Democracy in Benin: achievements and challenges

UNU-WIDER / Aug 2012

President Yayi Boni of Benin was one of the eight African leaders invited to attended the May 2012 G8 summit at Camp David to discuss the issue of food security. This is perhaps an indication that the country is doing something right, at least from the perspective of its donors in the developed world. But what has been the effect of donors on the process of democratic consolidation in Benin?

Benin has long been a particularly important country for donors, it was one of the  first African countries to democratize at the end of the Cold War and as such gained a reputation as 'the laboratory of democratization in Africa'. Two decades have now past since the beginning of Benin's democratic transition, in that time the country has held five presidential elections and, at least from a procedural point of view, democracy appears to be consolidated.

Over this same period the role of foreign aid in the country has changed. Initially development aid was targeted primarily at helping the country survive severe economic problems and allowing the government to fulfill critical functions. Now donors are focusing more on specific aspects of democratic consolidation such as free and fair elections and the promotion of civil society, both directly through democracy aid, and indirectly through placing conditions on aid for development. In the UNU-WIDER working paper 'Beyond Electoral Democracy: Foreign Aid and the Challenge of Deepening Democracy in Benin' Mamoudou Gazibo looks at the effect Foreign Aid has had on democratic consolidation in Benin and argues that while it has a positive impact in some areas it has failed to enhance good governance, the rule of law, and accountability.

Consolidation of Procedural Democracy and Foreign Aid in Benin

Between 2001-2009 overall democracy assistance to Benin totaled approximately US$147 million, which is around 2.6 percent of total aid commitments over this period. During this time donors have been successful in strengthening central government institutions and have provided much needed funding for consolidating the procedural aspect of elections.

A large part of development aid to Benin is channeled through general budget support (GBS). Gazibo points out that it finances at least a quarter to a third of Benin’s annual budget. Furthermore he argues that the provision of budget support has strengthened institutions such as the executive branch, the judiciary and the civil and allowed them to avoid democratic breakdown. Of particular importance is the fact that GBS has allowed government to reliably pay its civil servants and to provide students with bursaries, thus helping avoid mass mobilizations and social instability. In addition to this, donors have also provided the executive with financial and technical support to help formulate regulations surrounding elections and accountability.

With regard to Benin's democratic consolidation donor support to elections has been crucial. A common minimal requirement of democracy is the holding of free and fair elections at regular intervals and Benin undoubtedly has fulfilled this. Donors have contributed to this success in both symbolic and financial ways.

The symbolism comes both from conditions put on development aid and through donors making public pronouncements about the importance of elections. Donors have always insisted that the Finance Ministry adequately fund the Autonomous National Election Commission (CENA), and some have made their funding conditional on this. The US and the Netherlands have also made public announcements about these commitments, thus forcing the Beninese government to notice the issue and get involved.

When it comes to financial support donors have regularly helped to subsidize elections. One particularly important intervention was donor support for CENA in during the 2007 presidential election when it looked as if President Kerokou might violate the two term limit. In 2011 donors played a key role in financing a permanent electronic electoral list, a move considered by many to be a very important step towards fairer elections.

Democratic quality in Benin: The hard road ahead

Gazibo posits that while procedural democracy is well established in Benin a hard road lays ahead when it comes to deepening and widening democracy. Here many substantial issues, including good governance, the rule of law, accountability and transparency, need attention.

Here the argument is that there are three key areas where donor aid has failed to help deepen democracy beyond its procedural aspects. First political parties in Benin remain weak. Second, the media and journalists display a lack of professionalism and are subject to harassment by the current President Yayi Boni. Third, Benin is faced with huge corruption and accountability problems which, as well as harming the quality of democracy, heighten donor fatigue.

i) Political parties

One of the key factors limiting improvement of Benin’s democracy is the state of the political parties. Liberal laws regarding the formation of parties have led to parties being created and dismantled frequently. Many parties that legally exist do not organize political activities or participate in elections. Despite the institutional existence of a majority and an opposition, no party generally presents itself as opposition and challenges of the government are rarely based on serious criticisms of policy
While donors are well aware of the problems that afflict Benin's party system, they are on the whole reluctant to get involved due to the perception that many politicians are 'bandits and thieves'.

Some aid to Benin has been channeled towards programmes aimed at strengthening the national assembly by providing training and capacity building workshops for MPs. While in theory this kind of aid should strengthen Benin's parliament, donors are faced with two types of problem. First many MPs are not interested in getting involved in the programmes, and those that do are often still unable to put aside political differences when debating issues in parliament. Second, there is a high level of MP turnover at each election, consequently the training programs have to be repeated on a regular basis.

There are other potential unintended consequences of development aid in terms of favoring the incumbents at the expense of other political parties. A good illustration is the fact that when USAID provided material and funds to help fight malaria the government timed their distribution to coincide with the elections in order to garner votes.

ii) The media

The media is another area which needs strengthening if democratic quality in Benin is to increase. On this issue donors have been active and improvements have been made. Before political liberalization Benin had only one state television station and one radio station, there are now five independent TV stations and over ten radio stations. The media is also relatively independent of political actors.

However, despite donor efforts, most journalists still do not have a degree and the sector as a whole displays a concerning lack of professionalism. Furthermore President Yayi Boni has proven intolerant towards media accusations of corruption and authoritarian tendencies. This, combined with the lack of professionalism, leads to a large number of journalists being sued due to the unverified and accusatory nature of most newspapers. The media is battling for a new law to penalize press offenses but donors have not been explicitly involved in advocating for such a law.

iii) Accountability and corruption

Accountability and corruption are perhaps the two areas in which democracy in Benin faces the largest challenges. Benin, according to Freedom House, is one of the most corrupt of the African countries which are defined as free. According to some intelligence agencies the country is becoming a platform for Latin American drug dealers to get their product into Europe and Asia, powerful local actors are suspected to be complicit in this activity.

Donor activity in the area is diverse and concentrates on multiple entry points. The EU promotes NGO participation in the preparation and implementation of anti-corruption and accountability programmes. It also supports programmes which aim to strengthen Benin's legal and institutional framework, including the judiciary. The Netherlands runs another aid program targeted at improvements in this area. It directs assistance towards verification mechanisms and institutions that strengthen accountability and public financial management, including support for the Financial Chamber of the Supreme Court and the State General Inspection, both institutions considered to be key in the struggle against corruption.

However, despite significant donor attention, Benin does not seem to be able to shake the corruption by which it is plagued. From 2004 a number of indicators related to the quality of democracy have declined, particularly in the area of the rule of law and corruption prevention. This lack of improvement in the face of concerted donor effort has led to much donor fatigue.

What then can be done to improve this situation? The author suggests three innovative policies he believes are needed if Benin is to remain a flagship democracy in Africa.

  • First, Benin’s electoral commission needs to be transformed into a non-political body to prevent the incumbent from modifying the rules at every election and to discourage political parties from constantly quarreling over the election process.
  • Second, to help improve accountability and counter corruption, more resources need to be devoted to institutions that monitor governance.
  • Third cross-cutting rather than sector based initiatives should be prioritized. Training would be more fruitful if rather than providing training to MPs, journalists, unions and other civil society organizations separately, donors grouped them together around common themes.

This report by James Stewart summarizes UNU-WIDER working paper no. 2012/33, 'Beyond Electoral Democracy: Foreign Aid and the Challenge of Deepening Democracy in Benin', by Mamoudou Gazibo.

Related articles: Foreign Aid in Africa: Implications for Democratic Transitions and ConsolidationDemocratic transitions in Africa: the impacts of development aid and democracy assistance