Rumours had been swirling for days that President Emmanuel Macron was planning a visit to Cameroon and Benin, and confirmation finally arrived yesterday from the Élysée Palace that the trip will go ahead. President Macron will indeed visit Benin Monday 27 July 2022 and the trip will include a meeting with controversial Benin President, Patrice Talon.
Benin had for many years been a post-Cold War success story, building a healthy democracy since 1991 and being something of an inspiration for other countries in the region. However the success story ended in 2016, when Patrice Talon came to power. The last six years have seen significant backsliding in terms of human rights and democracy. Under President Talon, the country has seen the elimination almost all possibility of legitimate opposition and an erosion of judicial independence. These years have seen the detention of people who criticise the President on Facebook, the jailing of journalists and the closure of respected publications and broadcast media. President Talon has appointed his personal lawyer Joseph Djogbenou as president of Benin’s Constitutional Court, in a move seen as a drive by President Talon to bring the institution under his control and to pass laws that are opposed by parliament and the population. A new judicial body, known as CRIET, ostensibly created to fight corruption and terrorism has targeted President Talon’s political rivals. After the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights repeatedly ruled against his administration’s policies, President Talon’s government prevented the court from hearing cases brought against him by individuals and nongovernmental organizations.
But perhaps the most worrying development for the international community was the arrest and imprisonment of two of Benin’s most well-known opposition figures. Reckya Madougou and Joël Aivo were arrested, sentenced and imprisoned in 2021 on what are widely accepted to be trumped up charges. Their cases were highlighted again this month when Belgium-based NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers filed a report about their continued imprisonment to the United Nations Universal Periodic Review on Benin.
So why is President Macron choosing this moment to visit Benin? The Élysée Palace has explained that since November 2021, northern Benin has been facing an increase in terrorist attacks, stating “Benin wants French support in terms of air support, intelligence and equipment.” A shared anti-terror agenda is understandable. What will be less understandable will be if President Macron does not take the opportunity of his visit to challenge President Talon about the democratic regression and human rights abuses.
Rogatien Biaou, the President of the Alliance Patriotique Nouvel Espoir and a former Foreign Minister of Benin, was adamant that President Macron has a responsibility to tackle President Talon on the subject of imprisoned opposition leaders in Benin.
“When President Macron speaks with President Talon, he should remember that he is a addressing a man who is entrenching his autocracy in Benin. He should not be under any illusions. Nor should he feel it is acceptable to look the other way. It is essential that relations between Benin and France be built on foundations of equality, as well as honest and open dialogue. True friends speak the truth. France is not providing genuine support to Benin when it turns a blind eye to the persecution of opposition leaders such as Reckya Madougou and Joël Aivo. President Macron should seize the opportunity to demand their immediate release.”Rogatien Biaou, President of the alliance Patriotique Nouvel Espoir
The world will be watching early next week. Just how much of a blind eye will President Macron be willing to turn in order to flatter President Talon? Or will President Macron rise to the occasion and stand up for Reckya Madougou and Joël Aivo?