Rachel Beatty Riedl on Benin. Democracy in Hard Places.

Rachel Beatty Riedl

Rachel Beatty Riedl is the John S. Knight Professor of International Studies, Director of the Einaudi Center for International Studies, and professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University. She also cohosts the podcast Ufahamu Africa with Kim Yi Dionne. Her chapter “Africa’s Democratic Outliers Success amid Challenges in Benin and South Africa” appears in the forthcoming book Democracy in Hard Places.

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So, at some level, a belief in democracy was necessary in Benin as in elsewhere. Support for it – Absolutely. But what’s interesting in the Benin case is that you were lacking that level of political elite leadership that were committed democratic ideologues.

Rachel Beatty Riedl

Key Highlights

  • Details the story of Benin’s democratization
  • How Benin has used consensus to govern
  • What makes Benin a democracy in a hard place
  • An overview of the current President Patrice Talon
  • Current threats to democracy in Benin

Podcast Transcript

Thank you for listening to the Democracy Paradox: A podcast on democracy, democratization, and world affairs. Each week we talk about big picture insights to better understand political issues and events. These are complex ideas that might be unfamiliar, so I always provide a complete transcript at democracyparadox.com. 

Today’s guest is Rachel Beatty Riedl. Rachel is a professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University. She also cohosts one of my favorite podcasts, Ufahamu Africa, with Kim Yi Dionne. 

For four straight weeks now we have explored Democracy in Hard Places. I have based these episodes on a new book edited by Scott Mainwaring and Tarek Masoud. Rachel is among the contributors. Her chapter is “Africa’s Democratic Outliers Success amid Challenges in Benin and South Africa.” 

My conversation with Rachel really opened my eyes to the importance of Benin. The past episodes focused on some well-known countries like India, South Africa, and Indonesia. Meanwhile, Benin flies under the radar. But it’s important because it was a democratic trailblazer in Africa. Moreover, its democracy relies more on consensus and inclusion than the typical Western model of democratic governance. Indeed, I believe it offers important lessons for students of democracy.

If you like my conversation with Rachel Beatty Riedl, I have a few more questions for her available for supporters of the podcast at Patreon. There is a link in the show notes or you can look up Democracy Paradox at patreon.com. Like always feel free to email me questions or comments to jkempf@democracyparadox.com. This is my conversation with Rachel Beatty Riedl….

jmk

Rachel Beatty Riedl, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Rachel Beatty Riedl

Thanks for having me. Glad to be here.

jmk

Rachel, I’m fascinated with this case of Benin partly just because I didn’t know a lot about it. I didn’t realize how important it was for democracy in Africa until I started to look into its history and I still haven’t gotten that far to be honest with you. I do now know that it was the first country to democratize an Africa after the fall of the Soviet Union. So, it’s a very well-known country for many democracy scholars. In fact, the more I looked into it, the more I saw people like Larry Diamond and others name dropping Benin as one of its many examples that they bring up. But a lot of us don’t really know the story of its democratization. Can you briefly tell us the story of democratization in Benin?

Rachel Beatty Riedl

Absolutely. I mean, I think that Benin is one of these quintessential and truly exciting cases of democracy in hard places. Prior to democratization it had many different types of government instability that would make democracy hard. It had tripartite ethno-regional divisions that caused a great deal of instability after independence. So, six military coups in a fairly rapid succession after independence and then Mathieu Kérékou’s military takeover in 1972 ushered in two decades of authoritarian stability. It was a nominally Marxist-Leninist single party and made an effort to kind of replace regional affiliations and traditional leaders and install a national affiliation to the party, to the state, and to the Kérékou regime.

So, you have ethno-regional instability. You have a military dictatorship with what looked like a fairly durable single authoritarian party. How do you get to democracy from there? So, that’s why Benin is such an interesting and fascinating and important case for us. Because from this kind of difficult background, citizens really began mobilizing in the late 1980s around a number of different concerns, first of all, the economic stagnation and eventually kind of economic crisis. So, you had huge protests by labor unions, from medical workers to teachers, et cetera. Then with the fall of the Soviet Union, it also was a case that was really. Impacted by a changing set of international priorities.

