Benin rarely makes international headlines. But this week, the French-speaking sliver of land with a population of 11.5 million jailed a leading opposition leader for terrorism.
Was she a leader of some cell of a proscribed group? Did she send money to Isis or some terror group? The details were hazy, but Ms Reckya Madougou was sent to jail for terrorism.
A special court, the Economic Crime and Terrorism Court, or Criet, in the capital Porto-Novo, on December 11 sentenced 47-year-old Madougou to 20 years in prison. She had been detained since March 2021 for alleged acts of terrorism.
The former minister of justice was found guilty of "complicity in terrorist acts" by the court, which had also on December 7 imprisoned for 10 years a key opposition figure, Prof Joel Aivo, who had been in detention since April.
Madougou is the leader of the West African country’s biggest opposition party and she contested the April presidential election on the platform of the Democrats party.
While Madougou was arrested for allegedly financing an operation to assassinate political figures to prevent the election the following month from going ahead, Aivo was sentenced for plotting against the state and laundering money.
Madoougou’s candidacy had earlier been rejected by the electoral commission, paving the way for President Paulin Talon to win a second term with 86 percent of the vote in a poll boycotted by much of the opposition and marred by violent protests.
With this development, critics say the court, set up in 2016, has been used by President Patrice Talon's government to crack down on the opposition and pushed Benin into authoritarianism.
With the 1990 constitution, the president of Benin is both head of state and head of government within a multiparty system.
Legislative power is vested in both the government and the legislature, and the judiciary is officially independent of the executive and the legislature.
Benin scored highly in the 2013 Ibrahim Index of African Governance, which comprehensively measures the state of governance across the continent.
Benin was ranked 18th out of 52 African countries and scored best in the categories of Safety & Rule of Law and Participation & Human Rights.
In its 2007 Worldwide Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Benin 53rd out of 169 countries, but it had fallen to 78th by 2016, when Mr Talon took office, and has fallen further to 113th since then.
Benin's democratic system has eroded since President Talon took office in 2016. In 2018 his government introduced new rules for fielding candidates and raised the cost of registering. The electoral commission, packed with Mr Talon's allies, barred all opposition parties from parliamentary elections in 2019, resulting in a parliament made up entirely of supporters of Mr Talon.
That parliament subsequently changed election laws such that presidential candidates need to have the approval of at least 10 percent of Benin's MPs and mayors. As parliament and nearly all mayors’ offices are controlled by Mr Talon, he now has control over who can run for president.
The nation’s succession of military governments ended in 1972 with the rise to power of Mathieu Kerekou.
A move to representative government began in 1989. Two years later, free elections ushered in former prime minister Nicephore Soglo as president, marking the first successful transfer of power in Africa from a dictatorship to a democracy.
Kerekou was returned to power by elections held in 1996 and 2001, though some irregularities were alleged and handed over to Thomas Yayi in 2006 before Patrice Talon came to the scene in 2016.
Alarm raised in the UK
Aside from the serene political milieu since the advent of independence in August 1960, the ex-French colony had only been noted for common violent crime, especially in the commercial city of Cotonou and regions bordering Nigeria where robberies, carjackings and pickpocketing are commonplace.
Unlike Nigeria, with which it shares a border, Benin is not noted for terrorism, except for the alarm raised in the UK on December 2 advising citizens on possible acts of terrorism.
Benin contributes troops to both the Multinational Joint Task Force to combat Boko Haram in Nigeria and the UN peacekeeping initiative in Mali (Minusma) and may therefore be considered a legitimate target by terrorist groups in the wider region, including IS West Africa (ISWA), Boko Haram and Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQ-M).
Prof Sam Smah, a consultant in Nigeria, says Benin had not been hit by terrorists and that fear of acts of terrorism “is not terrorism itself” like what is happening in northern and eastern Nigeria.
“Therefore, the arrest and trial of key opposition figures for acts of terrorism cannot hold. I view this as political intimidation,’’ he said.
In a terse statement on the situation in Benin, the US Department of State said on December 14 that the “recent trial and sentencing of political opponents Reckya Madougou and Joel Aivo raise grave concerns about political interference in Benin’s criminal justice system”.
“We are alarmed by the further erosion of space for dissent, overall increased restrictions on participatory self-governance and freedom of expression, and systematic targeting of political opposition figures,” the State Department said.
“Demonstrating to Benin’s citizens and international partners that the judicial system will not be used for political purposes is essential to restoring Benin’s former reputation as a regional leader in democratic governance and rule of law.’’
The opposition politicians now in jail have accused the government of a political vendetta and emasculation.
"This court has deliberately decided to penalise an innocent person. I have never been and I will never be a terrorist,’’ Madougou said shortly before her prison sentence was pronounced.
"It's a sad day for our justice system. I maintain that there is no proof," said Mr Robert Dossou, one of her lawyers.
Aivo, who was also barred from running in the election, said: “I am the target of political vengeance. I knew that my ideas would be upsetting.”
Ludovic Hennebel, one of Aivo’s lawyers, said that his client was being punished for political dissent and for speaking to the media.
Soldiers recently killed some protesters who blocked a major highway, and some opposition members have fled the country while others have been pencilled for investigation.
He said in Madougou’s case, for example, she was sentenced for plotting to assassinate “several political figures”.
The court, he noted, ruled without calling any witnesses, without documents, and without evidence, and that the three judges gave her just five minutes to defend herself.
Apparently referring to recent events in some West African countries, Mathias Hounkpe of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa has noted that “democracy is declining everywhere but in West Africa the decline is deeper compared to other regions of the world”.