Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1990

In the Republic of Benin in 1990, the single-party,
military-dominated regime, which had been in place for the
past 17 years, came to an end. Widespread public discontent
with the old regime, which manifested itself in 1989 in
strikes and demonstrations, reached a climax at the beginning
of the year. In February a National Reform Conference voted
to set the country on a democratic, multiparty course.
Although President Mathieu Kerekou remained the Chief of State
during 1990, the Government was directed by a civilian
transition team led by Prime Minister Nicephore Soglo, who was
chosen by the February Conference. A 22-member High Council
of the Republic acted as the interim parliamentary arm. Some
24 political parties were founded during 1990 and actively
prepared to contest March 1991 legislative and presidential
elections. A new Constitution was approved by referendum on
December 2. Local mayoral elections were held in November.
Benin's armed forces number approximately 6,000 personnel and
are under the direction of the civilian Prime Minister, who is
also Minister of Defense. In addition to the regular army,
there are small navy, air force, and national gendarmerie
contingents. The once dominant Beninese military maintained a
low profile in 1990. The Beninese militia was formally
dissolved in June. A national conference on military
restructuring transferred control of the police, customs
forces, and foresters to civilian ministries in April. The
Government also decreed that soldiers could disobey a
superior's order if that order would lead to a violation of
human rights. Prime Minister Soglo has called for a
professional, depoliticized military oriented toward civic
action, development, and antismuggling controls.
Benin's underdeveloped economy is largely based on subsistence
agriculture, cotton production, regional trade, and smallscale
offshore oil production. In accordance with World Bank
and International Monetary Fund agreements, Benin has
undertaken a number of austerity reforms, including
elimination of many state-owned corporations, reduction of
fiscal expenditure, deregulation of trade, and expansion of
the private sector. Despite these measures, Benin's small
modern economy remained depressed in 1990 due to falling world
prices for local exports, high debt service charges, and
widespread unemployment.
In Benin, 1990 was a watershed year for human rights. The
transition Government released all remaining political
prisoners in March, encouraged freedom of expression,
facilitated the return of Beninese political exiles to
participate in the reform process, and oversaw the development
of a new Constitution that provides for many human rights
safeguards, including a prohibition of torture. The
Government also invited several international monitoring
organizations to Benin during the year; welcomed in March the
formation of a nongovernmental monitoring organization, the
National Human Rights Commission; and assisted a newly formed
association of former political prisoners, which sponsored a
human rights forum in May. In general, the transition
Government committed itself to establish a solid legal
foundation in support of human rights during the period
leading to national elections which, if fully implemented,
will signifcantly enhance the respect for human rights in
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
      a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing
There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial
killings in 1990.
      b. Disappearance
There were no reports of disappearance in 1990.
      c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The new Constitution forbids torture and cruel, inhuman, or
degrading treatment, and there were no reports of torture or
inhuman punishment in 1990. Public attention focused on past
incidents of torture. In April the media gave heavy coverage
to former political prisoners and presented detailed reports
on their mistreatment. The official government radio
discussed the case of Remy Akpopo Glele, a "prisoner of
conscience" championed by Amnesty International (AI).
Television interviews with former prisoners shocked viewers
with camera close-ups of scarring and disfigurement caused by
Civilian prison conditions in Benin remained very poor.
Sanitation and medical facilities are deficient, and the
prison diet is grossly inadequate. In July the official state
newspaper published an expose of scpjalid prison conditions at
the Athieme prison, citing severe overcrowding, structural
faults, and inadequate medical care.
      d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile
There were no reports of arbitrary arrest or detention in
1990. The democratic Reform Conference led directly to a
general amnesty in March for the 44 remaining political
detainees. A visiting AI team in May noted that there were no
remaining political prisoners in Benin.
On March 6, President Kerekou signed a decree permitting
political exiles to return to Benin without restrictions or
fear of reprisal. The decree also returned all previously
confiscated property to the exiles. Following promulgation of
the decree, many exiles returned to Benin. One of the most
celebrated of the returnees was Lieutenant Colonel Francois
Kouyami , former head of the security service. Imprisoned in
1988 for supporting a coup attempt against President Kerekou,
Kouyami later escaped and fled to Nigeria. He returned to
Benin on April 14. The new Constitution includes a provision
which specifically prohibits the Government from exiling any
Beninese citizen.
      e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Benin's legal system is based on French civil and local
customary law. A civilian court system operates on the
provincial and national levels. Defendants have the right to
be present at their trial and the right to an attorney (at
public expense, if neccesary) . Under the new Constitution,
the highest courts are the Constitutional Court and the
Supreme Court. In theory, the Constitutional Court will judge
the constitutionality of Beninese laws, monitor human rights
in the legal system, and act as a counterbalance to other
branches of the Government.