So, the geopolitical game changed particularly, because Benin was this Marxist-Leninist single party that had support from the Soviet Union. So, with the end and the demise of the Soviet Union, all of a sudden, the Kérékou regime was much more isolated and no longer this frozen Cold War satellite state. So, with international pressures for democratic political liberalization and economic liberalization, these shocks built upon a domestic mobilization that was claiming there was a need for a new type of representative government that would meet their economic, social and political needs. So, from that real domestic turn and really beginning in earnest in 1989, the country came together in this national conference and reconstituted what would be the nature of the new regime going forward.

In some ways Benin reminds me of the importance of Rustow’s reference to a hot family feud in terms of a sequence of democratization. That you need the old elite to have this kind of internal argument: the defections from the old elite; enough crumbling of the prior regime that leads to new types of bargains; a new window of opportunity for democratic bargains to be struck. And that’s exactly what happened here in Benin. So, with the national conference in 1990, it included leaders from political opposition, unions, university workers, religious associations, the military, human rights organizations, the lawyer’s association, as I mentioned was very important, women’s group… It was really participatory bringing people together and President Kérékou at the time had control over the military, that single party, the bureaucracy of the state.

He had everything and yet that crumbled because it was no longer sustainable in the face of this resistance. So. the conference peacefully drafted a new democratic constitution that was premised on the need for full representation of all the different parts of the country: ethnic, religious, class, et cetera. The conference itself asserted sovereignty over the country. So, it maintained President Kérékou as a figurehead head of state, but it declared itself sovereign and said ‘From here on out this conference makes the decisions. We’re going to establish the new entity.’ So, it organized competitive, multi-party national elections for the following year which ushered in a new president.

So, this moment is so important because it offers a pathway to real participatory, fully representative democracy and it’s a case in which the incumbent learned to lose. So, Kérékou accepted his loss, the military accepted their displacement, and yet that old political Ancien Régime reconstituted in new ways and had a place in the new dispensation going forward. They weren’t out external. They weren’t spoilers. They made their way to have a role in the new system.

jmk

It reminds me a lot of the democratization in Indonesia where the regime kind of fell apart, but the old elites still found a place within the new regime. Am I reading that right? Does this example parallel what happened in Indonesia in different ways?

Rachel Beatty Riedl

Well, the interesting thing I think is in Benin you don’t have an authoritarian successor party that is maintained. That’s an important difference in Benin from a lot of other cases. So, the Marxist-Leninist party, the PRPB we’ll say, it goes away. So, it’s no longer a player. It’s no longer an entity that helps to organize. And this is what I’ve argued is really important for the way in which the new party system and the new mode of organizing democratic competition flourishes going forward. You don’t have that well organized constituted entity that kind of pro-democracy opposition is responding to.

So, while the individuals of the military elite and former high ranking political officials in the Ancien Régime party are still players, they do so because they join and create so many different parties. So, it’s completely fragmented. It’s really decentralized. It’s very fluid. People run as independent candidates. People form very localized parties so that they maybe they can get elected to the National Assembly in their particular constituency. But they don’t have a kind of organizing unit that keeps them together and what this allows is what I refer to in some ways is this kind of consensus democracy. It allows all of those different entities to bandwagon together.

So, whether, for example, Nicéphore Soglo who won in those first founding elections following the national conference in 1991 or Matthew Kérékou who comes back on the scene and wins the next presidential election, those elites can reconstitute and kind of bandwagon support around Soglo, they can bandwagon support around Kérékou. They’re flexible for the next round and in some ways it allows that incumbent to lose when it’s time, because there’s not a whole entourage, a whole party that’s dependent on them winning. They can still bandwagon around the next candidate. So, that fluidity I think is actually quite important to the kind of bargaining, consensus, inclusive model that the Beninese transition and maintenance of democracy relies on.

jmk

So, what does consensus rule really mean? Does it mean that there is no real opposition, that they come to agreements and most things pass with overwhelming maturities? Does it mean that people are brought to the table on a regular basis? Does it mean that the cabinet has representation from every one of the major political parties? How does it actually operate in practice?

Rachel Beatty Riedl

That’s a great question. So, thus far, no president in Benin has actually won with a political party affiliation. All elected presidents have been elected as independent candidates and that allows them this ability to assure bandwagoning potential. Nothing is already taken up by their party affiliates and loyalists. So, after a presidential election, the National Assembly, which can be made up of 30 different political parties, can reconstitute around a coalition of parties that support the executive. There are still some parties, some kind of opposition coalitions that might choose not to bandwagon, because they want to maintain for the next election a role as an opposition.

