After two days of angry post-election unrest in Benin following the publication of parliamentary results, it appears that some sense of calm had returned to the capital Cotonou by late Thursday.
Violence broke out on Wednesday shortly after the announcement of provisional results of Sunday's vote which had been held without a single opposition candidate. This is because of the stringent new eligibility criteria which were essentially meant to bar opposition parties from fielding candidates in Sunday's elections.
Opposition leaders, being displeased with what they perceive as a clampdown on democracy, asked people not to vote and little more than one voter in five turned out for Sunday's election. The preliminary results also demonstrated that over three-quarters of the country's five million registered voters heeded the call to boycott the 'sham' elections.
Two former heads of state, Thomas Boni Yayi, who was president from 2006 up until 2016, and Nicephore Soglo, who held office between 1991 and 1996, had urged Talon to annul the vote which they described as an "electoral state coup" but the latter has been reluctant to do so.
The people demand the return of democracy," Boni Yayi told reporters on Monday, calling on people to resist the incumbent president. "Talon will walk over our dead bodies."
Earlier, soldiers had fired shots as they tried to contain the angry demonstrators. Large numbers of riot police, as well as hundreds of protesters manning burning barricades, squared off in the streets of Benin's economic capital Cotonou.
According to Joseph Djogbenou, the President of Benin's Constitutional Court and a close ally to current President Patrice Talon:
Turnout... was 27.1 percent. It was higher than the 23 percent previously when preliminary results were released. Considering the irregularities and the disturbances (during the vote), these are still not of a nature to compromise the validity and transparency of the vote," said Djogbenou.
Events in the small West African state has given rise to warnings from civil society and rights groups inside and outside Benin. Amnesty International, ahead of the vote, said a "wave of arbitrary arrests of political activists and journalists, and the crackdown on peaceful protests" had reached an "alarming level."
Following a meeting of ministers on Thursday afternoon, the Benin government noted the "professionalism" of the security forces in their efforts to maintain public order.
It seems however that the Benin government is speaking from both sides of its mouth as witnesses and victims of police brutality have come forward to contradict the "professionalism" of the security forces. A witness said three people were killed Thursday as soldiers opened fire, and a video we saw showed troops shooting as protesters fled. In the town of Kandi which is about 620 kilometres to the north, a young man was also killed late Wednesday by shots fired by soldiers.
The police and soldiers... they started firing, they chased people," said a resident. "We heard shots, lots of shots."
A woman died on Thursday after being wounded the day before, medical sources said, and a man was brought to hospital with a gunshot wound to the back.
They aimed at him," the victim's father told AFP. "The bullet went through him. My child is dead."
They made a brutal incursion," said one witness, a relative of former president Thomas Boni Yayi who had led calls for a boycott of Sunday's ballot and whose house has become a focal point of protests. "They fired bursts of bullets," he continued.
Despite the government's assertion of the security forces 'professional' behavior, Interior Minister Sacca Lafia is on record to admitting to French radio RFI that some officers had "gone against given orders" and those found guilty would receive the "toughest punishment".
Democracy at All Costs
The running battles with riot police it seems has not deterred Protestors in Benin who are unrelenting in their fight for democracy. From chanting slogans against President Talon to torching one of the country's largest cotton factories (a sector that Talon used to amass vast wealth prior to his going into politics), and smashing the windows of government buildings, they have vowed to not let the incumbent President destroy their democracy.
Talon... will not be able to kill our democracy," one demonstrator said.
Democracy is precious to us, the people of Benin," said another. "That is why we have protested."
The UN envoy for West Africa, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, was holding talks with regional leaders and officials in Benin to ensure "a peaceful solution", UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York on Thursday, noting a "high-handed response from the security forces."
It remains to be seen whether President Talon will cede to public pressure and annul the elections or better yet resign. However, drawing from previous experiences in the region, authoritarian leaders rarely cede ground or resign. Often times, they are ousted from office.
Header Image Credit: The West Australian