The Supreme Court has ultimate jurisdiction over all other
administrative and judicial matters, and is the final recourse
in all legal cases. The new Constitution also provides for a
special High Court of Justice to preside over cases of high
treason or crimes committed against the nation by government
officials. The Reform Conference officially condemned and
terminated the old regime's practice of assigning political
appointees, so-called nonprofessional judges, to judicial
      f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The Constitution provides for the inviolability of the home
and requires that police obtain a warrant from a judge before
entering a residence. No violations were reported in 1990.
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
      a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The new Constitution provides for freedom of expression and of
the press and other media. During 1990 the Beninese freely
discussed politics in public and private forums. The
Government continued to own and operate the local radio and
television stations and 1 daily newspaper, but more than 18
independent private newpapers, representing a wide variety of
viewpoints, made their media debut. La Croix, a weekly paper
published by the Catholic church, and Eco-Magazine, a monthly
journal of opinion, circulated throughout West Africa. In the
past, the official media carried stories approved by and
serving the interests of the State. In 1990 media criticism
of government policies became common, with candid political
debate dominating the independent press.
Under the new policy of governmental openness, the official
media were also given considerable leeway to criticize the
Government directly. The press and television aired widely
diverging views on the constitutional referendum and reported
on all political parties, including the Communist Party of
Dahomey, which had been banned under the previous regime.
Local television, radio, and press also played a major role
in revealing past human rights abuses, including torture (see
Section I.e.).
There was no censorship of foreign books or artistic works.
Foreign periodicals were widely available on newsstands, and
much of the population listened to foreign broadcasts on
shortwave radio. Foreign radio broadcasts were not jammed.
In general, academic freedom is enjoyed by the schools and
Benin's sole university. University professors are permitted
to lecture freely in their subject areas, conduct research,
draw independent conclusions, and form unions.
      b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
In 1990 the transition Government permitted the formation of a
large number of political, service, professional, and other
organizations. A multiparty charter signed on August 13
authorized the registration of independent political parties
and outlined the implementation of democratic principles in
political life (see Section 3).
      c. Freedom of Religion
Christianity, Islam, and traditional religions coexist in
Benin, and adherence to a particular faith does not confer any
special status or benefit. There are no restrictions on
religious ceremonies, teachings, foreign clergy, or conversion
to any religion.
      d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation
Domestic movement is unrestricted. In 1990 the Government
dismantled police and gendarmerie roadblocks to facilitate
free movement. Passport and exit permits needed for travel
outside of West African countries are not difficult to
obtain. Emigration is common. Beninese live and work in
neighboring countries without jeopardizing their citizenship.
Benin welcomes all refugees and helps them integrate into
Beninese society if they choose not to return to their country
of origin. Benin's refugee population declined in 1990,
reflecting continued voluntary repatriation. According to the
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
identified refugees in Benin numbered 611 in July. Of these,
582 were Chadians who had fled the fighting in their country.
Although some have chosen to settle in Benin, many returned to
Chad with the help of the UNHCR. The Government imposes no
restriction on the return of refugees.
Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens
to Change Their Government
During 17 years of authoritarian, single-party rule, the
Beninese were unable to change their government. However, in
1990 the transition Government laid the groundwork for
multiparty democracy in which citizens should be able to
select and change their government through election. The
National Reform Conference denounced the former single-party
system and called for a political system based on the rule of
law and democratic pluralism. The Reform Conference organized
a transition government comprised mainly of technocrats and
set a 12-month timetable for free national elections.
A multiparty charter signed into law on August 13 authorized
the formation of independent political parties and defined the
regulations for founding and organizing political parties.
Special attention was given to regional representation in
parties. The charter mandates that a party's membership must
be national in scope and not limited to any particular
geographic area, ethnic group, or religion. The charter also
directs all parties to defend democracy, national sovereignty,
fundamental liberties, and individual rights. The charter
declares illegal any party which does not respect fundamental
human rights and bans parties espousing violence in any form.
Upon registration with the Ministry of the Interior, political
parties may establish a headquarters, organize activities, and
publish materials. By the end of 1990, some 24 political
parties had been formed. The former single party, the
People's Revolutionary Party of Benin, was formally dissolved
on April 30. The first national legislative and presidential
elections are scheduled for February and March 1991.
The drafting of a new constitution was a stated primary goal
of the transition Government. Approved in a national
referendum in December, Benin's new Constitution proclaims the
principle of "government of the people, by the people, for the
people." It declares that the Beninese State is based on the
rule of law and democratic pluralism, in which human rights,
individual liberties, and justice for all are guaranteed. The
Constitution empowers the Beninese freely to elect their
leaders and representatives and to exercise sovereignty
through popular ref erendums . The document grants universal
suffrage to all Beninese over the age of 18. The Constitution
further grants an elected president—who will lead the
Government—a 5-year term, renewable only once. An extensive
system of checks and balances among the executive,
legislative, and judicial branches is set in the new
Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and
Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations
of Human Rights
In the past, the Government had discouraged the operation of
independent local human rights groups. However, on March 30,
a 45-member nongovernmental Hvunan Rights Commission became
active. Conceived as an internal monitoring organization, the
Commission as well as the Government stress this group's
independence from the State. As its primary goal, the
Commission seeks to promote and safeguard human rights in
Benin through close study of national and international human
rights conventions, investigation of alleged human rights
violations, and implementation of national educational
campaigns on human rights. Other private groups, including
the African Jurists Association and the Association of Former
Prisoners and Victims of Repression, specifically concern
themselves with human rights issues.