But what’s striking about the Beninese case is that because it’s so easy to form political parties or to run as an independent candidate, those are the kinds of rules that allow for this coalition potential. The fact that the national assembly times its election of the speaker for after the presidential election so that they can shift and bandwagon appropriately and signal whose side they’re on and be part of this consensus. Also, the National Assembly is able to pass legislation in this consensual manner that allows protections to really require full agreement of all of the representatives before constitutional changes could be made.

So, in some ways, those are some protections that would allow and give a kind of security that protects against exclusionary politics that say, ‘Well, your voice doesn’t count. You’re representation of this group or this way of thinking doesn’t count and we’re just going to override you.’ That has been really avoided in Benin to make sure that people feel that they have this participatory stake around the table.

jmk

You actually mentioned a case in the book where the court struck down a law because the opposition parties didn’t support it at the time. Which is remarkable because, when we think about democracy in the United States and Europe, I mean, there’s kind of an assumption that at least in the legislature that there should be some semblance of majority rule. That if the majority wants this, the minority lost out. I mean, they lost the election. Can you talk a little bit about how that plays out and maybe this particular case?

Rachel Beatty Riedl

Yeah, absolutely. I think that this is really an important case, because it allows us to see the way in which the judicial system is one more check in this consensual rule process. So, high stakes legislation that would be around the constitution, questions around executive prerogatives, concentration of power in the executive, the court saw itself as a protector of this model of consensus rule. So, passing something by a majority isn’t sufficient to really continue to ensure that full sense of participation and representation that all the voices in the country would be listened to.

So, I think it’s not the model that we would think of in terms of majority rule. You get your bare majority and you have the power to pass the legislation that you think should happen. So, this in a way is a system that has been developed that we could say protects minority rights except it’s not necessarily a minority that’s static. It’s a minority rule that is a protection of minority rights, opinions, needs that is fluid depending on the kind of constitution of that coalition around the presidential bandwagon.

jmk

So, you keep using this word fluid and it’s easy to imagine a case where the old elites just continue to change political parties that they’re in, continue to change coalitions. I would hope that there’s opportunities for that fluidity to allow for new people to be able to come into the political system, new voices to be able to be heard. How does the Benin system or how has it at least in the past allowed new voices to be part of this consensus model of governance?

Rachel Beatty Riedl

Yeah, that’s a really interesting point and it absolutely does allow for new candidates to enter. In fact, we’ve seen new candidates rise to the fore in each presidential election that weren’t necessarily candidates in the prior election which is quite striking and quite different from what we see in a lot of neighboring countries. For example, where you have maybe more stable parties. you have a sense of the enduring opposition candidate that might run again and again or the vice-president or succession that’s handled within the party. So, you know who the major players are. In Benin it’s quite different where different political economic elites might come in as an independent candidate and really rise to the fore quite quickly.

This certainly happens at lower levels of government where not as many resources are necessary. So, from municipal elections to National Assembly at the constituency level, you can have new candidates form a party or previously run as an independent candidate and be successful in that round. So, I think that what’s important about it is that it shows that there aren’t these kind of high barriers to entry and that you don’t have to necessarily pay your own allegiances to a particular party or group of political elites. That if you are demonstrating that you can bring services to your community, that you are the right representative for them that you can take part in this democratic experiment. That’s what I think has been so exciting about the Beninese case.

So, the first president who won following the National Conference, in that founding multi-party democratic election, Nicéphore Soglo was not a part of the established political elite. He had been working for the World Bank in Washington. He had been an ex-pat. He came back to the country in this moment of major neoliberal reform and was seen as a kind of outsider. He was able to win. Then Matthew Kérékou, the former authoritarian incumbent came back and won two elections, but then following his term, we had Boni Yayi who was a kind of businessman not necessarily seen as a political insider and then Patrice Talon who was absolutely an economic magnet, the king of cotton, he had port control and licensing. None of those were seen as standard political figures. So, they were able to bring something new to the country.

jmk

I like how in the book you describe it as low barriers to entry. In fact, there’s a passage where you write “In Benin, consensus rule meant low barriers to entry for political parties and candidates so that the former ruling-party members could reconstitute in new ways,” But I also imagine that it gives opportunities for people who are involved in civil society, who are involved in business, who are expats like you just described to be able to come into the system and be able to win an election easily and be able to have a seat at the table. I think that that has an enormous impact on how you think about democracy and how that democracy operates.

