Benin downgraded as civic freedoms deteriorate

  • Judicial persecution of journalists and activists
  • Recent legislative and presidential elections marred by protests, violence and human rights violations.
  • A number of opposition members either arrested or in exile
  • 5th country in West Africa to be downgraded over the past 6 months

Benin has been downgraded from Obstructed to Repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks violations to civic freedoms, including the freedoms of expression, association and assembly, in every country across the world.  A ‘Repressed’ rating means that in Benin there are serious restrictions to fundamental freedoms.

“Activists, journalists and members of the opposition have been threatened and persecuted,” said human rights activist John Gbenagnon. “Harassment through arbitrary arrest, detention, targeted use of legal and regulatory measures and restrictions on finances has become a common experience for many human rights activists and opposition members in Benin.”

Democratic  freedoms  in Benin have deteriorated under President Patrice Talon’s administration, who was recently re-elected in April 2021 after a controversial election characterised by the absence of main opposition candidates.

Many opposition candidates were excluded from the presidential ballot after a new electoral law, adopted in the absence of opposition parties in the National Assembly, required presidential candidates to be ‘sponsored’ by at least 10 percent of parliament members and/ or mayors. Several opposition members have been arrested in the past few months, while others remain in exile or were disqualified from participating. The exclusion of opposition parties from elections sparked protests and violence a few days before the vote, killing at least two people in Savè.

The CIVICUS Monitor is concerned that the deterioration of rights around elections has become a common theme in Benin. Previous legislative elections, in April 2019, were marred by civic space violations, including an internet shutdown and the use of excessive and lethal force  against protesters; protests were banned in many localities and demonstrators were arbitrarily arrested and detained. Among those arrested and prosecuted was trade unionist Joseph Aïmasse, from Confédération Syndicale des Travailleurs du Bénin, who was sentenced on 1 April 2019 to two months in prison and a 360 USD fine for having called for an ‘unauthorised protest’.

Arrests and targeting of those with views contrary to the state have become more common in Benin. The vaguely-worded 2018 Digital Code, recently criticised by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions, is being used as a tool to arrest and prosecute bloggers, journalists and opposition members. Under this law, prominent investigative journalist Ignace Sossou was arrested and sentenced in December 2019  to an initial prison sentence of 18 months and a fine; Sossou was charged with ‘harassment via electronic means‘ after quoting the public prosecutor on Twitter during a media workshop.

Media freedoms are increasingly under threat in Benin. The country’s national media regulator, Haute Autorité de l’Audovisuel et de la Communication (HAAC), has arbitrarily sanctioned media outlets and journalists. For example, in December 2019 Radio Soleil, owned by an opposition leader, was ordered to ‘suspend broadcasts’ until further notice after the HAAC rejected the station’s application to renew its license.

In a particularly regressive step for justice, in April 2020 Benin withdrew from a specific article of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) Protocol, that prevents individuals and CSOs from submitting complaints directly to the Court.

Benin’s civic space downgrade  mirrors a decline in democratic freedoms across West Africa:  Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Niger and Togo were downgraded from Obstructed to Repressed in December 2020, indicating a worrying trend in the region. 

All five countries had presidential elections in 2020 and 2021, mostly fraught by controversy, civic space violations and increased political tension. In 2019, Nigeria had its rating changed to Repressed, a year after Senegal also saw its rating deteriorate from ‘Narrowed’ to Obstructed.







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