From Burundi to Rwanda and the Republic of Congo, Africa holds its share of leaders who cling to power well after their constitutionally defined term limit ends. Yet from Nigeria’s presidential elections last March to Benin’s two weeks ago, a growing number of African leaders have begun driving a wave of political change by upholding the freedoms guaranteed by their nation’s constitutional foundations.
In November 2015, months ahead of the March 2016 elections, Benin’s incumbent President Thomas Boni Yayi pledged to step down following completion of his two five-year term limits. In a distinct affirmation of Benin’s constitution, Yayi offered the young democracy the space to accept a peaceful electoral process as a sign of the government’s own democratic maturation. Indeed, his relinquishment of power allowed for 33 presidential contenders to run for Benin’s highest seat of office, cultivating an environment not only ready, but expecting of a democratic transition.
Wedged among a region threatened by insurgency and economic instability, strong governance remains critical for Benin to maintain its resilience. As the first sub-Saharan African country to introduce multi-party elections in 1990—and with this most recent election marking the nation’s sixth transition of power—Benin has once again proven that a democratic and open electoral process in the African continent is not only feasible, but viable.
Here’s what you should know:
- The presidential ticket: Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou and Patrice Talon, a self-made tycoon known as the “King of Cotton,” emerged as the leading contenders. Talon won the second round of Benin’s presidential election in the March 2016 decisive victory.
- Prime Minister Zinsou conceded defeat in a landmark move demonstrating democracy in action. A leader who concedes effectively discourages post-election violence by setting a tone of statesmanship and underscoring a government’s collective commitment to moving its democracy—and country—forward.
- The peaceful outcome and open electoral process underscore two major trends. First, Benin’s leadership transition has matured. Incumbent President Yayi’s adherence to the constitutional term limits and Zinsou’s concession reflects the country’s appetite for political and democratic change. The precedent it sets for the continent cannot be understated. Secondly, of the two leading candidates vying for Benin’s presidential position, one was a Prime Minister; the other and ultimate winner, a prominent businessman. Benin’s open electoral process ruffles the status quo by injecting the private sector into the political realm. This participatory environment broadens the type of candidates keen and able to run for the presidency—a trend we, too, have seen with the rise of anti-establishment candidates among our current U.S. election cycle.
Talon will assume office on April 6, facing the major challenges of diversifying Benin’s economy while tackling high unemployment and significant underdevelopment, clamping down on corruption and improving access to health and education. Certainly, the kinks in Benin’s political and socio-economic landscape remain priorities to address but, for now, Benin has blazed an important trail. Its leaders’ pledge to a peaceful and full transition of power in their adherence to the nation’s constitution ensures the continuation of Benin’s stability. This election has undoubtedly cemented Benin as a bastion of democracy committed to advancing its nation. With Djibouti, Comoros and Equatorial Guinea’s presidential elections set for this month, the African continent and international observers will have an eye on how—and if—the countries’ leaders take a leaf from Benin in setting their own nations up for progress in the name of democracy.
Emma Beck is an Account Executive at LEVICK and a contributing author to Tomorrow.