Rachel Beatty Riedl

That’s exactly right and because of those low barriers to entry, it empowers a certain sector of society who is willing to mobilize and may not have the material resources that we would expect as being incredibly important in really well-organized party systems or a place where the established elites have high barriers to entry.

But in Benin because of these low barriers to entry the women’s group and market women in particular (there ability to mobilize, go out to the street, and demonstrate support for a particular idea or particular candidate) in pro-democracy moments has been particularly significant. For example, the question of third term succession has really loomed large in sustaining Benin’s democracy again and again. Matthew Kérékou was said to have been unsure whether he was ready to leave. Yes, certainly. Certainly, Yayi Boni was thinking about changing the constitution. He had suggested some constitutional amendments that might offer a loophole and restart his term count. We’ll see about Patrice Talon.

But in these moments, market women mobilization around ‘Don’t change my constitution’ or ‘No third term’ has been incredibly significant. Moreover, because different civil society groups can come to the fore and be so visible, could put forward their own candidate, or support a new candidate in the face of what might be seen as a kind of potentially autocratizing incumbent. The society has in some ways, I like to think, more power to claim their democratic rights and hold governments and particularly incumbent elites accountable.

jmk

So, how does the public perceive this consensus model? Do they feel that they really do have a seat at the table or did they feel that the consensus model is really just consensus among different political elites that have a lot of power within the country?

Rachel Beatty Riedl

Yeah, the consensus model empowers a set of political elites, as you said. Citizens are connected to those elites through their member of parliament, through their National Assembly representative. So, their sense of being represented is really through that line of communication. So, then politicians are judged on whether or not they are bringing home the services and the slice of the pie that the constituency feels they’re entitled to. So, in this way people are represented through a kind of elected broker model in the sense that their representatives should serve their constituency and they’re judged on the extent to which they are successful. This feeds into the kind of bandwagoning incentives that members of the National Assembly have, because it’s a lot easier to get some services to your constituency when you’re a part of the ruling coalition.

So, if you bandwagon around the new president and are part of the governing majority, then ideally, you’re going to be able to have a ministerial appointment or be in support of those who are in the Ministry of Education or the Department of Transportation and the like and extend electricity, roads, new schools, new clinics what have you. The work that government is supposed to do for its people are the ways in which the consensus model is supposed to work for the citizens of Benin.

jmk

Now you included Benin as one of two examples of a democracy in hard places in Africa specifically in this new book. Of course, there are other African democracies that you left out like Ghana, Botswana. There are plenty others that we could have probably included. How’s Benin different from these other African democracies that really make it a hard place for democracy to succeed?

Rachel Beatty Riedl

So, in this book, I lay out the way in which Benin and my other case which has a lot of parallels with your guest, Evan Lieberman, and the new book that he has just put out on South Africa. So, the way in which Benin is different from Ghana and Botswana, for example, is because Benin’s transition to democracy is a complete rupture from the past. It doesn’t include an authoritarian successor party. It doesn’t include the party organization that organized the authoritarian regime during the prior decades. So, with this complete disruption, you have the sense of politics being reorganized, diffuse, participatory fluid to bring up the word again that you referenced.

So, the model had to be built from scratch. There are many reasons why that makes it particularly difficult. For starters fluidity is seen to be a challenge in and of itself. Well institutionalized, organized political parties that are deeply rooted in society should be a channel through which democracy can be more stable and rooted and routinized in the way in which democracy is practiced. So, you’re lacking that in Benin and that’s what makes it even more challenging in some ways than we would expect. The flip side of that is that it offers some new opportunities for new people to be involved and to do away with some of the authoritarian legacies of the prior successor party and their embedded hold on power.

