and flash grenades.
“The center of Tchaourou was like those Hollywood war movies we watch on TV,” said an economist who did not want to be identified because he feared government retribution. During the melee, he said he saw law enforcement officers shoot at a neighbor in the street who had gone out for a bite to eat.
Both the crackdowns and the violence are without recent precedent, according to officials and residents. The country has had peaceful transitions of power since the early 1990s, when President Mathieu Kérékou, a socialist who came to power in a coup in 1972, ceded to a democratic system that proved durable.
Mr. Talon came into office in 2016, after winning 65 percent of the vote, with an agenda of sweeping out political cronyism and corruption.
But critics and watchdog groups say he has since chipped away at the country’s democratic legacy. He has detained people who post critically about him on Facebook, jailed journalists and closed prominent newspapers and broadcast stations. And while he has prosecuted some politicians for corruption, many critics point out that most are in the opposition and believe the charges are trumped up.
Wilfried Léandre Houngbedji, a spokesman for President Talon, said the president was not prosecuting his enemies, but driving out corruption.
“We have a regime of rigor, a regime of responsibility,” said Mr. Houngbedji. “President Talon has the courage to do it so that Benin progresses.”
The main cause of the most recent clashes was the rule changes Mr. Talon’s election commission made this spring to Benin’s fractured political system, which then had over 200 political parties that often fielded candidates based on ethnic identity.
The new rules, ostensibly to streamline the system and encourage coalition-building, increased the amount of money required to field candidates to more than $400,000 per party. In addition, the rules say that any party must garner at least 10 percent of the national vote for its candidates to qualify for national office.
But in effect, only a few parties – all aligned with Mr. Talon – qualified. Many voters boycotted this year’s parliamentary elections, held on April 28. Only about 25 percent of the electorate turned out, compared to over 68 percent in previous elections, according to data compiled by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. Some races had no candidates at all, allowing Mr. Talon to appoint loyalists.
Two days later, thousands of protesters marched on the president’s offices in Cotonou, the country’s economic center. Gas stations were burned and storefronts shattered. The military responded with force, firing live rounds into the crowd. At least four people were killed, according to Amnesty International.
Mr. Patuel, Amnesty’s West Africa researcher, called for independent investigations into what he termed “serious human rights violations” by the government during the spate of protests. “The authorities must put an end to all forms of judicial harassment against those who express dissent peacefully,” he added.
After the uprising, the former president, Mr. Yayi, was locked down in his home in Cotonou. Mr. Houngbedji, the president’s spokesman, said he was detained because he was inciting violence.
In early June, police arrested some residents of Tchaourou on accusations that they were responsible for the destruction in Cotonou after the elections. It was in protest of those arrests – and Mr. Yayi’s detention – that townspeople blocked the roads, resulting in the deadly clashes with the military.
The detention symbolized “a very serious democratic setback,” said Renaud Agbodjo, a spokesman for Mr. Yayi. “It is a gagging of freedoms of expression and assembly.”
The ex-president, who is 67, is in failing health, Mr. Agbodjo said. After arriving in Togo, he was moved to France, where he is currently hospitalized.
In Tchaourou, a few weeks after the clashes, the intense military presence was at last gone, but police continue to patrol on motorcycles. But the fear that Benin’s once-touted democratic values are becoming a thing of the past remained.
“Things are grim,” said a barber in Tchaourou who witnessed the clashes and, like others, did not want to be identified for fear of government reprisals. “It’s infuriating and it’s disgusting, a situation where the government says it reaches out, but it comes to arrest citizens in the deep night without a word?”
“Truly, everyone is discouraged, especially by the government,” he said.