| Democratic Process
This section has been updated
by Mr Boubacar Issa Abdourhamane,
a doctorate student at the CEAN, IEP Montesquieu University of Bordeaux
At the beginning of the 1990s, Benin was the first French-speaking State in Africa to initiate a movement of peaceful change, thus opening up the way for democratisation processes. Until that time, the country had been governed since 1972 by the regime of General Mathieu Kérékou who, after putting an end to a cycle of chronic instability, had officially opted for Marxism-Leninism in 1974. This choice led to a policy of State control of the economy and of political hegemony through the Benin Party of the Peoples Revolution (Parti de la Révolution Populaire du Bénin - PRPB), presented as being the avant-garde of the revolution.
By the beginning of the 1980s, this system had earned the nickname of Laxism Beninism in some quarters, due to its lack of affinities with the model supposed to have inspired it, and was beginning to show its limits. The economy was totally bankrupt by 1988, thus creating a crisis of legitimacy of the system. After several months of large-scale protests in many sectors, notably among teachers and civil servants faced with months of unpaid salaries, General Kérékou was obliged to launch a liberalisation process in 1989: a general amnesty and ministerial re-shuffle on 4th August followed, above all, by the announcement that Marxism-Leninism was being dropped and that a National Conference was to be called for 7 December.
This conference was held in Cotonou from 19 to 28 February 1990 under the chairmanship of Mgr Isidore de Souza (who died last March), initially in an atmosphere of great uncertainty but gradually achieving an increasingly wide consensus. The participants eventually obliged the Head of State to recognise the sovereignty of their assembly. At the end of this conference, temporary institutions were set up for a transition period of one year with the objective of writing up a constitution and organising general elections. The conference left President Kérékou in office and elected Nicéphore Soglo to the post of Prime Minister. A High Council of the Republic (Haut Conseil de la République - HCR) led by Mgr de Souza acted as legislative assembly and constitutional court. Finally, a Constitutional Commission was set up and was assigned the mission of drawing up a new Constitution.
After local elections in November, the Constitution was ratified by the people on 2 December and promulgated on 11 December 1990. The general elections were organised on 17 February 1991, followed shortly afterwards by the presidential election that saw the victory, in the second round of 24 March, of N. Soglo over M. Kérékou (67.5% against 32.5%). The first term of office of the parliament came to an end with the parliamentary elections of 26 March 1995. Finally, the presidential election of 3 and 17 March 1996 saw the return to power of Mathieu Kérékou, thus bringing the first constitutional cycle of democratic renewal to a close. Benin seems to have settled into a truly functional democratic system, as was shown by the election of 30 March 1999 leading to the election of the third parliament. The results of the general elections gave 27 seats to the Benin Renaissance Party (Parti de la Renaissance du Bénin - PRB), 11 to the democratic Renewal Party (Parti du Renouveau Démocratique - PRD), 9 to the Social Democratic Party (Parti Social Démocrate PSD), 6 to the African Movement for Democracy and Progress (Mouvement Africain pour la Démocratie et le Progrès MADEP), 10 to the Action Front for Renewal and Development (Front dAction pour le Renouveau et le Développement FARD), 4 to the Impulse for Progress and democracy (Impulsion au Progrès et à la Démocratie IPD), 4 for the Star Alliance (Alliance Etoile), 3 for Car Dunya and 2 for the Movement for Citizens Commitment and Awakening (Mouvement pour lEngagement et le Réveil du Citoyen MERCI), with the other seats being distributed between various political formations and independent candidates. Through the various alliances between parties, the opposition thus won 42 seats, against 41 for the movement of the President. Adrien Houngbéji of the PRD is the Speaker of the National Assembly. What is remarkable is that each of the elections that has taken place has led to a shift of power between the movements that seems to be accepted, as the political struggle gradually becomes a more peaceful one. Presidential elections are scheduled for March 2001.
Learning from their experience of the instability of the 1970s, the members of the Beninese Constitutional Commission decided to create a single executive branch, whilst avoiding risks of presidential abuse of power. Robert Dossou, an influential member of the Commission, considered that the Constitution of 10 December 1990 set up a presidential system attenuated by elements of parliamentarianism. The President of the Republic is elected by direct universal suffrage in a two-round election on a first-past-the-post basis, with a term of office of 5 years that can be renewed just once. He holds the executive power and is the head of the government whose members report to him. He is liable in cases of high treason, contempt of parliament or violation of principles of honour or integrity. As is usual in a Presidential system, the President does not have the right to dissolve the National Assembly. In return, the latter does not have the power to overturn the government.
