October 16, 2010 § 3 Comments
Who lives there?: Slightly less than 9 million people. Over 42 different African ethnic groups live in Benin with no single group dominating. French is the official language and is widely spoken. Many Beninese languages are spoken, Yoruba and Fon are probably the most spoken. Roughly 50% of Benin is Christian (with roughly a 50/50 catholic to pentecostal split) and 25% is Muslim, the rest are a mixture of different Beninese religions.
How does the system work? (the theory): Benin is a presidential Republic. The President is elected by first past the post for five year terms and can only stand twice. If the President doesn’t get 50% of the vote there is a runoff round against the second placed candidate. The President has all executive power and some legislative power (the power to sponsor legislation). However, the legislative has powers to check those of the President – particularity when it comes to approving a budget
The legislative consists of a unicameral parliament elected for 4 years to 83 seats by largest remainder PR (I think with the Hare quota).
Benin has local government, and has done since 2002, but the arrangements have not fully bedded down. There is an ambitious plan in the works to push forward meaningful decentralization, but it is currently held up in parliament. In the meantime there are 12 provinces, and these in turn are divided into districts. Elected provincial, district, commune, town, and village councils have been established.
How does the system work? (the practice): Benin’s elections are felt to be free and fair, and Benin scores amongst the highest of all countries in sub-Saharan Africa in independent assessments of governance. However, the system can lead to impasse between President and Parliament – as the Parliament tends to produce minority administrations and unstable coalitions. Political Party formation is still in its infancy – and parties tend to be formed around individuals rather than ideologies.
Irregularities did lead to local elections being delayed for 2 years between 2006 and 2008.
How did we get here?: The kingdom of Benin was a medieval kingdom in southern Nigeria from 1180 to the late 18th century. It bears no relation to the current nation of Benin, but the name was borrowed due to its lack of political overtones. The first nation upon the borders of current Benin was the kingdom of Dahomey. It was formed around 1600 by expansionist warrior-kings and became famous as one of the primary sources for the slave trade. They also scandalized early European explorers with their female soldier corps and accompanying male prostitutes.
It was conquered by France in 1900 and gained independence in 1960. After a rocky first 12 years, Benin became a Marxist dictatorship with Mathieu Kérékou as its leader. In 1990, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Benin converted to a multi-party democracy. Kérékou abolished Marxism as a ruling ideology and won the first election, eventually being defeated in 1996. He was re-elected narrowly in 2001. In 2006, whilst there was initially suspicion that he would seek to change the constitution or delay elections, he stood down without a fuss.
Who’s in charge?: The open space left by Kérékou’s retirement left the 2006 presidential elections wide open. Many expected the long time centre-right opposition activist Adrien Houngbedji to win, however there was a surprise surge of support for Boni Yayi – a technocratic evangelical protestant former banker who promised to reform the economy, particularly the cotton sector. The first round was inconclusive, Boni getting 36% to Houngbedji’s 24%. However Boni was far more effective at winning over supporters of other candidates, and beat Houngbedji by 75% to 25% in the second round.
The 2007 legislative elections then gave Boni a headache. He formed the FCBE (Cauri Forces for an Emerging Benin), an alliance of more than 20 former parties, on a platform of promoting economic growth to support his presidency. They won 35 of the 83 seats.
The Alliance for Democratic Momentum (an umbrella opposition group formed around the supporters of the Soglo family – who held the Presidency from 1996 to 2001 – and some supporters of Kérékou) became the largest opposition group with 20 seats. Houngbedji’s vehicle, the Democratic Renewal Party came third with 10 seats.
The remaining 18 sets were scattered amongst nine parties and independents. The largest of these – Key Force (a pro Kérékou group) – won 4, and there hasn’t been much detailed study of what the others stand for – except that they tend to be formed around individuals rather than policies.
After the election the Alliance for a Democratic Momentum (ADD), the Democratic Renewal Party (PRD) and Key Force formed an grand opposition coalition called the Union fait la Nation (UFN). As the ADD was itself a coalition, the members of it dissolved into their constituent parts within the UFN with the result that it is actually the PRD who dominate the UFN.
The Boni government attempted to get legislation through via individually negotiated coalitions and by exploiting splits in the opposition – the result has been frequent impasses and a stalling of Boni’s programme.
UPDATE Boni won election in the first round in March of 2011.
As well as the elected political scene, Trade Unions are a powerful force in the country, as (to a lesser extent) are religious leaders.
What does it look like?: Most of the population live in the for south of the country, near the ocean. Benin can be divided into four areas. There is a thin strip of low lying sandy and marshy coast in the far south, then comes area of forest-savannah, then comes flat lands dotted with rocky hills, and finally in the far north there are mountains (albeit only 700m high ones). Most of Benin is scrub land with occasional huge baobab trees.
What are the issues?: Boni wishes to put through an ambitious decentralisation, privatization and efficiency scheme. So far it has been held up in Parliament, as have constitutional reforms. The power-play in the Parliament has paralysed the government and has damaged Boni’s popularity. In the meanwhile crackdowns on corruption have enjoyed a measure of success; crackdowns on human trafficking less-so. Devolution plans have been held up by squabbling over which cities get to be Provincial capitals.
A good source of impartial information is: Benin has one of the most vibrant free presses in west Africa but it is mostly in French. Fraternite is an independent daily with a website. Benin Politics is an English language blog about Benin’s politics. Its archives are good but in recent months it seems to have been taken over by spammers. This appears to be a more recently updated blog by the same man.
A good book is: Two recent books by retired Beninian politicians have courted controversy by criticizing members of the current government. Mon combat pour la parole : Les défis d’une mobilisation citoyenne pour la promotion de la gouvernance démocratique by former finance minister Reckya Madougou and L’Afrique est mon combat by former Parliamentary speaker Bruno Amoussou are so far only available in French. Benin is an up-to-date overview of the country and its politics. Reframing Contemporary Africa: Politics, Culture, and Society in the Global Era apparently covers Benin in detail. Hegemony and Culture: Politics and Religious Change Among the Yoruba is a classic study by one of the most respected political scientists of the last few decades. However it was written in 1989, and the Yoruba are a stronger community in Nigeria than Benin.
The Man from Dahomey by Frank Yerby is set in Benin, but is more interesting to students of African-American literature than Beninain politics.
When are the next elections?: Elections for the legislative will be in April 2011.