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Benin: a Model of Openness in Turbulent Africa

This small West African country, which votes on Sunday for president, used to have a repressive regime. Now the press is free; activists breathe easy.

By Jennifer LuddenSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 1, 1996



COTONOU, BENIN

IN this tropical port city, Beninese still talk about the seaside building - now the government spokesman's office - in which former Communist autocrat Mathieu Kerekou is said to have had dissenters tortured during his 17-year regime. But they no longer fear the knock on the door that will take them there.

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''When I wake up in my house each morning, I don't have a single worry,'' says human rights lawyer Marie-Elise Gbedo. ''I'm not worried that some soldier's going to arrest me on the road so he can take my car. At night, I return home with no worry of a curfew. I can move freely as I want and say whatever I want.''

Those freedoms signal a remarkable turnaround for the tiny country that led the African wave of democratic reform six years ago. This year that wave has the chance to be bolstered - or undermined- as nearly half the continent's nations hold national elections (18 in all are scheduled this year, another eight next year), in most cases to replace one elected leader with another.

Benin steady as others falter

As countries all around it stumble or slip off the path of democratic reform, Benin, with presidential elections on Sunday, remains a model of openness.

In 1990, Benin seized on the crash of communism in Eastern Europe to abandon its formal adherence to Marxist-Leninism. It organized a national conference to overhaul its own repressive politics and an economy that had been mismanaged to a virtual standstill.

''That conference was a type of national confession,'' says Michael Azefor, Benin's World Bank representative, ''of all people in this country about the errors they'd made in the past, and so a sworn determination never to get back there.''

The conference became a blueprint for reform in French-speaking Africa, copied again and again over the next several years. Yet, few countries have secured their transformation as well as Benin.

At the state-controlled television station, news director Constant Agbenoukoun remembers receiving reprimands when his coverage didn't satisfy the Kerekou regime. Mr. Agbenoukoun fought for press freedom at Benin's national conference, and today, he says, ''no one imposes anything on us. Journalists go out into the field, gather information, and come back and treat it as they want.''

Equal time for all

An independent commission guarantees that at election time all candidates get equal time.

One recent broadcast led with a report on the campaign of one of the six presidential candidates challenging incumbent Nicephore Soglo. That was followed by a profile of another candidate, and finally a profile of President Soglo himself.

In a region where state newscasts still routinely appear like paid announcements for the man in power, such a line-up is significant.

Benin also has an independent electoral commission, and a Constitutional Court that renders unbiased decisions. In last year's legislative elections the court ordered a revote in several districts where there was evidence of ballot fraud. In this atmosphere, local human rights groups have flourished and are mobilizing to monitor Sunday's vote.