Benin tense as president seeks re-election
Benin was once praised as a vibrant democracy in an often troubled region, but most opposition leaders are either in exile, were disqualified by electoral reforms, or have been targeted for investigation by a special court.
COTONOU – Benin President Patrice Talon is seeking re-election on Sunday in a tense ballot, with critics accusing him of rigging the race in his favour by sidelining opposition leaders.
A cotton tycoon first elected to lead the West African nation in 2016, Talon faces two little-known rivals, Alassane Soumanou and Corentin Kohoue.
Benin was once praised as a vibrant democracy in an often troubled region, but most opposition leaders are either in exile, were disqualified by electoral reforms or have been targeted for investigation by a special court.
Tensions rose ahead of the vote, with protests breaking out in several cities in opposition strongholds.
In central and northern Benin, protesters blocked hundreds of cars and trucks travelling between the coast and the north.
On Thursday, in the central city of Save, two people died and five others suffered gunshot wounds after troops fired tear gas and live rounds in the air to break up a demonstration.
"I don't understand what Talon is doing," said Philomene M'Betti Tepa, a resident of the northwestern town of Boukoumbe.
"If the president has issues with opponents, he should spare the people."
Talon's backers have rejected accusations the election will be fixed, saying all the conditions are there for a fair vote.
The electoral commission's president Emmanuel Tiando told AFP on Saturday that despite delays in dispatching electoral material to the north, there was "nothing preventing this election from taking place".
More than 4.9 million people are eligible to vote across 15,531 polling stations. Polls opened at 7.00 am (0600 GMT), and final results are not expected until Monday or Tuesday.
The US, German, French and Dutch embassies as well as the EU delegation in Benin all called for calm and for the vote to go ahead in a free and transparent manner.
Following 17 years of military rule along Marxist-Leninist lines, the former French colony opened up into a multi-party democracy in 1990.
But since Talon won power as an independent candidate, critics say he has used a special economic crimes and terrorism court and electoral reforms as tools to disqualify the opposition.
Still fresh in the memories of many is the political crisis and violence across the country that followed a disputed parliamentary election in April 2019.
Slotted between Africa's powerhouse Nigeria and neighbouring Togo, Benin has seen some economic successes under Talon, who has played up his record while campaigning.
"I support the president because we had so many problems before. Water shortages and power cuts... now it's much better," said Ulrich Adjalla, who lives in the economic capital Cotonou.
"The president can't be good for everyone," said the unemployed 28-year-old, but "I trust him to create jobs for this country's youth."
In the final days of campaigning, the economic capital Cotonou was plastered with blue posters backing Talon and his running mate for the vice-presidency, Mariam Talata.
At a rally in Godomey, Talon said he expected a "KO" -- a knockout victory for which there would be no need for a runoff vote.