Benin is a small country of West Africa, situated between Nigeria, Togo, Niger and Burkina Faso. It is flat, except for one mountain, and is open on the sea (the Atlantic Ocean). The climate is intertropical. There are numerous lakes in the country and the vegetation is luxurious and the soil fertile. The country has a population of 5,000,000, composed of approximately fifty ethnic groups. The main ones are the Fon and Aja in the south, the Yoruba in the central region, and the Somo and Peulh in the north. The economic capital is Cotonou while the political one is Porto-Novo.
Benin is primarily an agricultural country, with agriculture occupying 45% of the population and producing 40% of the country’s GNP. There is considerable smuggling from Nigeria, primarily of oil products. Labor is available and cheap in the country and there is substantial unemployment. As a result, the government is working to develop economic activities to generate employment. It is, for example, providing access to the port of Cotonou to its landlocked neighbors at advantageous rates. The policy has been given impetus by the troubles in neighboring Togo.
Benin is a former French colony, which became independent in the early 1960s. After the first decade of independence, Mathieu Kerekou became President through a military coup, and established a Marxist-Leninist regime. The main industries were state-owned. For eighteen years, Kerekou ruled Benin with an iron hand. Human rights were violated on a daily basis. There was no freedom of expression or of the press, and extra-judicial killings and detentions were commonplace.
In 1989, following riots throughout Benin, Kerekou accepted a transitional government, and a National Conference was held. The result was free elections in which former President Kerekou was a candidate. The National Conference denounced the numerous violations of human rights, and authors of the major gross violations were brought to court.
Now Benin has a freely-elected President, and appears to be one of the leading democracies in Africa.<
HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION
All observers agreed that the national elections were fair. A new government and a multi-party Parliament were established. Human rights organizations, however, say that people are still detained for days in very bad conditions. This detention is the major focus of organizations’ work in the country.
As a result of the difficult economic situation and related unemployment, there is an increase in robberies, banditry and other criminal activities, and the security situation has declined. This threat to security, however, is experienced by everyone in the country, and not simply by NGOs. NGOs generally work in a relatively peaceful environment, and there is no harassment by government authorities. NGOs are usually successful in getting all the required information on human rights violations they are investigating from the authorities. The government is attentive to their criticisms, and reacts by correcting the situation or stopping the violation.
There are numerous human rights NGOs in Benin, which were created in the transition period. The organizations do not network among themselves; it is normal for organizations working in the same area to not know each other. As a result, there is duplication of efforts. NGOs did make an attempt to coordinate their work, but the organization created to facilitate this coordination is not functioning. This networking, coordination and cooperation must be a priority for NGOs in the country.
The following are nine out of the fifteen NGOs with which the researcher met:
Action des Chrétiens pour l’Abolition de la Torture-Bénin
(Christian Action for the Abolition of Torture-Benin)
Action des Chrétiens pour l’Abolition de la Torture–Bénin (ACAT-B) is a non-governmental, non-profit association established in 1989 and officially recognized in 1990. ACAT-B is a member of an international organization which has member organizations in several African countries.
ACAT-B’s objective is to work for the abolition of torture.
ACAT-B is a Chrstian-based organization composed of different professionals.
The former President of ACAT-B reported that the organization is not presently active. The group perceives that since democracy is more operative in the country, there is no more torture or large-scale human rights violations, decreasing the need for ACAT-B.
AHAVA was formed in 1990 when a group of four people decided to leave the town for the village and create a network of rural human rights educators. AHAVA is an officially recognized non-profit, non-political NGO.
AHAVA’s main objective is to bring legal knowledge to the rural population.
From its four founders, AHAVA has developed into a membership of lawyers, magistrates, teachers and rural workers. It has no paid staff and no office premises. All work is done on a volunteer basis, except for the work done by teachers at the school AHAVA has established.
AHAVA has established a school with a human rights program. Human rights principles and instruments are taught in the school, and a particular emphasis is given to women’s and children’s rights. AHAVA also conducts a program of legal education for local elected officials (mayors, members of local assemblies, and so on), and teaches human rights in regular schools. It trains paralegals and legal education trainers. All the training is based on the African Charter, the Penal Code, and other human rights instruments, particularly the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
AHAVA has skills to train human rights activists.
Association des Femmes Juristes du Bénin
(Association of Women Lawyers of Benin)
The Association des Femmes Juristes du Bénin (AFJB) is a non-political, non-profit organization, created in January 1990 and recognized by the Ministry of Internal Affairs on 11 March 1992. AFJB’s headquarters are in Cotonou, and its activities are concentrated there. Recently, however, they have been trying to extend their activities to the south of the country.
The main objective of AFJB is to help women know their rights and exercise them.
AFJB’s membership is composed entirely of women lawyers. It has two staff, a lawyer and administrative assistant, who work in large, very functional office space.
AFJB’s activities are concentrated on educating women about their rights by way of:
– radio broadcasts in French and other national langauges. The shows are thematic (on issues such as marriage, inheritance, rape). They inform women about their rights, and what to do when those rights are violated;
– seminars in national languages in different parts of the country; and
– publication of brochures, and primarily of a Guide Juridique de la Femme (Women’s Legal Guide) in French and two other languages, Fon and Batanou.
In 1992 AFJB opened in a legal clinic in the center of Cotonou, which is visited by both women and men. They see over 350 people annually in the clinic.
