Category Archives: Politics

On election night parties.

Election night indeed. When informed that the Ambassador would be throwing an election night party at his house from 10:30 at night to 3:00 in the morning, I cheerfully told the CLO exactly what I thought of that idea.

Boy was I wrong.

My “job” during the party was to explain the electoral college. I had a blast explaining to Sierra Leoneans, Brits, Kiwis, and yes, even Americans, exactly how the votes for president were counted.

All this to say, the party was a lot of fun, and exactly what I needed to keep my spirits up while my husband was traveling. The Hatch act forbids government employees partisan activities while on duty, which meant that no matter how I felt about the outcome (and you all know I felt strongly), I had to stay netural at the party.

I had a great time schmoozing, chatting about the candidates, and explaining that yes, it’s a ridiculous confusing system that occasionaly results in counterintuitive results. But it’s our ridiculous confusing system.

And somehow, it works.

On Freedom of the Press in Benin, and the New Lack Thereof

Freedom of the press and the right to say what I want, when I want, is something I take for granted. Despite the many problems that plague American media, our right to free speech is well protected. The press, while beholden to its corporate interests, does not fear jail or sanctions for telling the truth, nor for expressing a negative opinion about the current administration.

On November 3, CAPP FM, one of Benin’s oldest and certainly one of the most respected radio stations aired a program highly critical of the administration and several politicians. The administration reacted immediately, accusing the radio host of slander and inciting violence. The state has permanently removed her right to appear on the air in Benin. CAPP FM has been suspended for a month and has publicly apologized. If they had not apologized or had defended the woman, they risked having their license permanently revoked by the state.

Mme. VALDAVE Emailia hosts a religious show on CAPP FM. The following texts are those that the High Audiovisuel Communication Authority determined problematic (quoted directly from the text of the decision against the radio*):

» Que le sang de Jésus-Christ de Nazareth coule sur tous les hommes maintenant. Coule dans tous les services de l’Etat, les institutions de la République, les institutions étrangères, les représentants diplomatiques pour purifier ce pays le Bénin de toute souillure, de toute abomination, de tout esprit humain qui ne glorifie pas le nom de Jésus Christ de Nazareth, de tout esprit contraire au plan de DIEU pour ce pays »

That blood of Jesus Christ of Nazereth runs over men. Runs in all the departments of the State, the institutions of the Republic, foreign institutions, diplomatic representatives, to purify this country, the Benin, of all sin, of all abomination, of all human spirit that doesn’t glorifiy Christ, of all spirit against the plan of God for this country.

» Qu’avons-nous compris? Nous avons compris que vous [YAYI Boni] n’avez pas été quelqu’un avant de devenir quelque chose dans ce pays le Bénin. Nous avons compris que depuis trois ans nous vivons au Bénin, l’épisode d’une bande d’opportunistes en aventure; nous avons compris que vous êtes, non pardon que tu es scorpion. Mais pourquoi un scorpion? Le venin du scorpion est renfermé dans sa queue donc doux au départ, tendre au début mais féroce à la fin. C’est ce que tu es. Un scorpion qui commence bien, qui trompe au début et qui montre après son vrai visage »

What have we understood? We have come to understand that you [YAYI Boni] were no one before becoming something in this country, the Benin. We have understand that, during the last three years in Benin, we have lived an episode of a band of opportunistic adventurers; we have understand that you are, without pardon, a scorpion. And why a scorpion? The venom of a scorpion is locked up in its tail, so sweet in the beginning, tender in the beginning, but ferocious at the end. That’s what you are. A scorpion that starts well, who convinces in the beginning, and shows his true face afterwards.

Incendiary? Sure. Inciting violence? Well, not exactly. Television stations have been airing relevant bits of the radio show, and the clips used by the tribunal to judge the radio host and CAPP FM. Bizarrely, the clips don’t even appear to be controversial. It is true that in many ways life in Benin is worse in 2009 than it was in 2006. It is true that business in Cotonou has boomed, but the rural poor have been largely left behind. It is true that the state is more corrupt now than it was under Kérékou.

Benin has a long tradition of intellectualism, scholarship, and freedom of expression. Even during 17 years of dictatorship, the Beninese press was allowed to criticize the administration. Elections were held in 1991, and Benin saw Africa’s first peaceful transition between communist dictatorship and functioning democracy. YAYI Boni campaigned on change. “This can change. This must change. This will change.” Le changement lit the country on fire. In 2006, free and fair elections elected the Dr. Thomas Boni YAYI to power, with 75% suffrage.

Since 2006, freedom of expression and freedom of the press has been radically inhibited in Benin. Whether jailing journalists and editors who speak out against the administration, or sanctioning television and radio stations, the administration comes down hard on those who dare criticize.

