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.

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.

''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.

Perhaps the greatest sign of how free that vote will be is that Soglo's biggest opponent is the former Communist he replaced.

After five years of near-exile in his own country, General Kerekou has published a book and opened a Web site on the Internet proclaiming himself the true father of democracy, reasoning he's the one who allowed Benin's political reforms to take place.

Chris Fomunyoh, of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, is concerned about the possibility of another Kerekou term in office, but sanguine about his campaign comeback.

''It's one indication that democracy is actually taking root in Benin,'' he says. ''And I hope this can be an eye-opener to some of the autocratic leaders on the continent who are afraid to relinquish power. It should be an indication that there is life after you lose an election.''

Kerekou derives his base of support in part from a young generation nurtured on the Marxist principle that the state owed them a salary, and now disillusioned by increasing unemployment, a by-product of economic austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund.

In many countries, increased competition for jobs has fostered ethnic tensions, especially when government contracts and bank loans tend to go to those of the same ethnic group of the president. But Soglo has carefully crafted a coalition government, placing members of other groups in powerful Cabinet positions. The ethnic tensions that contributed to a series of coups in Benin during the 1960s have not disappeared, but it's hard for one group to cry foul.

Analyst Fomunyoh believes another reason Benin has weathered the tumult of political transition more smoothly than some of its neighbors is because it adopted a constitution with an American-style separation of powers. This, he says, ''has made it possible for politicians to disagree with the president or the president to disagree with the legislature without having a major crisis that could torpedo the whole democratization process.''

Did not adopt French model

By contrast, most French-speaking countries have embraced the French parliamentary system, in which a powerful prime minister has the backing of the legislature and can easily impose a stalemate with the president. Fomunyoh notes that such tensions contributed to the recent coup d'etat in Benin's northern neighbor Niger.

Benin's elections still face some of the same logistical difficulties as other African polls. And there are troubling rumors that some of the presidential candidates have formed private militias, perhaps to protect them from potential voting day violence.

Proud of limelight

Whatever the results, Sunday's vote will have something that most African states lack - public confidence that it was free and fair.

Beninese like Ms. Gbedo are proud that the rest of Africa is watching.

''We are taking risks, to speak, to act, to create something new here,'' she says. ''And it's important.''

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