Life can be bizarre – one minute you are being feted as one of Forbes Magazine’s most influential African women, the next you are arrested, accused of plotting murders and thrown into jail.
Add the fact that you are a major opponent of the sitting President and there’s an election in under two weeks and your arrest takes on even more sinister dimensions.
Reckya Madougou is a well-known pro-democracy campaigner in Benin and across West Africa and the circumstances that surround her detention should make us stand up and take note. She was arrested on March 3rd and charged with planning to assassinate several political figures. She has been detained ever since on terrorism charges.
According to Alain Orounia, a spokesperson of Benin President Patrice Talon, she was “preparing a very serious offence of terrorism”. Allegedly, “those about to commit crimes have designated Reckya Madougou as their sponsor”.
This seems a very strange accusation to make against a renowned pro-democracy campaigner who has served for five years on two occasions as a Cabinet Minister in Benin.
Madougou has a strong track record of promoting inclusion in Benin particularly for women and young people. As Minister of Microfinance, Youth and Women’s Employment, she is credited with helping more than two million people find work through promoting entrepreneurship and training women.
She took her message about the importance of financial inclusion for fighting poverty and malnutrition around West Africa. She has written two books “My Fight For Speech” and “Healing Certainties” which have become definitive guides on how to mobilise citizens to fight poverty and strengthen democracy.
She also became the coordinator of the African Initiative for Peace Education which calls for inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue, and created her own cosmetics brand to raise money for disabled people in Benin. Her campaigns brought her to the attention of Forbes and Francophonie magazine Jeune Afrique, with both outlets naming her among the most influential African women.
As candidate for the leading opposition party in Benin, Les Democrates, Ms. Madougou has spoken of her vision for a Benin where fundamental rights are protected and dissenting opinions voiced without fear of reprisal.
Those freedoms have been under attack even since President Talon was elected in 2016. Benin used to be a model democracy in west Africa but no more. In 2019 Freedom House downgraded Benin from “Free” to “Partly Free” when the previous President Thomas Boni Yayi was detained, and those protesting his arrest were subdued with gunfire from the security forces.
Although Yayi was later released and left the country, other opposition leaders remained in jail. Changes to election law have also made it virtually impossible for opposition candidates, including Ms Madougou, to stand for office. They are now required to be sponsored by sixteen members of parliament or mayors, but as the opposition has no MPs or mayors it is difficult for any candidate other than President Talon to get their names on the ballot paper.
Ms Madougou was campaigning right up to the day of her arrest even though she had already been declared ineligible to stand for the Presidency. Just hours before her arrest she made this very critical speech about President Talon and his government. Her words poignantly seem to predict the fate that was about to befall her:
“They (the government) are the terrorists and everyone in Benin is their prisoner. The people of Benin people must ask for their freedom immediately. This election has been manipulated”. With that, she was herself was detained and charged with terrorism. Access to her in jail has been restricted and there is no news about when she will be released.
Perhaps the government of President Talon will feel it is safe to free her once he has safely secured a new term in office after April 11th? Whatever happens, we haven’t heard the last of Reckya Madougou. The woman who gained international recognition when the US Government presented her with a “Woman Of Courage” Award and who campaigned for African women to find their voice, has surely not been silenced forever.