Popular outcry over Talon’s new attempt to amend the constitution

Benin's president Patrice Talon

Benin’s president Patrice Talon

BY JIBRIL TURE

UPDATED ON 31 JULY 2018

The brutal rejection in April 2017 by the Benin parliament of a vast constitutional amendment initiated by President Patrice Talon came down as a humiliation for the president, as the legislative body voted to throw out the plan without even debating its content. The rejection was greeted with euphoria by a large segment of the population, including jurists who, while not opposed to amending the constitution, felt Talon’s initiative was intended to strengthen his power and shield himself against prosecution once out of office. History repeated itself this past 5 July when lawmakers supportive of the president—arguably acting on his behalf—attempted to amend the constitution, though on a smaller scale. The popular outcry grew larger, but, apparently, it’s not over.

In April 2017, Talon sought to change 43 out of the 160 articles in the constitution and wanted the parliament to vote on the amendments swiftly, on a so-called ’emergency basis.’ Then followed a vote which narrowly—by only two nay ballots and one abstention—defeated the mere idea of debating the plan, thus resulting in a slap in the president’s face.

The current initiative originated at the National Assembly and was spearheaded by a dream team of legislators loyal to the president: all the four men who have been speakers of the parliament since Benin embraced democracy in 1990, including the current speaker, Adrien Houngbedji, whose unequivocal support for the president blurs the notion of checks and balances. Despite the hard work of the president’s men, the initiative did not go through, but had enough support to be submitted to popular vote via a referendum.

One of the amendments aims at the creation of a Court of Auditors (Cour des Comptes), an institution borrowed from the French public administration that is charged with conducting financial audits of public institutions; another aims to prop gender equality by fostering women’s involvement in politics; yet another calls for holding the various elections on the same date or close enough to cut down costs; the fourth amendment calls for banning death penalty.

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A self-serving proposition by Talon

Judiciary experts and other members of the Benin elite deem these amendments unnecessary, either because they are covered in existing legal mechanisms, or just don’t make any sense. In sum, critics of the initiative, both in parliament and outside it, view it as yet another self-serving proposition by Talon.

Former Benin's Constitutional Court president Robert Dossou

Former Benin’s Constitutional Court president Robert Dossou

Robert Dossou, a former president of the Benin Constitutional Court, stated in an interview broadcast by BBC in mid-July that Benin’s membership in the African Union and the West African Economic and Monetary Union, UEMOA—which is affirmed in the constitution—makes it mandatory for the country to follow the prescriptions of the would-be Cour des Comptes. So he sees no point in a constitutional amendment for that same purpose.

The modified treaty of UEMOA compels the member-states to institute a national Court of Auditors and a transparency code that govern public finances within UEMOA. The Court of Auditors [therefore] is the execution of a decision stemming from Benin’s membership in a communal organization.”

“Mathieu Kerekou didn’t need a constitutional amendment to appoint me director of cabinet at the President’s Office.”

Celestine Zanou, former Director of Cabinet of the late President Mathieu Kerekou.

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Celestine Zanou, former director of cabinet of the late President Mathieu Kerekou—one of the most articulate women in Benin—ridicules the proposed amendment about women’s promotion. In an interview with the local newspaper La Croix published in late July, Zanou, stated:

“They want to make us believe that a wagon carrying 24 women to the National Assembly will be the proof of women being promoted. This is so close to ridiculous we don’t want to push it further. Women’s issues are a matter of clear political will. Mathieu Kerekou didn’t need a constitutional amendment to appoint me director of cabinet at the President’s Office, and I didn’t do poorly. Such examples abound.”

Critics of this amendment point out that President Talon’s cabinet comprises only four women out of two dozen ministers.

Many members of the elite, including Celestine Zanou, slam the amendment relative to holding the elections on the same date or close-enough dates, saying that not only would it not save much money, if any at all, but it would also create other problems.

The opposition members of parliament would probably have voted against the amendment package anyway, but their main, overt justification for doing so—the same reason why the initiative has triggered such a popular outcry, especially on the social media—lies in their interpretation of the idea of holding the presidential and the legislative elections on the same date.

This particular amendment would require extending the legislative term from its current four years to five. Subsequently, the current term, which is supposed to end in six months, would run until 2020. The opposition fears that would result in a free ride for President Talon to stay in power for an additional five-year term until 2026 without standing for new election in 2021 when his current term ends; the theory being that it would take five years to wait for the end of the next legislative term to hold both elections on the same date.

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“Under Patrice Talon, women have no chance. They’re at the mercy of misery, abject poverty, famine, persecution.”

Leonce Houngbadji, leader of the opposition party, Party for the Liberation of the People.

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Talon’s records criticized

This weak argument—more like a suspicion—developed by the opposition appeared strong enough for an apparently large number of voters to buy into it and to use it to get out their frustration about the president’s records in office—which many of his critics describe as appalling.

Leonce Houngbadji, the outspoken, charismatic leader of the opposition party, Party for the Liberation of the People, stated during an appearance on the Paris-based Africa 24 tv in late July that Patrice Talon and his government are trying to “secure their power, and, above all, to stay in power until 2026.” He slams the president’s records about women’s conditions in extremely harsh terms:

Under Patrice Talon, women have no chance. They’re at the mercy of misery, abject poverty, famine, persecution in the marketplaces, on the streets, in their homes, humiliation on a daily basis, disdain.”

Houngbadji supports his claims by stating that “Patrice Talon has annulled all the social measures initiated by the previous administration in favor of women: free caesarean section for women, free schooling for girls, government loans for the poorest, and more.”

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The president’s men push on

In April 2017, President Talon’s own initiative to amend the constitution was killed on arrival by a vote of 60 yes, 22 nays and 1 abstention. The current initiative by his cronies received 62 yes, 19 nays and 1 abstention, which gives the initiative a chance to be voted on by referendum. But, then, the referendum faced a legal roadblock.

According to the law, the earlier a referendum can take place is August 2019. However, undeterred by that legal hurdle and the popular outcry, the president’s men in parliament have initiated legislation to remove that roadblock to hold the referendum as soon as possible.

But  President Talon has stated his unwillingness to go ahead with the referendum, which, analysts say, shows he knows the amendments will be rejected by popular vote. An unquestionable measure of his unpopularity. 

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Justice or Retaliation?

This new demonstration of Benin’s well-known democratic dynamic which sets the otherwise insignificant West African nation apart from several others in Sub-Saharan Africa played itself out on the big stage as well as on the backstage.

According to reliable sources The African has talked to, President Talon’s men at the National Assembly were so keen on pushing the constitutional amendments through that the president’s chief-ally in the legislative body, speaker Adrien Houngbedji, called former President Yayi Boni—now Talon’s staunch political adversary—two days prior to the vote to strike a deal.

Houngbedji offered to stop the looming removal of the parliamentary immunity of two of Yayi’s men at the National Assembly, Idriss Bako and Valentin Djenontin, to save them from being prosecuted for alleged financial wrongdoings, if the former president would ask them to vote in favor of the amendments. Yayi declined the offer, which led to the amendments being voted down on 5 July.

Although earlier on a parliament commission charged with looking into the alleged financial wrongdoings by the lawmakers in question had formally cleared them, saying in its report “there are no proofs of wrongdoing,” on 24 July the parliament voted to remove their immunity anyway. Reactions are split between those who applauded the move on the ground that the incriminated legislators must, indeed, be prosecuted, and those who cried foul, saying that several of the president’s men, including some at the National Assembly, are equally corrupt but are left alone.

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