Before 1990, the Government considered proposed investigations
of human rights practices by outside groups to be unwarranted
interference in internal Beninese affairs. However, the
transition Government facilitated several international
investigations of human rights in the past year, including, in
July by the West German Parlicimentary Subcommittee for Human
Rights and an International Committee of the Red Cross
delegation. A team from AI visited Benin in May and
subsequently congratulated Prime Minister Soglo and the
transition Government for the progress in respecting human
rights in Benin.
Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion,
Language, or Social Status
Discrimination based on the above factors is prohibited in the
new Constitution and by law, and there is no evidence of
officially sanctioned discrimination. In August the High
Council of the Republic ratified the U.N. Convention on the
Elimination of Discrimination against Women. It also ratified
U.N. Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic,
Social, and Cultural Rights.
The new Constitution states that women are by law the equals
of men in the political, economic, cultural, and social
spheres, and the Government officially encourages
opportunities for women. However, while Beninese women play a
major role in the commercial sector, in rural areas they have
traditionally occupied a subordinate role and, in particular.
have not enjoyed the same educational opportunities as men.
While no studies are available, violence against women,
including wife beating, occurs, although it is prohibited in
the newly revised family code. Civil penalties may be applied
in cases of domestic violence, but the police and courts are
often reluctant to intervene, considering such affairs to be
"family matters .
According to several local medical practitioners, the practice
of female circumcision is not widespread in Benin. However,
published reports in the United States suggest that about 20
percent of the female population is subject to this practice,
mostly in the northern part of the country. The Government is
making efforts to eradicate this practice through an
educational campaign conducted by government health workers,
and there are signs that the practice is diminishing.
Section 6 Worker Rights
a. The Right of Association
The new Constitution provides for the freedom to organize, to
meet, and to strike, and the Ministry of Justice is working
with local legal experts to revise and update a number of
laws, including the labor code. Approximately 75 percent of
wage earners belong to organized labor unions. Labor was a
driving force in a 14-month national general strike that
paralyzed the country and largely precipitated February's
national democratic reform actions. In March the unions ended
the general strike and lent support to the democratization
Until February the only legally recognized trade union
federation in the country was the National Workers' Union of
Benin (UNSTB) , which was closely linked to the Government and
the ruling party with its long-held Marxist/Leninist
philosophy. Anticipating the February reforms, the UNSTB
declared its independence from the political party in
January. In March the UNSTB voted to break its affiliation
with the Communist-controlled World Federation of Trade
Unions. The UNSTB currently represents 42 of Benin's 80 trade
unions. The remaining 38 declared themselves independent and
began to form other independent trade union federations.
Unions are free to join international labor organizations.
b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively
The Beninese Labor Code provides for collective bargaining.
Individual labor unions are authorized to negotiate with
employers on labor matters and represent workers' grievances
to both employers and to the Government, with the Government
often voluntarily acting as arbitrator. Unions in the
education, hotel, and petroleum sectors exercised these rights
frequently during the year, entering into productive
negotiation with employers. The Labor Code prohibits
employers from taking union membership or activity into
account when making decisions on hiring, work distribution,
professional or vocational training, or dismissals. There are
as yet no export processing zones. Labor laws and practice
are the same throughout the country.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
Forced or compulsory labor is prohibited by Article 3 of the
Labor Code and is not practiced.
d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children
The Labor Code prohibits the employment or apprenticeship of
children under the age of 18 in any enterprise. However,
enforcement by inspectors from the Ministry of Labor and
Social Affairs is erratic, and child labor does occur,
especially in rural areas. Some child labor occurs in urban
areas, primarily in the informal sector. For example, street
vendors of newspapers, smuggled petroleum products, and
foodstuffs are frequently under the age of 16. Children below
the age of 14 often work on family farms.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
Benin's labor force of 2.0 million (out of a population of 4.7
million) is primarily employed in agriculture (80 percent),
with less than 2 percent of the population involved in the
industrial (wage) sector. For the wage sector, the labor code
establishes a 40-hour workweek and sets a minimum wage of
approximately $40 per month. The minimum wage level is
sufficent to provide only rudimentary food and housing for a
family and must be supplemented by subsistence farming or
petty trade in the informal sector if a family is to enjoy a
decent living. The Government supports policies designed to
improve the conditions of workers in both the agricultural and
industrial sectors. For example, it has declared its intent
to provide free or low-cost medical care and social services.
Stringent occupational health and safety standards have
already been established in the Labor Code. The Ministry of
Labor and Social Affairs is responsible for enforcement of
labor laws and regulations, but a number of factors, including
a lack of inspectors and high unemployment, have resulted in
erratic enforcement