Tanks surround Benin ex-president’s home amid violent poll protests

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Protestors in Benin torched businesses and set up burning barricades on Wednesday, as soldiers in tanks encircled the home of ex-president Thomas Boni Yayi after he led calls for an election boycott.

Hours after initial results showed a record low turnout in Sunday’s controversial parliamentary polls held without a single opposition candidate, soldiers and large numbers of police deployed across the economic capital Contonou.

Demonstrators erected makeshift barriers of burning tires, as well as setting fire to a fuel station near the presidential palace, shops and banks.

“The country is ours and we will take it back,” said one young opposition activist, Artistide Metowanou. “We will fight with our bare hands if necessary against the dictatorship.”

An armoured vehicle of the Republican police patrols in the streets of Cadjehoun.

– Tear gas –

Protestors on the barricades chanted slogans against President Patrice Talon, before the crowds were broken up by riot police firing tear gas.

“We do not recognise our country,” demonstrator Abdul Wahab told AFP. “We will not let his dictatorship take the country hostage.”

All candidates contesting the April 28 vote came from just two parties, both allied to Talon.

Boni Yayi, who led the West African nation for a decade until stepping down after his second term in 2016, remains popular amongst many, and he appeared briefly on the balcony of his house to wave to supporters.

Alongside other leaders, he has called for Sunday’s polls to be annulled.

Many citizens heeded the opposition’s call to boycott the polls, with over three-quarters of the five million registered voters staying away.

Just 22.99 percent of registered voters cast the ballots, according to preliminary results released by the election commission.

Turnout has never dropped below 50 percent since the country’s transition to democracy in 1990.

Interior Minister Sacca Lafia said security forces had been ordered onto the streets to stop protests, but called reports they were trying to arrest Boni Yaya “fake news.”

– ‘Arbitrary arrests’ –

Before 1990, Benin struggled under decades of authoritarian rule. Democracy brought a flowering of political competition — five years ago, voters could chose from 20 parties.

The small West African state was held up as a model for democracy.

But this year, lawmakers from the ruling party pushed through a new electoral code. The tough restrictions meant not a single opposition candidate qualified to take part.

Following the vote, Boni Yayi and Nicephore Soglo, president from 1991-1996, spoke out against the election.

“The people demand the return of democracy,” Boni Yayi told reporters on Monday, calling on people to resist the current president. “Talon will walk over our dead bodies.”

The situation has raised warnings from civil society and rights groups inside and outside Benin.

Amnesty International, speaking before voting, said that a “wave of arbitrary arrests of political activists and journalists, and the crackdown on peaceful protests” had reached an “alarming level.”