So, while you have this extra challenge of reorganizing the political space, bringing in new political elites who don’t necessarily have the training, the skills, the experience in government, that also means that new people from the bottom up, from the outside, et cetera, have this potential to have a voice. That’s what I think distinguishes it in particular when we look at the case of Ghana where Jerry Rawlings and the NDC were incredibly important in crafting the transition to democracy. They set the rules that they wanted to compete by, won the founding multi-party elections, and then eventually they did learn to lose, but they never lost completely. They never collapsed as a party. They still held seats in the National Assembly. They still had a lot of seats at the District Assembly level and Municipal Government level and then were able to win future rounds.

So, that’s a very different case from Benin and certainly in Botswana you’ve had this dominant party since independence with its ability to really control the political space and maintain the majority over time. Therefore, you have much less fluidity. You’ve had the ability to have democratic elections, but it’s just such a different landscape from what we see as the level of participation and reconstitution – this really kind of open vista for reconstituting a new democracy. That was able to happen in Benin.

jmk

So, last week I talked to Ashutosh Varshney and one of the big takeaways about India’s democratization process in the years following it’s democratization when it was just very new was how important leadership was for India’s democracy to succeed. I mean, he put a lot of emphasis on Nehru. We also talked about BR Ambedkar and India’s just got these giants that completely believed in democracy. Benin is different. You write in the book, “In Benin, many of the key players were not committed democratic ideologues, given the representation allotted to the former ruling party and military elites. They were often self-interested and embattled elites staring down the precipice and opting for institutional compromise given the infeasibility of maintaining the status quo.”

It’s remarkable because the country did maintain democracy for so many years, despite not having that leader that completely believed, bought in, and led the people and said, ‘This is how we’re going to govern from here on out.’ Does a democracy really need those committed democrats for its consolidation to occur?

Rachel Beatty Riedl

Benin is such an important case here, because in some ways I stress the democratic desire among the population among the masses that they fought for and were represented in crafting a new democracy based on their ideas of what it could be – this fully open representative system. So, at some level, a belief in democracy was necessary in Benin as in elsewhere. Support for it. Absolutely. But what’s interesting in the Benin case is that you were lacking that level of political elite leadership that were committed democratic ideologues. That’s something that I think I bring to this volume is I’m really looking at a case where that was lacking.

You had to figure out what to do with this authoritarian incumbent president Matthew Kérékou who came to power as a military general through a coup and put in a Marxist-Leninist Party. You had to figure out what to do with him. So, they let him be this figurehead and stay on and compete in the elections, but he didn’t win in the first round. The candidate who won the first election Nicéphore Soglo definitely campaigned as a democrat, but the way in which you got to this compromise situation of democracy that political elites, the military, and these former members of the party could get behind was that they were never excluded. It wasn’t zero sum where you’re going to be held accountable for past atrocities or you’re going to be barred from future competition. You’re going to be excluded from economic opportunities. No.

Both in Benin and in South Africa the Ancien Régime was very carefully included in the new democratic bargain. So, in Benin these former political elites in the military and in South Africa the former apartheid leaders were not cut out. They were included in a new vision of the nation that could represent all. I think that that’s so important because it was never then zero sum. It was a way of allowing democracy as a bargain that could advance people’s interests when the old system was clearly no longer sustainable, when it was clear that the old system was not going to suffice, they couldn’t maintain it any longer. Only then were they willing to offer this new democratic bargain. That’s because they weren’t ideologically committed to it, but they saw it as a path forward. So, then people were willing to give it that space.

I think it’s especially striking in Benin the way in which Matthew Kérékou is reelected. You know, Soglo himself was still running. He had another term and he was defeated. The population voted back the former military slash leftist party authoritarian leader. They called him the chameleon because he was born again. He was a nouveau democratic supporter who was willing to put himself into this new dispensation and once again, try to become the leader, the president, and have executive control under these new bounded rules. I think that is really the epitome of someone who you could say was not a committed democrat. Maybe he came to believe, but maybe he just wanted to compete and win. And he did, but he also lost and he accepted that loss.

jmk

It always amazes me when countries elect former dictators back to office and it amazes me even more when those former dictators actually continue to govern democratically. That they don’t just reimpose the authoritarian regime. They accept the rules of the game and go forward. But at the same time, Benin is a country that’s experienced some recent democratic backsliding and you write about it in this chapter. A lot of people have written about it, to be honest with you and a lot of it originates from the current president, Patrice Talon. Why don’t you just tell us a little bit about him and how he came to win the presidency?

