Freedom in the World 2000 - 2001

Freedom House
 

Benin
 

Polity: Presidential-parliamentary democracy
Political Rights: 2
Civil Liberties: 2*
Status: Free
Economy: Mixed statist
Population: 6,400,000
PPP: $867
Life Expectancy: 54
Ethnic Groups: African [42 ethnic groups, including Fon, Adja, Bariba, Yoruba] (99 percent)
Capital: Porto-Novo
Ratings Change: Benins civil liberties rating changed from 3 to 2 due to an easing of restrictions on the press.
 

Overview

Benin was rattled in January when President Mathieu Kérékou appeared on television accusing militias of certain parties of being involved in plotting to overthrow him. Opposition parties demanded proof. The coup rumors were linked to grumbling for field allowances by Beninese soldiers who had served as peacekeepers in Liberia. Such demands had led to a coup in nearby Côte dIvoire in December 1999, and it appeared as though Benins leader feared the same.

Benin was once the center of the ancient kingdom of Dahomey, the name by which the country was known until 1975, when Kérékou renamed it. Six decades of French colonial rule had ended in 1960, and Kérékou took power 12 years later, ending successive coups and countercoups. He imposed a one-party state under the Benin Peoples Revolutionary Party. But by 1990, economic hardships and rising internal unrest forced him to agree to a transition to democracy that culminated in his defeat by Nicéphore Soglo in the March 1991 presidential elections. The countrys human rights record subsequently improved. Kérékou made a comeback in 1996.

Benin held legislative elections in March 1999 that further consolidated the democratic transition the country began a decade ago. It was the third such election held since a national conference in 1990 ushered in democracy after nearly 20 years of single-party rule under Kérékou, who pursued Marxist-Leninist policies.

An alliance of about ten opposition parties formed early in 2000, led in part by former President Nicéphore Soglo. The country has up to 100 political parties, and it is unclear how many might present candidates for presidential elections to be held in early 2001.

Historically, Benin has been divided between northern and southern ethnic groups, which are the main roots of current political parties. Northern ethnic groups enlisted during Kérékous early years in power still dominate the military. The armed forces continue to play an apolitical role in government affairs despite concerns about morale within their ranks and ethnic imbalance. The south has enjoyed more advanced development.

Benin is a poor country whose economy is based largely on subsistence agriculture. The government received debt relief in July worth $460 million under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative, which is sponsored by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, for its efforts to implement economic reforms. A code of ethics aimed at curbing graft in the allocation of government contracts was launched in July 1999.

 Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Benin held its first genuine multiparty elections in 1991. The president may serve two five-year terms, while national assembly members may serve an unlimited number of four-year terms. Under the guidance of Benins Independent National Electoral Commission, the legislative polls proceeded smoothly and were judged free and fair by international observers. In the March 1999 election, 56 political parties put up candidates for the 83 parliamentary seats that had been allocated on the basis of proportional representation. It was the first year that an electoral commission in Benin had taken an oath of moral responsibility. The penalty for violation was a stiff fine and five years in prison stripped of all civil and political rights.

The opposition Democratic Renewal Party won 11 of the 83 seats. It maintains cordial relations with Soglos Renaissance Party, which won 27 seats. The two parties and several others in the opposition have a combined total of 42 parliamentary seats against 41 by pro-Kérékou candidates. There are 19 political parties represented in the National Assembly.

Harsh libel laws have been used against journalists, but constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression are largely respected in practice. Most broadcast media are state owned, but they allow opposition and other reports critical of the government. Independent radio and television stations began operating in 1997 under a liberalized broadcasting law. An independent and pluralistic press publishes articles highly critical of both government and opposition leaders and policies. Press repression that occurred in 1999 eased in 2000.

The judiciary is generally considered to be independent but is inefficient and susceptible to corruption at some levels. The judicial system is based on French civil law and local customary law. An African judicial training center for lawyers was set up in Benin in August 2000. Its aim, as a nongovernmental organization (NGO), is to protect free expression and other rights.

Freedom of assembly is respected in Benin, and requirements for permits and registration are often ignored. Religious freedom is respected. Numerous NGOs and human rights groups operate without governmental hindrance. The Benin League for the Defense of Human Rights was a key investigator into claims that hundreds of people were extrajudicially executed in neighboring Togo after the disputed 1998 presidential election there. Human rights are largely respected in Benin, although concern has been raised over the operation of anticrime vigilante groups in the southwest. Mob justice appeared to have decreased somewhat in 2000. Prison conditions are harsh.

The right to organize and join unions is constitutionally guaranteed and respected in practice. Strikes are legal, and collective bargaining is common. A new labor code went into effect in 1999 after long discussions between unions, the government, and the national assembly. Several labor federations are affiliated with political parties and international labor groups. Approximately 75 percent of wage earners belong to labor unions. Laws prohibit employer retaliation against strikers, and the government enforces them effectively.

Although the constitution provides for equality for women, they enjoy fewer educational and employment opportunities than men, particularly in rural areas. Women hold positions in the cabinet and national assembly. In family matters, in which traditional practices prevail, their legal rights are often ignored. They have equal inheritance and property rights, but local custom in some areas prevents them from inheriting real property. Active womens rights groups have been effective in drafting a family code that would improve the status of women and children under the law.

Smuggling children into neighboring Nigeria for domestic service and meager compensation is reportedly widespread. In July 2000, the Child Labor News Service reported that 49,000 rural Beninese children (eight percent of the rural child population) were working abroad. Most were working on plantations in Côte dIvoire or as domestic servants in Gabon.

 ©2000Freedom House, Inc.