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03.05.2019 Benin

Benin divided after troops crush post-poll protests

By Sophie BOUILLON
Demonstrators on Thursday barricaded the streets in Cadjehoun around the home of former president Thomas Boni Yayi, which had become the focal point for protests.  By Yanick Folly (AFP)
MAY 3, 2019 BENIN
Demonstrators on Thursday barricaded the streets in Cadjehoun around the home of former president Thomas Boni Yayi, which had become the focal point for protests. By Yanick Folly (AFP)

Troops in Benin maintained a tight clamp on protests Friday after two days of deadly violence sparked by elections in which not a single opposition candidate took part.

Soldiers broke up demonstrations with gunfire on Thursday around the home of ex-president Thomas Boni Yayi, which had become a focal point of protests.

Life returned back to normal in much of the economic capital Cotonou on Friday, but soldiers and police kept a strong presence on the streets around Boni Yayi's house, according to an AFP reporter.

At least two people were confirmed killed in the violence.

Low turnout

Parliamentary elections last Sunday were marked by low turnout and widespread anger at changes to electoral rules that effectively barred opposition parties from fielding candidates.

The final results, issued late Thursday by Joseph Djogbenou, president of Benin's Constitutional Court, showed that all seats were won by the only two parties allowed to take part -- both allied to President Patrice Talon.

Turnout was 27.1 percent, a record low since Benin transited to democracy nearly 30 years ago, although higher than the 23 percent given in preliminary results, Djogbenou said.

The protests began hours after the initial results were released on Wednesday.

Large numbers of troops and riot police -- as well as hundreds of protesters manning burning barricades -- squared off in the streets of Cotonou.

On Thursday, soldiers deployed in force, clearing the streets with gunfire.

Map locating Cotonou and Porto-Novo in Benin.  By Paz PIZARRO (AFP) Map locating Cotonou and Porto-Novo in Benin. By Paz PIZARRO (AFP)

Djogbenou, who is close to the presidency, said the "irregularities" and "disturbances" recorded during polling were not enough to "compromise the validity of the vote".

Two former heads of state, Boni Yayi, who was president from 2006 until 2016, and Nicephore Soglo, in power from 1991 and 1996, had urged Talon to annul the vote which they described as an "electoral state coup".

The small West African state's vibrant political scene meant it was long seen as a model for democracy.

But civil society and rights groups inside and outside Benin say debate and dissent are at threat.

France, the former colonial ruler, said on Friday in a statement it "deplored the violence" and called on all sides to show restraint.

Similarly, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the parties to "exercise maximum restraint and seek to resolve their differences through dialogue," his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Friday.

'What democracy?'

People were bitterly divided on the streets of Cotnou on Friday.

"Benin's democracy was buried on April 28, 2019," said Blaise Dansou Attakoun, a smalltime trader, angry at what he saw as failed elections on Sunday.

But supporters of Talon, president since 2016, pointed fingers of blame instead at his predecessor Boni Yayi who stood down after serving his two full terms in power.

Some say the opposition are using the ex-president as a figure-head because he is "untouchable", but worry how long that can last as a strategy.

"It was Yayi who organised the disorder," said Abdel Adjao, a supporter of the government. "I'm a pro-Talon, they just have to let him work."

Others were more pragmatic, complaining that politicians didn't do much for them, whichever party they came from.

"People say it's the death of democracy, but what democracy are we talking about?" said a passer-by on the streets of Cotonou.

"All the presidents that we had, Yayi as well, they eat, they eat -- and after they leave."

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