Rachel Beatty Riedl

Yes. This is the story of Benin right now that is really concerning. You know, it’s one of the biggest drops in any measure of democracy over the last few years, whether a freedom house or polity or V-Dem. Every measure of and just basic observation demonstrates that democracy is really at risk right now in Benin. Democratic freedoms have been significantly curtailed and democratic competition has been significantly curtailed by Patrice Talon as the current president. What’s interesting about Patrice Talon and his rise to power is that he is perhaps the most powerful economic elite in Benin. He is the King of Cotton, so he controls the cotton industry which has significant impact on all of the farmers, particularly the farmers in Northern Benin who produce cotton.

So, he has this really direct link to the population in terms of his economic position in the number one export industry in Benin and also in terms of his licensing and control over a port in Benin which is an important aspect of the economy because it connects to imports from Nigeria. So, Patrice Talon has this incredible economic concentration of power and during the period of the preceding president, Yayi Boni, there was a feud. There was a very significant feud between Talon and Yayi Boni. There are some who say that it’s because Talon’s control over the port and his license was put at risk by the former president and then there was an accusation that Patrice Talon tried to poison. Yayi Boni. So, Patrice Talon had to flee the country and was living abroad in exile until some international mediation occurred.

Afterwards Patrice Talon was able to come back to Benin and ran for president. So, the story in some ways about Patrice Talon which is really interesting is that he was the economic elite who funded the prior candidates. Many different candidates. Again, because of this fluid party system, not one single party represented him, but many political candidates, many former opposition leaders and the like, and that was so that he could have the kind of political influence that he needed. This is a global story. Economic elites funding political candidates, so they have the political influence that they need.

But when that economic dominance was put into question and he had to flee the country, it seems as though he thought, ‘Well, the best way for me to make sure I get the political landscape that I need as this economic king is to also be the president.’ That’s just my, you know, psychological analysis. But certainly, his economic wellbeing was put into jeopardy. Then he came back to capture the political sphere. So, once he became president, he quickly began to rule in a way that started to centralize executive power, claim more executive privilege, limit the roles of other bodies, have more influence and loyalists within the judiciary, and use the legislature as the route to making legislation that would make it more difficult for civil society to operate, for a free press to operate and for opposition political parties and candidates to operate.

This is really devastating because it breaks the consensus model. It breaks the participatory nature of the inclusive bargain that Benin constructed in the National Conference and has maintained ever since. So, in some ways, Patrice Talon has been the only one able to do it because of his degree of economic concentration coupled with his role as executive. It’s just too much concentration of power. So, Benin is in a really difficult place. Civil society mobilization that has been key to its maintenance. Prior moments of contestation over incumbents trying to centralize and maybe change the rules to be able to maintain their rule have been countered by a really robust democratic mobilization from the very start, this kind of mass support for democracy, and willingness to mobilize.

But because there are so many barriers that Talon is putting in place, that is becoming very dangerous for people to do. So, it’s a very concerning moment. I’m hopeful that the next elections will again bring back what Benin is known for and that ‘incumbents learn to lose’ to quote Joe Wong. But it’s a moment of extreme concentration that Benin has not seen before.

jmk

So, sometimes when we think about leaders concentrating power, it can seem very abstract. It’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly they did. There’s two different articles that I found that really brought home the impact on democracy that some of those reforms did and I liked when you mentioned about adding barriers, because I think that’s really the theme. He took low barriers to entry and increased them, so that it really kind of undermined the basic constitutional principle of Benin’s democracy. So, The Economist wrote, “With only two parties on the ballot, both of them supporters of President Patrice Talon, Benin’s general election on April 28th was an unhappy throwback to the country’s post-independence Marxist era, when voters had no real choice at all.”

And then there’s a second article. It’s from The New York Times and they write, “Some races had no candidates at all, allowing Mr. Talon to appoint loyalists.” That to me really kind of drives home the point. I mean, it was a low barrier to entry. It was easy to get into races, easy to run. And even though you might not win, it was easier to be able to go from just being somebody who wanted a seat at the table to having a seat at the table. So, now President Talon was able to manipulate the elections and create very much a competitive authoritarian system if not something even more extreme than.

