One person has been killed and six others are severely wounded as troops cleared protesters days before presidential elections in central Benin, a local health official said.
Protests have erupted in opposition bastions in the lead-up to Sunday’s election, which critics say is skewed in favour of President Patrice Talon after the main opposition leaders were sidelined in a crackdown.
A column of military vehicles arrived early on Thursday to disperse demonstrators in the central city of Save, a flashpoint town of protests two years ago, where makeshift barricades of trees and tyres blocked a major road.
Troops initially fired tear gas before detonations were heard as a soldier fired in the air from an armoured vehicle, AFP news agency reported. It was not clear if they were live or anti-riot rounds.
The director of a local dispensary in Save said he had taken in one dead and six wounded by gunshots.
“We admitted them at our clinic … One dead from a live round and six with bullet wounds,” said Jose Godjo, head of the Boni clinic in Save. “All the wounded have been transferred to hospital in Save.”
Benin was once praised as a vibrant multi-party democracy, but critics say the country spiralled into authoritarianism after Talon was first elected in 2016.
An amendment to the electoral law in 2019 required presidential candidates to be sponsored by at least 16 deputies or mayors. Only six of these 159 elected officials belong to an opposition party. That meant election officials disqualified many opposition figures from running in Sunday’s vote as they lacked the required documents.
Only two opposition candidates were approved: former minister Alassane Soumanou and Corentin Kohoue, a dissident candidate from the opposition Democrats party. Meanwhile, most key opposition figures either live in exile or have been disqualified from running.
Parties allied with President Talon won all the seats after opposition groups were effectively banned in a disputed parliamentary election in April 2019 [Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP]
Talon, a cotton tycoon, is campaigning on his economic record, which includes improvements to key infrastructure such as roads, water and energy supplies.
As a candidate in 2016, Talon had pledged to serve only one term in order to in to avoid “complacency”. His U-turn has led to protests, with hundreds of people marching and burning tyres on Tuesday in several cities.
Talon, 62, says he needs another term to consolidate the gains of his first. He has defended the legal charges brought against his rivals as justified by their acts.
“I will be a candidate to strengthen this good governance that we have just acquired, and which allows us to start building up our country,” he said recently during a tour of southern Benin.
In the final days of campaigning, the economic capital Cotonou was adorned with blue posters of Talon and his running mate, Mariam Talata.
But the usual fervour of presidential campaigns was missing.
“Since the return of the multi-party system in 1990, this is the first time the country has organised a presidential election like this: pluralist in appearance, but without choice in reality – and where the re-election of the president seems only a formality,” said Expedit Ologou, a Beninese political scientist.
Talon’s critics say he has used a special economic crimes and terrorism court and electoral reforms as tools to disqualify the opposition.
Still fresh in many memories is a political crisis that followed a disputed parliamentary election in April 2019. Tensions erupted into mass opposition protests that were broken up when security forces opened fire with live rounds.
Parties allied with Talon won all the seats after opposition groups were effectively banned. Some figures then fled into exile.
Tensions have been on the rise in the weeks before the vote. A leading opposition member was arrested, accused of trying to destabilise the election.
This week, a judge from the special economic crimes and terrorism court fled the country claiming to have been pressured by the government to seek charges against opponents.
The government dismisses such accusations as “political manipulation” and claimed exiled figures were trying to have the election annulled.
“Even though his record is very positive, an election is never won in advance,” said Talon’s communications director Wilfried Houngbedji. “An election must be a party.”
Analysts say low turnout could now be a real issue.
“Patrice Talon does not want to be elected with 20 or 30 percent of the vote, as was his assembly,” Mathias Hounkpe, political analyst, said.