Polity: Presidential-parliamentary democracy
Life Expectancy: 54
Religious Groups: Indigenous beliefs (50 percent), Christian (30 percent), Muslim (20 percent)
Ethnic Groups: African [42 ethnic groups, including Fon, Adja, Bariba, Yoruba] (99 percent), other (1 percent)
Political Rights Score: 3
Civil Liberties Score: 2
Benin was preparing for municipal and regional elections at the end of 2002 and had appointed new members to the Autonomous National Electoral Commission to oversee the voting. The government of President Mathieu Kerekou was involved in regional efforts to bring peace to nearby Cote d'Ivoire in September after rebellious Ivorian troops seized much of the northern area of that country. Benin maintained a good human rights record in 2002 and made efforts to curb the practice of child trafficking. The International Court of Justice helped resolve a dispute between Benin and Niger over their common border.
Benin was once the center of the ancient kingdom of Dahomey, the name by which the country was known until 1975, when Kerekou renamed it. Six decades of French colonial rule ended in 1960, and Kerekou took power 12 years later, ending successive coups and countercoups. He imposed a one-party state under the Benin People's Revolutionary Party and pursued Marxist-Leninist policies. However, by 1990, economic hardships and rising internal unrest had forced Kerekou to agree to a national conference that ushered in democracy. The transition culminated in his defeat by Nicephore Soglo in the March 1991 presidential elections. The country's human rights record subsequently improved. Kerekou made a comeback in the 1996 elections and won again in 2001.
Historically, Benin has been divided between northern and southern ethnic groups, which are the main roots of current political parties. The south has enjoyed more advanced development. Northern ethnic groups enlisted during Kerekou's early years in power still dominate the military, although efforts have been made in recent years to rectify this situation.
Benin is a poor country whose economy is based largely on subsistence agriculture. The International Monetary Fund in 2002 commended Benin for its economic progress, although poverty indicators have not improved significantly.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
Benin held its first genuine multiparty elections in 1991 and now has more than 100 political parties. Presidential elections in 2001 were marred by technical and administrative problems, as well as by a boycott by the second- and third-place finishers in the second round of voting. The boycott gave incumbent President Mathieu Kerekou a solid victory with 84 percent of the vote. Former President Nicephore Soglo and Adrien Houngbedji claimed fraud after they had won 29 percent and 14 percent, respectively, in the first round of voting, compared with Kerekou's 47 percent. Kerekou ended up running against an obscure fourth-place candidate in the second round.
Several members of the Autonomous National Electoral Commission had stepped down in protest before the second round of voting, citing a lack of transparency and poor administration of the election. In the 1999 elections for the unicameral National Assembly, opposition parties won 42 parliamentary seats against 41 by candidates backed by President Kerekou.
The judiciary is generally considered to be independent, but it is inefficient and susceptible to corruption at some levels. The executive retains important powers. The Constitutional Court has demonstrated independence, but was accused of bias in favor of the president during the 2001 presidential elections. Lawmakers in 2001 replaced the colonial criminal code.
Freedom of assembly is respected in Benin, and requirements for permits and registration are often ignored. Human rights are largely respected, although concern has been raised about the operation of anticrime vigilante groups and the failure of the police to curb vigilantism. Prison conditions are harsh, marked by poor diet and inadequate medical care. Numerous nongovernmental organizations and human rights groups operate without hindrance.
Harsh libel laws have been used against journalists, but constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression are largely respected in practice. An independent and pluralistic press publishes articles highly critical of both government and opposition leaders and policies. Benin has more than a dozen daily newspapers, 40 magazines, about a dozen private radio stations, and 2 television stations.
Religious freedom is respected. Although the constitution provides for equality for women, they enjoy fewer educational and employment opportunities than men, particularly in rural areas. In family matters, in which traditional practices prevail, their legal rights are often ignored. Women's rights groups have been effective in drafting a family code that would improve the status of women and children under the law. Female genital mutilation is not illegal. The government has cooperated with efforts by nongovernmental organizations to raise awareness about the health dangers of the practice.
Smuggling children into neighboring countries for domestic service and meager compensation is reportedly widespread. Many, especially young girls, suffer abuse. Efforts are under way in Benin to fight child abuse and child trafficking through media campaigns and education.
The right to organize and join unions is constitutionally guaranteed and respected in practice. Strikes are legal, and collective bargaining is common.
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