Rachel Beatty Riedl

Exactly. So, President Talon has dramatically changed these low barriers to entry for political parties and for candidates and has made them extremely high barriers to entry which has effectively disqualified the opposition. So, what we see now is largely a single party state or not a coherent one party, but a completely pro-Talon set of political elites in the National Assembly, because of a number of changes to electoral law. Again, it’s about the rules that determine who is allowed to run and under what circumstances.

So, for example, prior to the presidential elections, the electoral rules were changed that said presidential candidates had to have nominations from a certain number, a certain percentage of either mayors or National Assembly candidates. So, you could only run for president if you had nomination from current mayors or National Assembly representatives, but those National Assembly elections had already disqualified the opposition parties. Therefore, you didn’t have National Assembly parties that could nominate an opposition candidate to run against him.

So, by changing the electoral rules, you disqualified the possibility for any opposition candidate and in a very subtle way, in a sense, because it’s not saying opposition candidates can’t run. It’s just that they became disqualified or they weren’t able to complete the nomination process that was required. So, it was just a legalistic measure and this dramatically changes what has been the key defining element of Benin’s democracy. It’s very targeted, using the legislature in place and the judiciary in place to use nominally democratic institutions to make changes to those institutions that then delegitimize the possibility for the opposition to run.

Of course, this is a trend that we see more broadly in terms of the new mode of democratic backsliding. We see it around the world. We see it in the United States. We see it in Europe. We see it in Africa and Latin America, et cetera, et cetera. It’s using the institutions of democracy and the branches (the judiciary, the legislature, the executive, the bureaucracy) to make and enforce laws that limit democratic struggle, content, competition.

jmk

So, Benin is a country that has had amazing democratic achievements. I want to emphasize that because right now they’re seeing some real challenges to the basic foundations of its democracy. Looking forward, do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about Benin’s democratic prospects?

Rachel Beatty Riedl

I’m an optimist at heart, but I’m very worried. I’m very worried about the next set of elections, because I think that they will be very telling about what is possible. Right now the opposition is effectively gone at every level of government. So, the question is, will Talon try to run again or implement a successor that will keep the opposition at bay or whether it will be an opportunity for another renewal. And renewal is what Benin is known for. Renewal is what has been at the heart of the democratic story of Benin. Since its National Conference, it has had this model. So, that’s what allows me to be an optimist. Because of the strength of civil society mobilization.

But in talking with members of the civil society, in particular around groups that have been funded to do this kind of democratic accountability work, do kind of audits of different portions of the bureaucratic functioning, they are feeling very repressed. I mean, very, very surveyed, narrow in terms of the scope of what they can do. The attack on media is really significant. Again, using the tools of the legislature and special courts, Benin has adopted a new law that can prosecute journalists who share false information via social media. So, any critique of the president, for example, that one could say is false or a journalist who shares some information from a source to another journalist via social media, via texting WhatsApp, whatever, they could be prosecuted for that, if any element of that is shown to be not fully demonstrated to be true.

So, the chilling effect that this has for the free media in Benin is huge. A special court for drug trafficking and counterterrorism is also used to harass and round up opposition. There’s a lot of headwinds and there’s a lot of concern. But we will see if Benin can mobilize and again, kind of reclaim its democratic representative and accountable governance.

jmk

Well, thank you so much for joining me today, Rachel. You really opened my eyes to all the different things that Benin can show us and really teach us about democracy. It’s not necessarily the typical democracy and those are the best at being able to really challenge those preconceptions of what democracy is and how it has to be constructed. And if there’s one thing that I would say for hope for Benin’s democracy, it’s that it was never elite driven. From what it sounds like, it was always citizen driven. So, I think that the faith that we have needs to not be in the elites, in the political leaders, but once again, in the citizens. So, thank you so much for joining.

Rachel Beatty Riedl

Absolutely. It’s a pleasure and it’s a real reminder to citizens everywhere to stand up for democracy in these moments of challenge and to use the power that we have.

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7 thoughts on “Rachel Beatty Riedl on Benin. Democracy in Hard Places.

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  1. Africa is not the only place where you see lack of democracy. Particularly, my home country Nicaragua has been struggling with the lack democracy for years. Many Nicaraguans have fled the country like myself because the government don’t allow pacific protests just because civiians demans and fight for freedom and justice. It is easier for this authoritarian regime to execute, imprison, torture and dissapear citizens. It would be great If you could talk abou what is going on with Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba.

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