Benin is one of the most stable, democratic and progressive countries in West Africa. Since the 1990 Conférence nationale souveraine, which defined a national pact for democracy and rule of law, the country has been an inspiring model for the sub region. Its constitution provides the basis for democratic transition within a representative multiparty environment and a somewhat clearly defined political framework that respects the doctrine of separation of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Benin has one of the most progressive Constitutional Courts in Africa, and over the last two decades its parliament has been an essential pillar of the rule of law — although the executive branch sometimes challenges its role.
Unlike most of its West African counterparts, Benin has held a series of successful elections over the last 20 years and has made significant efforts to render the electoral process more transparent and more credible. Significantly, the 2006 presidential elections brought to power a relatively unknown independent candidate, Yaye Boni. However, critics contested the results due to the absence of a permanent and credible voter register, the politicization and impermanent character of the Commission Electorale Nationale Autonome, and the absence of a unique electoral law. These developments have stirred popular demands for a thorough review of the country’s constitution, with a particular focus on the relationship between the parliament, judiciary and local government structures as well as their relations with the citizenry.
The Constitutional Court is known for its credibility, especially through the major role it has played in the consolidation of democracy in Benin. However, Benin’s justice system remains poorly equipped to continue to contribute to that consolidation. The weakness of the justice system as a whole, places all the burden of the defense of citizens’ fundamental rights on the constitutional court. Therefore, there is an urgent need to reinforce the independence of the justice system.
The recent decentralization and local governance processes have failed to deliver the expected results, mainly because the devolution of power and transfer of resources to local government structures has been slow and insufficient. The lack of clarity about the role of traditional rulers who still exert considerable influence in local governance creates further need to reform the decentralization process.
In Benin, OSIWA has supported civil society coalitions working on issues of constitutional reform, corruption, political empowerment and participation of women and youth, and training and capacity building for newly elected local government officials. These efforts have strengthened some of the coalitions’ core members. In addition, the OSIWA/AfriMAP project also succeeded in developing high-level contacts for the foundation and opening conversations on electoral, constitutional and other reform processes.
OSIWA’s decision to work in Benin is informed by the need for an exemplar to inform and inspire other in West Africa, while also ensuring that it avoids the tendency for democratic regression that is sweeping through many African countries. The foundation’s strategic objective in Benin is to support the substantial participation of civil society organizations in institutional and policy reforms processes. These efforts will draw on OSIWA’s institutional credibility, its access to government officials and its track record in strengthening civic movements to mobilize and engage citizens in governance and monitoring of public affairs.
OSIWA will work to strengthen governance institutions and advance policy reforms by building the capacity of the Commission Electorale Nationale Autonome through sub regional peer-learning mechanisms; catalyzing a consensual constitutional review process aimed at establishing a permanent independent electoral commission, strengthening judicial independence and repositioning the Constitutional Court; and promoting mechanisms to ensure greater accountability by institutionalizing the relationship between members of parliament and constituents. OSIWA will also support decentralization and local governance reform, emphasizing measures to effectively transfer resources and competences as well as to institutionalize the role of traditional rulers in local governance. The foundation will also work to improve access to justice at the grassroots level by building the capacity of paralegals and promoting alternative disputes resolution mechanisms within the legal system.
OSIWA will also work to build a vibrant civil society movement and a pluralistic media sector that can engage on substantive issues in political processes. Specifically, the foundation will support advocacy to enable civil society and the media to take part in the constitutional review process by engaging the government and the legislature for their buy-in on proposed amendments to the Constitution. OSIWA also seeks to cultivate citizen demand for accountability in public service delivery by creating a national grassroots movement to hold local government to account in this area.