Capital: Porto-Novo
Population: 8,935,000

Political Rights Score: 2 *
Civil Liberties Score: 2 *
Status: Free


President Boni Yayi's popularity continued to wane in 2009, as his fragile political alliances in the National Assembly prevented him from following through on campaign promises involving decentralization, privatization, and improved government efficiency.

Six decades of French rule in Benin ended in 1960. Mathieu Kerekou took power 12 years later, ending a series of coups and imposing a one-party system along with other communist policies. However, by 1990, economic hardship and rising internal unrest forced Kerekou to hold a national conference that eventually ushered in democracy. The transition culminated in his defeat by Nicephore Soglo in the 1991 presidential election, and the country's human rights record subsequently improved. Kerekou returned to power in 1996 through a democratic election, and he secured another term in 2001 after his two main opponents boycotted a runoff due to administrative problems and alleged fraud.

In 2003, legislative elections gave the ruling coalition a majority in the National Assembly for the first time since democratization, and the voting was generally considered free and fair. Pro-Kerekou candidates also performed well in local elections, which were held for the first time that year in a move toward decentralization.

The 2006 presidential election featured unprecedented competition, since both Kerekou and Soglo were ineligible due to their ages, and Kerekou had refused to name a successor. Boni Yayi, an independent candidate and former president of the regional development bank, emerged as the victor and promised to tackle corruption, decentralize government, and privatize state companies.

A coalition of parties supporting Yayi, led by the Cowrie Forces for an Emerging Benin (FCBE), won a majority of seats in the 2007 legislative elections. All but three seats changed hands in generally free and fair voting, demonstrating the public's desire for new leadership.

While the country's poverty and limited infrastructure often lead to technical problems during elections, particularly serious irregularities caused the 2008 local elections to be postponed by two months and led to the eventual annulment and rerun of contests in 24 districts. In the run-up to the elections, the Supreme Court reprimanded the Autonomous National Electoral Commission (CENA) three separate times for instances of politicization.

By 2009, the optimism that followed Yayi's 2006 election had waned, as the growing instability of his legislative coalition and of political parties in general hampered his efforts to enact promised reforms and improve government efficiency. A referendum on the president's proposed constitutional revisions, originally slated for early 2009, was postponed indefinitely due to resistance from opposition politicians in the National Assembly. The president's proposed constitutional reforms did not extend the presidential term limit or otherwise increase presidential power as the opposition had anticipated, and instead focused primarily on bureaucratic changes to improve the functioning of government and the operations of the civil service. Nevertheless, the opposition hindered any progress on these measures in what appeared to be a power play in advance of the 2011 presidential elections.

The government decentralization program moved forward in May, when officials announced that the country's 12 current regional departments would be increased to 29. However, there were protests in a number of small towns that were not selected as department capitals, casting doubt on implementation of the plan. Meanwhile, although the administration successfully sold its stake in the largest local bank in 2008, it encountered delays in its attempts to privatize the state-owned telecommunications and power companies in 2009.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Benin is an electoral democracy. Despite delays and disorganization, the 25-member CENA effectively oversaw the 2007 legislative polls, which were considered free and fair. However, the commission's performance noticeably deteriorated during the 2008 local elections.

The president is elected by popular vote for up to two five-year terms and serves as both the chief of state and head of government. Delegates to the 83-member, unicameral National Assembly serve four-year terms.

Historically, Benin has been divided between northern and southern ethnic groups, which are the main support bases of many of the current political parties. However, since the 2006 presidential election, traditional party structures have given way to a plethora of smaller parties – currently more than 50 – and fragile political alliances.

President Boni Yayi has made the fight against endemic corruption a top priority, garnering praise from international officials. In 2006 he signed into law an official code of conduct for government officials that led to the arrest of an influential petroleum tycoon on fraud charges and the audit of 60 state-run companies as well as overseas Beninese embassies. In 2009, major corruption was also uncovered in both the microfinance and water sectors. Benin was ranked 106 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression are largely respected in practice. An independent and pluralistic press publishes articles that are highly critical of government and party leaders. However, in July 2009, three journalists were subjected to physical attacks – rare events in a country where journalists usually operate unhindered. The government does not restrict internet access, though the country's connection was temporarily disrupted during the year when an undersea cable running from South Africa was damaged.

The government actively seeks to ensure religious and academic freedom. While more than half of Benin's citizens practice voodoo, most of them also associate with another religion like Christianity or Islam. Through a number of recent high-profile cases, the Constitutional Court has reaffirmed religious rights and the separation of church and state. Primary education is mandatory under the constitution, and the state is working to facilitate access to education by eliminating tuition fees.

Freedom of assembly is respected, and requirements for permits and registration are often ignored. Large opposition demonstrations on a range of issues were allowed to proceed peacefully during 2009. Numerous nongovernmental organizations and human rights groups operate freely.

The right to organize and join labor unions is constitutionally guaranteed. Unions played a central role in the country's democratization and remain powerful today. The medical unions, seeking increased pay, were on strike for the first half of 2009. Although it received support from the opposition, the strike led to a deterioration in care and the cancellation of a major polio vaccination campaign.

The judiciary's independence is generally respected by the executive branch, but the courts are considered to be highly inefficient and susceptible to corruption. More than 90 percent of cases involving overdue payments are never resolved in the courts, and there are currently more pretrial detainees than convicts behind bars. Harsh prison conditions aggravate the situation; cells in Cotonou and Abomey prisons, for example, hold six times the intended number of inmates. While the government announced in 2008 that it intended to abolish the death penalty, it had yet to do so by the end of 2009.

A sharp increase in armed robberies and violent crime was reported in Cotonou in late 2008. The government linked this to an increase in small-arms trafficking and smuggling in the poorest areas of the city. In March 2009, police discovered 50 kilograms of cannabis during a drug raid and arrested 45 suspects.

Relations among Benin's ethnic groups are generally good, although regional divisions occasionally flare up, particularly between the north, where Yayi is from, and the south. Minority ethnic groups are well represented in government agencies, the civil service, and the armed forces. Societal prejudices against women in the workplace and open homosexuality are evident, though not ubiquitous. In 2008, Benin signed the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Although the constitution provides for gender equality, women enjoy fewer educational and employment opportunities than men, particularly in rural areas. A family code promulgated in 2004 improved women's inheritance, property, and marriage rights, and prohibited forced marriage and polygamy. However, legal rights pertaining to family matters are frequently unknown or ignored. In April 2009, to address the country's high maternal mortality rate, the government began helping women pay for caesarean births.

Human trafficking is widespread in Benin; most victims are girls trafficked inside the country from rural to urban areas. A law formally outlawing human trafficking was passed in 2006. While a number of traffickers were arrested in 2007 and 2008, there were no reported arrests in 2009, and the prison sentences handed down to date – ranging from three months to one year – are far short of the 20-year maximum provided by the law.

*Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

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