Association pour le Développement des Initiatives Villageoises
(The Association for the Development of Village Initiatives)
The Association pour le Développement des Initiatives Villageoises (ASSODIV) is a non-political, non-profit association created on 12 September 1987 and officially recognized as an NGO on 11 April 1988.
The main objective of ASSODIV is to help rural communities achieve integrated development and promote their own initiatives.
ASSODIV has a diverse membership, including agronomists, lawyers, economists, sociologists, peasants and others. The organization has eight staff who work in its office in Cotonou and its training center in Tango.
ASSODIV’s program falls into two main areas: socio-economic programs and legal programs. Its main activities are:
– training of youngs peasants on the technique “Houe Manga“, which is a cultivating machine imported from Burkina Faso;
– training of paralegals, since 1989. The organization trains people living in the villages to be paralegals so they can help peasants know their rights; and
– a legal clinic in Cotonou where free legal advice is given, and where, if necessary, cases are taken to court.
These latter two activities are performed by lawyers, magistrates and law teachers who are members of ASSODIV and who work on a voluntary basis.
ASSODIV frequently receives information about human rights violations, primarily illegal detention. When ASSODIV receives a complaint, it documents it, investigates, mediates (if possible), and litigates, with the help of members who are lawyers.
ASSODIV is active in the field of human rights education, through radio broadcasts and legal education of village leaders, police, and so on.
The organization has skills in training paralegals and is working on a paralegal training manual.
Commission Béninoise des Droits de l’Homme
(Benin Human Rights Commission)
The Commission Béninoise des Droits de l’Homme (CBDH) is a governmental organization, created by law in 1989 (Law No.89-004 of 12 May 1989). CBDH, however, acts independently of the government, criticizing actions and denouncing violations. It has its own funding and own administration.
CBDH’s objective is the promotion and protection of human rights.
CBDH has “members by right” (the Bar Association, the Organization of Magistrates, and the Organization of Doctors); membership by NGOs (seventeen); and individual members, including lawyers, teachers, doctors, and magistrates. The Commission has office space and an Administrative Officer. Members work on a volunteer basis.
The Commission’s main activities are investigating human rights violations, human rights education, and helping the government to write its periodical reports due to U.N. or international human rights treaty bodies.
When CBDH receives a complaint of a violation, it designates one of its members to investigate and write a report. The Commission then writes to the violator. If the violator doesn’t react, CBDH issues a press release or launches a press campaign. The organization is not involved in litigation.
CBDH educates the population about its rights through radio broadcasts and national seminars, although they feel their action in this field is insufficient.
Institut des Droits de l’Homme et de Promotion de la Démocratie
(Institute for Human Rights and the Promotion of Democracy)
The Institut des Droits de l’Homme et de Promotion de la Démocratie (IDH) is a non-governmental, non-profit, scientific organization established in Cotonou in 1992.
The main objective of IDH is to teach human rights to the population, to help them know their rights and act as good citizens.
Members of IDH are high-ranking magistrates, lawyers and university teachers. The organization does not have a paid staff and depends on volunteers. It does not have its own premises and uses facilities of the City of Cotonou, the Church, and others.
IDH has developed two human rights courses–one for participants who have reached between a primary and secondary school level of education (Level A), the other for participants who have finished secondary school and beyond (Level B).
The Benin Constitution is the main focus in the Level A course. IDH uses the Constitution to make citizens aware of the roles of different public institutions–the government, Parliament, local assemblies, and democracy at the village level, for example. The course began in November 1993 and currently has 51 participants. The Level B course consists of lectures on human rights, human rights instruments, and democracy, as well as research on specific themes. 149 participants are following this course.
Ligue pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme au Bénin
(League for the Defense of Human Rights in Benin)
The Ligue pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme au Bénin (LDH) is a non-political, non-profit association. It was established on 10 May 1990, and was officially recognized in 1992. It is a successor to the Association des Anciens Détenus Politique et de Leurs Parents (the Association of Former Political Detainees and their Relatives), since there have been no political detainees since the beginning of the transition period.
The primary objectives of LDH are the promotion and protection of human rights, and the protection of the interests (material and psychological) of victims of human rights violations.
LDH has a diversified membership, including lawyers, teachers, youth, members of civil society, etc. It has no paid staff and no headquarters. It currently uses the premises of a lawyer member as a meeting locale, to receive complaints, etc. It is currently seeking funding to lease or build premises for a headquarters.
LDH’s main activities are:
– reporting on violations of human rights brought to their attention by victims, their parents, neighbors, and so on;
– investigating human rights violations;
– training their membership; and
– humanitarian intervention to help victims.
LDH has also opened a medical center to help victims of human rights violations and the poorest part of the population of Cotonou. The organization was the first to assist refugees from Togo, and during the past two years has worked extensively with these refugees. It has published a “white paper” on torture and other human rights violations during the military regime, and produces a report on the current human rights situation in the country biannually.
When LDH receives a complaint of a violation, it sends a letter to the author of the violation, investigates the complaint, sets up a meeting between the victim and perpetrator, issues a press release if the perpetratoror of the violation doesn’t respond to its other initiatives, and takes cases to court.
LDH trains its own membership, but also the population at large. It has sponsored a course on the African Charter for its membership and membership of other NGOs. It produces a radio broadcast in French and other national languages, and publishes a newsletter, Tribune, with a special page, “Know Your Rights.”
– Seny Diagne