One person was killed and six others were shot and wounded in central Benin, according to a local health official, after troops evacuated protesters days before presidential elections.
Protests erupted in opposition strongholds on the eve of Sunday’s elections, which critics say are biased in favor of President Patrice Talon after the main opposition leaders were sidelined in a crackdown.
A column of military vehicles arrived early Thursday to disperse protesters in the central town of Save, a peak town of protests two years ago, where makeshift barricades of trees and tires blocked a main road.
Troops first fired tear gas before hearing detonations as a soldier fired into the air from an armored vehicle, AFP news agency reported. It was not clear whether these were live or riot tours.
The director of a local dispensary in Save said he took in one dead and six gunshot wounds.
“We admitted them to our clinic… One dead from a live bullet and six shot wounded,” said Jose Godjo, head of the Boni clinic in Save. “All the injured have been transferred to Save hospital.”
Benin was once hailed as a vibrant multi-party democracy, but critics say the country slipped into authoritarianism after Talon’s first election in 2016.
An amendment to the electoral law in 2019 required that presidential candidates be sponsored by at least 16 MPs or mayors. Only six of these 159 elected belong to an opposition party. That meant election officials disqualified many opposition figures from running for Sunday’s vote because they did not have the required documents.
Only two opposition candidates were approved: former minister Alassane Soumanou and Corentin Kohoue, a dissident candidate for the opposition Democratic party. Meanwhile, most of the key opposition figures are living in exile or have been disqualified.
Talon, a cotton tycoon, is campaigning on his economic record, which includes improvements to key infrastructure such as roads, water and energy supplies.
As a candidate in 2016, Talon had pledged to serve only one term in order to avoid “complacency”. His U-turn led to protests, with hundreds of people marching and burning tires on Tuesday in several cities.
Talon, 62, says he needs another term to consolidate the gains of his first. He defended the lawsuits brought against his rivals as justified by their actions.
“I will be a candidate to strengthen this good governance that we have just acquired, and which allows us to start building our country,” he said recently during a tour in southern Benin.
In the last days of the campaign, the economic capital Cotonou was adorned with blue posters of Talon and his running mate, Mariam Talata.
But the usual fervor of presidential campaigns was lacking.
“Since the return of the multiparty system in 1990, this is the first time that the country has organized a presidential election like this: pluralist in appearance, but without choice in reality – and where the re-election of the president appears only formality, ”said Expedit Ologou, a Beninese political scientist.
Critics of Talon say he used a special tribunal for economic crimes and terrorism and electoral reforms as tools to disqualify the opposition.
The political crisis that followed a contested parliamentary election in April 2019 is still fresh in many memories. Tensions erupted into mass opposition protests that were shattered when security forces opened fire with live ammunition.
Parties allied with Talon won all seats after the opposition groups were effectively banned. Some characters then fled into exile.
Tensions increased in the weeks leading up to the vote. An opposition leader was arrested on charges of trying to destabilize the election.
This week, a judge from the Special Tribunal for Economic Crimes and Terrorism fled the country, claiming he was pressured by the government to press charges against opponents.
The government rejects these accusations of “political manipulation” and says that exiled figures were trying to annul the elections.
“Even if his record is very positive, an election is never won in advance,” said Talon communications director Wilfried Houngbedji. “An election must be a party.”
Analysts believe the low turnout could now be a real problem.
“Patrice Talon does not want to be elected with 20 or 30% of the vote, as was his assembly,” said Mathias Hounkpe, political analyst.