Two weeks ago, Reporters sans frontières (Reporters Without Borders) published their annual freedom of the press index. Benin has fallen from 23rd in 2006 to 72 in 2009. During the run-up to elections in 2011, I have a hard time imagining that things will get any better.

More information (in French, of course):

*Full disclosure: the Nokoue is a client.

Uh, where is Benin getting all of this money from?

Victor Tapanou, porte-parole du gouvernement and bearer of all tidings, good and bad

Victor Tapanou, porte-parole du gouvernement and bearer of all tidings, good and bad

Benin’s going from 12 departments to 29 and is redoing the whole administrative map, from arrondissements to chef lieux.

The government doesn’t even have enough money to pay its contractors! We are broke-asses over here! Where on earth do they think they’re going to come up with the cash to build the new infrastructure required to build city halls, prefectures, courts, and all of the other trappings that come with being a department? Who’s going to pay all the new government workers?

And why, when the committee appointed to study the change suggests 21, did the government move for 29? Call me a cynic, but it sounds like gerrymandering to me.

The law has to get by the scrutiny of the Supreme Court and the Assemblée Nationale, however, I have a feeling it’ll pass. Who is going to refuse infrastructure and jobs in their localities, even if it means giving a few more votes to the government in 2011?

Doesn’t anyone get tired of being disenfranchised around here?

Long election lines in Benin

Long election lines in Benin

The current big political flap in Benin is the LEPI (Liste Electorale Permanente Informatisée or Permanent Computerized Voter Registry). Benin’s electoral system is fraught with fraud. In a country where less than a third of the population has an ID card, fixing it will be a long hard process.

Enter the politicians. After months of debate, last night parliament finally approved a computerized voter registry. In an ideal world, the American government’s efforts to get everyone in Benin an ID card will work hand in hand with the Beninese government’s efforts to register voters. Voter registration will be tied directly to some sort of not yet built identity database.

Advantages of the LEPI

Elections will be a lot less expensive, and can be managed centrally. Aside from initial equipment and training costs, just reducing paperwork transportation is huge and limits opportunities for fraud. A database tied to national ID cards also limits double/ triple/ quadruple registration, the registration of minors and the deceased, registration of unqualified aliens, etc.

Problems with the LEPI

Two thirds of the population doesn’t have ID cards. During the last elections, the oversight committee couldn’t find anyone qualified to administer their IT systems, not because there’s no one qualified in the country, but because everyone qualified is in the highly lucrative private sector. The law only allows 90 days for door-to-door national census; not nearly enough time to identify, survey, and photograph 6 million adults (the last ID initiative lasted a year and was pretty effective … but also pretty expensive).[1]

More frightening is the fact that no one has confidence in the ability of the government to control the national database. Who will have access, and who will have oversight? Will there be adequate measures in place to protect citizens’ privacy? The system’s biggest advantage is fraud reduction. If we can’t trust those running the system, that advantage is lost.

A poorly implemented system is worse than no system at all. Will there be a system in place for appeals? Will it work fast enough to resolve problems before the elections? What happens when citizens show up on election day and there are glitches in the system. Do they get to vote?

Elections are only two years away

Force Clé is generally disgusting in its willingness to put its own interests above that of the country, but I find myself in agreement when they ask, what does the FCBE [presidential and party] want?

Rallonger inutilement les délais et les coûts, en comptant sur d’hypothétiques « bailleurs de fonds », comme si ces derniers devaient utiliser les ressources de leurs contribuables pour financer des irrationalités. En prévoyant pour le recensement et pour l’enregistrement des citoyens un délai de 90 jours, alors qu’il en faut le double, que visent ils ? Faire de l’économie ? Non ! Ils préparent le désordre et la confusion qui vont conduire, dans l’improvisation et la précipitation, soit à des opérations illégales ou à des décisions de prorogation de délai, non encadrées par la loi.

Uselessly adding delays and costs, counting on hypothetical « international lenders, » as if they are obligated to use the resources they contribute for irrationalities. In only designating 90 days to survey and register citizens, when twice that is necessary, what are they trying to do? Save money? No! They are preparing disorder and confusion, which will, in our rush and improvisation bring us either to illegal operations or to delay [the vote] in a manner not covered by the law. [2]

Wouldn’t it be better to wait until municipal elections in four years, and test the system in a few localities first? The LEPI worries me. Call me a cynic, but I have no confidence in the Beninese government’s ability to implement a fraud-free LEPI before the 2011 elections. Two years to completely overhaul the electoral system would be a big deal in a developed country; in Benin, it’s going to be a disaster.

[1] L’Arraigné has a pretty good (French) write up of the text of the law, if you’re interested in more specifics.