BENIN: Students, teachers halt constitutional amendment

Benin’s President Patrice Talon attending a meeting a the European Union Council building in Brussels. THIERRY CHARLIER / AFP

Within two weeks, the Republic of Benin lived a very brief but historic moment. President Patrick Talon called an emergency meeting of the country’s unicameral National Assembly to hurriedly amend the country’s Constitution. University students, teachers especially those from the faculty of law mobilized the civil society organizations to halt this process. Sit-ins, peaceful demonstrations, use of social media were democratic instruments deployed on the law makers at the National Assembly not to amend the Constitution which would have given more powers to the sitting president and also whittled down the powers of the judiciary and the legislative arm of government.
Just last week, the parliamentarians voted against this amendment. Within one year of his five-year tenure Patrick Talon has lost his political support and credibility due to the well known historical tradition against dictatorship from National University of Benin tagged “Francophone Africa’s University of Sorbonne”; remembrance of the role played by Students and Teachers of University of Sorbonne, Paris, in the famous revolt against President Charles De Gaulle in May 1968.

On Wednesday 15th March, there was the traditional weekly meeting of the Council of Ministers presided by Patrice Talon, Executive President of the Republic of Benin. After the meeting, the country’s Prime Minister, Pascal Irenee Koupaki, addressed, in conformity with the tradition, accredited local and foreign journalists on the outcome of the ministers’ deliberations.

Two issues from the ministerial deliberations caught the attention of journalists present. They were: urgent proposed amendments of the country’s Constitution and; the approval and authorization accorded a private firm called Benin Control, to be in charge of all customs’ duties of import and export products. A monopoly company, which belongs to President Patrick Talon. On these two issues the Prime Minister gave hurried responses and left.

As soon as the print and electronic media made public these two issues and other forty proposed amendments to the Constitutions, the civil societies especially those on the campus of National University of Benin, with five campuses in several parts of the country, became agitated.

Dr. Nathaniel Kitti, Senior lecturer, Constitutional Rights, Faculty of Law, National University of Benin, Calavi-Campus, Cotonou, advanced following reasons for the palpable tension on these campuses:
First, the students, teachers and the various trade unions including religious organizations were already looking for an opportunity to vent their anger and spleen on Patrick Talon’s Administration. In his New Year message to the nation he announced that he has ordered immediate demolition of kiosks on all minor and major roads in the country of what he called security measures against all forms of crimes. He also announced that special task forces have been put in place to effect such demolitions within few days. And the demolition exercises were clinically carried out under the watchful eyes of security agencies.

“Unfortunately President Patrice Talon who is a businessman knows perfectly well that it is this informal and dynamic sector that provides jobs and means of livelihood to the vast majority of our country men and women including members of his own extended families. He did not provide any employment alternatives to this demolition. Many of my students cannot pay their tuitions and other necessities of life on the campuses. The pressure on my fellow colleagues to come to the aid of victims of these demolitions is heartrending and unprecedented.  This explains why the opposition to these constitutional amendments are loudest on the campuses”, he explained.

Another reason for this attempt at hurried amendments to the Constitution is clear indication that the President wanted to arrogate extra powers he. Other highlights of these amendments are:
· One term of six years non renewable for all elected presidents.
· All former presidents including the sitting president cannot be benefit from this fresh clause
· Beneficiaries of this clause are: mayors, elected counselors and parliamentarians
·  The Constitutional Court can no longer validate final results of any election. It would now be the sole responsibility of the electoral commission to make such final pronouncements.
· Economic and Social Councils are to be abolished.
· Immunity clause would not cover any offence committed by parliamentarians before assuming office as parliamentarians and; at the end of the political carrier of any minister the immunity clause would be determined and interpreted by the judiciary.