Legislative power is in the hands of parliament composed of a single National Assembly elected every four years by direct universal suffrage without any limits being placed on the number of terms of office that can be served. The law sets the terms of eligibility of the members of parliament whose numbers have increased from 64, in 1991, to 83 since the electoral law of 17 January 1995. They are still elected by proportional representation, but with seats now being distributed on the basis of the highest average and in 18 constituencies, 3 per province. The Beninese National Assembly may not be able to pass a vote of no confidence in the government, but it does have real powers to question and to contest its acts, as can be seen in the disputes it has had over the years with the government, disputes that have always been resolved through the normal constitutional mechanisms. With the elections of 30 March 1999, Benin elected its third parliament of the era of renewal.
In constitutional matters, it is the Constitutional Court, set up on 7 June 1993 by decision 15-DC (16 February 1993) of the HCR, that is the highest authority of the State. It resolves conflicts between institutions and guarantees that fundamental rights and civil liberties are respected. It also oversees the fairness of elections and proclaims the results, although the elections have been organised by an Autonomous National Electoral Committee (CENA ) since the electoral law promulgated on 17 January 1995. The Court is composed of 7 members appointed by the National Assembly (four members) and the President (three members) for a renewable term of office of 5 years and its decisions are rendered in first hearings and as a final recourse. Headed initially by Elisabeth Pognon and then by Conceptia Ouinsou, the Beninese Constitutional Court has stood out, since it was created in 1993, for its independence with regard to parliament and the executive. The possibility given to simple citizens to turn to the court has turned it into a peoples court. It has thus given hundreds of decisions at the request of private individuals and often in their favour, thus becoming a veritable instrument in the promotion of the rule of law.
As well as this, the Constitution also created an Economic and Social Council. Its role is to give its opinion about draft laws, orders and decrees, either when asked to do so by the government or on its own initiative (section VII of the Constitution).
Judicial power is exercised by the Supreme Court, the courts and tribunals. The Supreme Court is the highest authority of the State in administrative and legal matters and as far as the accounts of the State are concerned. It is also competent to judge disputes in local elections. Its President cannot be dismissed once in place and is appointed by the President for a period of five years, renewable once. The Constitution also set up a High Council of the Judiciary (Haut Conseil de la Magistrature) that acts a disciplinary body with regard to magistrates, assists the President of the Republic in his role as the guarantor of the independence of the legal system and gives its opinion before the appointments of judges made by the President of the Republic on the recommendations of the Minister for Justice. Lastly, the Constitution also stipulates that there is a High Court of Justice to judge the President of the Republic and members of the government in case of treason, but it has never had to sit. On the whole, Benin has achieved considerable progress in the field of the independence of the legal system, as can be seen through the many legal decisions that have gone against the various holders of political power.
Decentralisation and Devolution
The Constitution establishes the right of the territorial authorities to administer their affairs freely. Since the elections of November 1990, there have been, on the local level, urban and rural communes with elected mayors at their head. The States General of the Local Administration was held in Cotonou from 7 to 10 January 1993. The final report recommended the gradual decentralisation of territorial administration with a gradual transfer of competence.
The process of decentralisation is based on five laws: law n° 97-028 on the orientation of the organisation of territorial administration, law n° 97-029 on the organisation of the communes, law n° 98-005 on the organisation of communes having a particular status (the countrys three large cities Cotonou, Porto-Novo and Parakou), law n° 98-006 on the communal and municipal electoral system and law n° 98-007 on the financial regime of the communes.
As well as this, a new territorial division of the territory of the country was recently adopted by the National Assembly. It divides the six initial departments into twelve, creates 77 communes (including those with a particular status), arrondissements, quarters and villages. Since the first elections of 1991, the local councils have not been renewed. However, the local elections originally scheduled for the month of May 1999 have not yet taken place.
