Voters in Benin are set to cast their ballots in a presidential election on Sunday, days after violent demonstrations broke out against President Patrice Talon, who critics accuse of sidelining his opponents.
Talon, a cotton magnate first elected in 2016, is heavily favoured to win a second term.
The 62-year-old faces off against two little-known rivals, Alassane Soumanou and Corentin Kohoue.
Benin was long praised as a thriving multi-party democracy, but critics say Talon has steered the country into authoritarianism with a steady crackdown on his opponents.
At least two people died in the central city of Save when troops on Thursday fired tear gas and live rounds to break up protesters who had blocked a major highway. Five others were wounded.
Among the protesters’ complaints are Talon’s U-turn on a pledge he made as a candidate in 2016 to serve only one term, and changes he pushed through to election laws that he said were aimed at streamlining unwieldy government institutions.
In practice, those reforms resulted in total control of parliament by Talon’s supporters and the exclusion of leading opponents from the presidential race.
One opposition leader Reckya Madougou was detained last month on accusations of plotting to disrupt the election, a charge her lawyer says is fabricated.
A judge from a special economic crimes court created by Talon also fled the country last week after denouncing political pressure to make rulings against the president’s critics, including the decision to detain Madougou.
Meanwhile, businessman Sebastien Ajavon, who came third in the 2016 presidential poll, was convicted of drug trafficking in 2018 and sentenced to 20 years in prison, while another potential rival, ex-finance minister Komi Koutche, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for embezzlement. Ajavon lives in exile in France, while Koutche lives in Washington, DC.
Talon denies targeting his opponents.
He has campaigned on his economic record, which includes improvements to key infrastructure such as roads, water and energy supplies.
Benin, a country of about 12 million people, became Africa’s top cotton exporter in 2018 and recorded average annual gross domestic product growth of over 5 percent before the global economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“What we did was not easy,” Talon said at one of his final campaign rallies on Friday. “We are strong and we know how to get it done.”
He said he expects a “knock-out victory” for which there would be no need for a runoff vote.
In the commercial capital Cotonou, several people said they feared violence on election day.
“The events of these last days scare me,” said Christophe Dossou, a student. “I prefer to remain cautious.”
The United States, German, French and Dutch embassies as well as the European Union delegation in Benin all called on Friday for calm and for the vote to go ahead in a free and transparent manner.
“We urge all parties to express their perspectives peacefully,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters. “We urge the electoral institutions and courts overseeing these processes and verifying these results to ensure these elections are conducted freely, fairly, and transparently.”
Results are expected to be announced on Monday or Tuesday.