Discordant Notes From University Lawyers
University teachers from faculties of law were not the same wavelength on the problematic of the proposals to amend the law. Babacar Gueye, Professor, Public and Private laws, Faculty of Law, University Cheick Anta Diop, Dakar, Senegal, is well known in academic circles in Benin and in Senegal as the  private consultant to Patrice Talon. While the debate was going on, he was invited into the country to galvanize support for the need to amend the extant laws in Benin.
At a press conference organised for him in Cotonou by the Patrice Talon he urged the parliamentarians to accord   maximum support to these amendments. “ We Senegalese lawyers in Senegal are looking for this kind of golden opportunity in amend the Constitution that has outlived its usefulness. Our Senegalese Constitution, just like the one her in Benin, are no longer relevant to the aspirations of our peoples”, Babacar Gueye affirmed.

This kind of appeal from the Senegalese law doyen did not sink well with his Beninois counterparts. Professors Alvo Joel, Ibrahim Alami, Dadi Gnamou And Victor Topanou, Faculty of Law, National University of Benin, who are in the forefront of the massive opposition to the proposed revised Constitution disagreed with Babacar Gueye’s submission.

At a joint conference, they went into memory lane on various attempts by some past presidents of the country to amend the constitution with a view to putting themselves above the law. “ We fought very hard to prevent General Mathiew Kerekou and Dr. Yayi Boni who as sitting presidents wanted to emulate some other presidents on this continent to perpetuate themselves in power. We shall not allow Patrice Tallon to convert our country into another Banana Republic. Never. We shall stop him”, declared Victor Topanou, leader of the group of law professors.

They also faulted presidential decrees reinforcing his two private two companies to sustain his grip on two major economic sectors of the country: Custom Duties and Cotton Industry. Benin Control, a customs’ duty firm and SODECO, a cottonseed companies are registered commercial organizations owned by Patrice Talon.

His immediate predecessor and political rival, Yayi Boni, threw them out of business. The latter handed over to Patrice Talon a suffocating monopoly, via his two companies, in the customs and the cotton industry of Benin.

And in this midst of his second term, YAYI BONI fell out with Patrice Talon who fled to Paris as a political exile. It was there he revealed to the press all the failed promises by Yayi Boni who, amongst other things crippled his two companies. French authorities, who put pressure on Boni Yayi to allow Patrick Talon to take part in the last presidential elections brokered peace. And he won by popular votes.

The recent decrees by Patrice Talon giving prominence to his two companies have angered civil society organizations. Although he publicly declared that he has de-invested and detached himself from his two companies by handing over their management to his children. Yet, members of the civil society are strongly of the views that one of the hidden agendum for the hurried nature of the revision of the Constitution is to weaken the Constitutional Court when the cases of clash of interests are brought against him in this court.
“Patrice Talon wants to make tailor the Constitution to protect his private interests. We shall stop him”, vowed Michel Akle, President of National University Students Union.

Immediately the announcement was made on governments print and electronic media that President Patrice Talon summoned an emergency meeting of the National Assembly with a view to amending the Constitution without passing through referendum, the country witnessed the well known popular meetings, street demonstrations and active social media campaigns led by the students and university teachers.

Both groups separately convinced the country’s Confederation of workers CSTB (Centrale Des Syndicats Des Travailleurs Du Benin) of the necessity to stop any revision of the Constitution. They argued that the major problem is how to find practical solutions to the economic hardship confronting the citizens of the country. Leaders of CSTB agreed. They sent words to all workers in public and private companies for a one-week warning strike opposing the revision of the Constitution.

Moreover, in compliance with the mobilization strategy of the students and university teachers, organisations of the country’s civil society decided to organize perpetual sit-ins everyday, morning and night, in front of the National Assembly warning the legislators of the dangerous consequences if the Constitution is revised. They reminded the politicians that they must be ready to face the consequences of their act like the ones that ousted President Blaise Compaore who fled   Burkina Faso when the civil society organizations marched on the National Assembly in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso. And Burkinabe security forces killed hundreds of peaceful demonstrators.

According to diplomatic sources, the French Authorities, the erstwhile colonial master, advised President Patrice Talon to drop, in the interest of peace, the revision of the Country’s Constitution.

When the parliamentarians went into a close session, those who wanted the debate on the revised constitution lost by three votes.
There was instant jubilation in the country. In a national wide broadcast, President Patrice Talon announced that the revision of the Constitution had been buried once and for all.

In this article:
Boni YayiPatrick Talon


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