One of the leaders of Benin’s fractured opposition has hired a Washington communications and political advisory firm to draw attention to democratic backsliding in the West African nation in the hopes of building international pressure for a do-over of next month’s flawed election.
Former Foreign Minister Rogatien Biaou and his Alliance Patriotique Nouvel Espoir (New Hope Patriotic Alliance) have hired Sanitas International for outreach to US and international media regarding the April 11 presidential election. President Patrice Talon, a businessman who made a fortune in the cotton industry, is the runaway favorite after most of his opponents were barred from running.
Sanitas will “work with international media to draw attention to democratic backsliding in Benin and build support for free and fair elections in the country,” the firm said in its registration under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
Joe Biaou, Rogatien Biaou‘s son and a spokesman for the alliance, told Foreign Lobby Report in a phone interview from Benin that the opposition hopes the media attention will spark Congress and the Joe Biden administration to pay attention to what’s happening in the country. One of the smaller nations in Africa, Benin long held an outsized reputation for its role in helping spur a wave of democratization in the region in the 1990s.
“Benin being able to reclaim its position as a front-runner of democracy in the sub-region is very critical,” Joe Biaou said. “There’s an opportunity here for the Biden administration in being able to influence democracy in West Africa in general by really focusing on Benin.”
Benin’s reputation as a democratic standout has steadily eroded following disputed legislative elections in 2019 that saw Talon loyalists win all 83 seats in parliament following electoral reforms that hampered the opposition. That fall, lawmakers adopted constitutional changes that also made it harder for opposition candidates to run in next month’s election.
The constitutional changes have sparked condemnation from the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Tanzania, which ruled last year that Benin’s new electoral rules violated the principle of national consensus. A spokesman for Benin’s government dismissed the non-binding ruling, saying the constitutional changes were appropriately approved by parliament.
The election has split the opposition, with some of its members joining forces to support the rejected candidacy of law professor Joel Aivo. Meanwhile former Minister of Justice Reckya Madougou, another rejected candidate, was arrested earlier this month on charges that she tried to sabotage the election.
Rogatien Biaou for his part declined to throw his hat into the ring because he thought the process was rigged, his son Joe Biaou said. The former foreign minister instead wants the international community to pressure President Talon into joining a national dialogue that would set new rules for the presidential election, which would be postponed for six to 12 months.
During that time a transitional prime minister with broad powers would be put in place. Rogatien Biaou himself could fill that position, Joe Biaou said, if the national dialogue approves.
“The objective is to have those national discussions so that there is a clear transition and a new schedule for the elections,” Joe Biaou said. “[The Talon team’s] strategy is to ignore all of that, and that’s why we’re trying to call international attention to this so that he has the pressure to come to the table.”
He said neighboring countries will be closely watching what happens over the next few weeks following recent democratic reversals across Francophone West Africa in places as varied as Mali, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.
“What’s happening in Benin could be a catalyst for democracy deterioration in the whole sub-region,” he said. “if we lose that that kind of opens up the floodgates for dictatorships and authoritarian rule in the whole region.”