The Constitution leaves it to the Charter of Political Parties, defined by law n° 90-23 of 13 August 1990, to determine the conditions in which the parties are formed and carry out their activities. There are currently almost 100 of them registered with the Home Ministry, but many of them exist only on paper, with their implantation in the country being little more than virtual. However, there are about forty parties that have regularly stood, alone or in coalitions, in the general elections of March 1995 and of March 1999, and about twenty of these are in fact represented in the National Assembly. The most important among them is Nicéphore Soglos Renaissance of Benin Party (PRB) which is now far ahead of the field with 27 members of the assembly. Then comes Adrien Houngbédjis Party for Democratic Renewal (PRD), the Action Front for Renewal and Development (FARD-Alafia), close to Mr Kérékou, B. Amoussous Social Democratic Party (PSD), the recently-created African Movement for Democracy and Progress (MADEP) of Séfou Fagbohoun, Adamou NDiayes Democratic Union for Democracy and Solidarity (UDS), François Tankpinous Our Common Cause (NCC) that has split and given birth to Albert Tévoédjrés Together (Ensemble) Party, the Rally of Liberal Democrats (RDL) of Séverin Adjovi or Pascal Fantodjis Beninese Communist Party. The party political landscape is marked by spectacular shifts of alliance that are often referred to as political migration. Most of the parties have very much a regional electorate, although this situation has not caused disturbances of the due electoral process since the troubles at the time of the first presidential election of 1991.
The Union landscape of Benin is very much divided with a large number of organisations, most of which are grouped together into one of the countrys five central organisations. The National Union of the Workers Organizations of Benin (Union Nationale des Syndicats des Travailleurs du Bénin - UNSTB) has managed to outlive the Marxist regime under which it was the only authorized union organisation. Since the beginning of the 1990s, four other such structures have come into being: the Central Organisation of Autonomous Unions (Centrale des Syndicats Autonomes - CSA), the General Confederation of Workers of Benin (Confédération Générale des Travailleurs du Bénin - CGTB) and the Confederation of Independent Union Organizations (Confédération des Organisations Syndicales Indépendantes - COSI).
These unions are implanted almost exclusively in the civil service and in the public sector. Since 1997, the State has granted union organisations annual aid of 300 million Francs CFA.
The States attachment to the principles of human rights is explicitly stated in the preamble to the Constitution of December 1990 with its reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and the African Charter of Human Rights and the Rights of Peoples, adopted in 1981 by the OAU and ratified by Benin on 20 January 1986, whose provisions are an integral part of the present Constitution and of Beninese law and have a higher value than domestic law. It is also included in the appendices to the text of the Constitution. Section II of the Constitution deals with the rights and duties of the human being. Alongside the many NGOs engaged in promoting human rights, there are two organisations that keep a watch on the effective respect of human rights: the Beninese League of Human Rights, close to the Communist Party, and, above all, the Beninese Commission for Human Rights led by Mr Saïdou Agbantou. The latter presided over the Autonomous National Electoral Commission in charge of organising the general elections of March 1995 and March 1999. As well as this, the many decisions of the Constitutional Court which can be referred to directly by the citizen in cases of violations of human rights, is a sign of undeniable progress in the rule of law.
The landscape of the media in Benin went through a period of unprecedented effervescence with the weakening of the Kérékou regime and, above all, the period of transition. Many publications appeared, although most of them were not to survive beyond the first few issues, essentially for economic reasons. Currently, the frequency of publication of many is somewhat variable, while others appear only at election time. The first publications to appear at the end of the 1980s were La Gazette du Golfe, Le Forum de la Semaine and Tam-Tam Express.
Today, however, there are five daily papers on top of the government newspaper, La Nation: Le Matin since 1994, Le Citoyen and Les Echos du Jour since 1996, Le Point au Quotidien since 1997 and Le Matinal since 1998. Many weekly or twice-monthly publications try to keep up regular appearances.
The deregulation of the audiovisual sector is currently underway. After adopting the law and putting out a call for tenders, the High Audio-Visual and Communication Authority that is responsible for guaranteeing the freedom and protection of the Press, issued authorisations to the promoters of private, commercial or associative radio and television stations that broadcast their programmes. Since 1997, the State has granted aid of 300 million CFA Francs to the private Press. Although some newspapers have established links with the political world, the independence of the Press is pretty well guaranteed as can be seen through the organisation of the access of the various political forces to State media during election campaigns, as well as the rather outspoken tone adopted by the government-controlled Press.