By ATTAKLA-AYINON, Julien (2001)
March 1999 : for the first time since the era of democratic revival (in 1990), the Beninese went to the polls to elect their deputies. They would, however, be using the single ballot for the first time. The electoral system had just been revised with an increased crackdown on electoral fraud.
How to make citizens aware of the contents of the electoral regulations, in particular the voting procedure with a single ballot, in order to try and avoid an increased number of spoilt votes?(in a context where there was growing doubt about the illiterates’ ability to use the single ballot paper properly).
How to encourage a massive turnout to register on the electoral roll when many of the population were considering boycotting these elections because they were disenchanted by the many broken promises?
How to ensure that the elections took place in peace and transparency?
In addition to the action taken by the autonomous national electoral Commission (Cena) already overwhelmed by the material organisation of the elections, on top of the loud-mouthing by politicians more concerned with winning the election than in participating in their organisation, the civilian community assigned itself the task of preparing the ground so that the elections could take place in peace and transparency with a high turnout of citizens of voting age. It thus set up the Beninese network of NGO’s for peaceful and transparent elections (Le Répat) which was a grouping of associations and non-partisan NGO’s, active in the domain of civic education. The network functioned on the basis of a charter passed by the members on 7th February 1999.
Répat initiated several awareness campaigns including:
Operation ’ Zémidjan ’, which consisted of making 1,500 shirts which were distributed to the drivers of motorcycle taxis, commonly called ’ Zémidjans ’. On the backs of each shirt were written the consciousness-raising slogans legible by clients and passers-by at a distance of 20-25 metres (if there were no passengers): ’let your neighbour vote for the candidate of his choice’ ’ Let us vote in large numbers on 28th March’, an unusual channel for raising awareness.
It was with this operation, financed by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, that the network launched its activities on 1st March 1999 at the labour exchange in Cotonou.
Training of trainers: on 8-9th March 1999, the ’Centre Africa Obota’ (CAO) carried out its programme of training trainers who were the organisers of the NGO network members. Two hundred people were given training.
Training of presenters on state and local radio : from 11- 12th March, it was the turn of the radio presenters in the national languages to benefit from training in electoral law.
Broadcasting televised awareness commercials.
Itinerant conferences: Approximately forty organisers travelled throughout the remaining four electoral wards for a week and made the population aware of the electoral system.
Public-spiritedness weeks : A total of four weeks were dedicated to this activity which led to selected organisers travelling throughout Bembêrêkê (Borgou), Pobè (Ouémé), Savè (Zou) and Aplahoué (Mono).
Public awareness broadcasts were made on Radio Parakou
Awareness by radio cassette: Répat proceeded to duplicate and distribute an album on awareness produced by one of its members called : ’ We are all alike’ . This album encourages non-violence by the public during the election period. This cassette was played all day long on the radio stations, in restaurants and bars as well as in discos and several other public places.
Creation of training and awareness materials: Brochures on the voting procedure with a copy of the ballot paper and on election monitoring were compiled.
Awareness, monitoring and parallel counting: More than 1000 local observers were trained and deployed from North to South to create awareness in the population (on the electoral system in general and the single ballot paper in particular) and to assure the monitoring and the parallel vote count. Press releases were regularly broadcast on television and radio in relation to the situation at the different voting stations.
Having launched its activities with a press conference which took place on the same day as the launch, the Liaison Office also organised a press conference at the end to tell people the results.
In spite of enormous difficulties encountered (difficulties obtaining accreditation and badges from CENA, difficulties running the liaison office without premises because of lack of funds for the rent, difficulties of communicating with office members, inadequate raising of materials and funds), Répat managed to carry out 15 out of the 25 actions forecast in its programme. This was thanks to the financial aid of the Danish Ambassador in Bénin, the Swiss Cooperation, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.
This awareness and civic education work resulted in a participation of about 70% of the population in these elections, a negligible number of spoilt votes and most important of all, the elections could be held in an atmosphere of peace and transparency.