10 May 2021 –
Benin has made great strides in improving its legislative and institutional frameworks with regards to the implementation of provisions under both Chapter II (Preventive measures) and Chapter V (Asset Recovery) of the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), a recent report authored by Social Watch Benin (SWB) illustrates, along with key recommendations to various state bodies and institutions for tackling corruption more effectively in Benin. The report is intended as a contribution to the UNCAC implementation review process in its second cycle, with technical and financial support from the UNCAC Coalition.
Since 2016, Benin has undertaken extensive reforms aimed at improving ethical standards in public life and combating corruption, which has hindered the country’s development for decades. One of the principal bodies in the fight against corruption in Benin – the National Authority for the Fight against Corruption (ANLC) – was dissolved in April 2020, to be succeeded by the High Commission for Corruption Prevention (HCPC). The law establishing this office is, however, somewhat controversial, since it simultaneously repealed previous provisions on the declaration of assets, a practice which is now up to the Council of Ministers to decide on, namely: defining which public authorities and individuals are subject to such an obligation.
While several of the UNCAC’s provisions in relation to Chapter V on Asset Recovery have been taken up on a national scale, such as measures to combat and prevent money laundering, facilitating mutual legal assistance and international cooperation; in practice, formal monitoring does not always meet adequate evaluation standards, such as on the matter of asset declarations.
The official UNCAC review process in Benin is currently in its initial stages. At present, only the governmental experts list is available on Benin’s UNODC country profile page and the government has recently finished filling out the self-assessment checklist. Not much information has been made available to civil society stakeholders, nor have the latter been invited to contribute and participate in the process. Nevertheless, the hope remains that the government will make all documents, including the full country report available, once finalized.
Below are several of the key findings from the report, grouped according to topic:
Victims of Corruption
One article of Benin’s Law on Criminal Procedure allows for the defense of the collective interests of certain categories of victims, and to bring a civil action for compensation for damage caused by a crime, offence or contravention in relation to acts that directly or indirectly harm such collective interests. Since 2018, around ten corruption cases have been brought before the courts through the filing of civil action complaints by Social Watch Benin and the Association for the Fight against Racism, Ethnocentrism and Regionalism (ALCRER).
Access to information & civil society participation
Public access to information is a human right recognized by the Beninese Constitution. However, according to the global Right to Information Index, Benin is among the bottom 10 countries worldwide (in 117th place out of 123 countries) with room for improvement in terms of its weak legal framework for the right to information. Likewise, Benin has taken a step backwards in the Reporters without Borders index, which ranked it 113 out of 180 countries in 2020, compared to a rank of 78 out of 180 countries in 2017.
The failure to decriminalize all press offences, a promise made by the head of state during his election campaign; the closure of several privately-owned media outlets by the High Authority for Communication and Audio-visuals in Benin (despite a court ruling in May 2017 calling for the reopening of one of them); and poor media coverage of opposition activities by state television, are palpable signs of the difficult media environment within which journalists and civil society operate.
However, civil society was actively involved in the development of the government-approved National Integrity System Assessment and the Integrity Promotion and Anti-Corruption Action Plans, which constitute the current strategic framework for the fight against corruption in Benin. It is worth noting that citizen participation has been encouraged and respected throughout the course of several reviews at a ministerial level. Civil society voices are heard in the context of preparations for the budgetary process, with the needs and aspirations of the population being expressed. Similarly, civil society participates in public hearings of the parliamentary budget voting process. Moreover, any citizen can report acts of corruption through a widely accessible, toll-free telephone number.
In 2018, the government of Benin launched an initiative to provide the judiciary with an ethics guide to establish basic standards of conduct and implement the requisite sanctions when violated. Training programmes for judges and prosecutors to promote integrity and combat corruption risks are organized by the Supreme Court, with support from the Ministry of Justice and Legislation. These programmes are also part of the standard training curricula. However, the Supreme Council of the Judiciary (CSM) has been a problematic institution, indicative of political influence in judicial affairs. This is due to the presence of both the President of the Republic as well as the Minister of Justice and six other ministers as members of the CSM, bringing the number of governmental figures in the Council to a total of eight. It is notable that, according to the Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer for Africa in 2019, 46% of Benin’s citizens believe that judges and magistrates are mostly or completely corrupt.
Private sector transparency
Corruption cases involving private companies are quite frequent. Accounting practices at a company level do not guarantee transparency in their operations and they often use audit firms that do not meet international standards. Although business leaders are calling on the public administration through the media to fight corruption, there are no initiatives involving businesses and civil society to do so. Furthermore, the register of companies and businesses is not made public, nor is it available online. Apart from the legal announcements published by the Investment and Export Promotion Agency (APIEx) on the virtual platform ‘monentreprise.bj’, which provides information about the creation of companies, no other data on companies and their managers or beneficiaries is accessible.
Beninese authorities have made strong commitments to eradicate all offences or underlying crimes that generate illicit financial flows. Several reforms and new legislation which is more than 90% compliant with FATF recommendations have been undertaken by the government to strengthen the legal, institutional and operational frameworks for the prevention and repression of all economic or financial offences, to effectively combat money laundering and terrorist financing. Several capacity-building workshops for criminal investigation and prosecution authorities on money laundering, financial investigation techniques and anti-money laundering enforcement have been organized, and the Financial Information Processing Unit (CENTIF) has published quarterly reports since 2017, apart from collaborating with regional groups and initiatives, including the FATF and Interpol.
Nevertheless, stakeholders suffer from a lack of knowledge on AML/CFT and consequently from a lack of awareness of their obligations – in the case of notaries, lawyers, accountants, bailiffs, casinos and gaming companies and hotels in particular, much expertise needs to be built.
Asset declarations and conflicts of interest
Candidates for elected office are not obliged to file an asset declaration prior to an election: a presidential candidate must only do so once elected, making one declaration at the beginning of his/her term in office, and another at the end of it. Previously, this obligation to declare assets also applied to elected parliamentarians and councilors at the municipal and local levels. However, a new law passed on 23 April 2020 repealed this provision, meaning that the list of authorities and civil servants subject to the obligation to declare their assets is still to be decided, by a new decree.
In addition, between 1990 and 2014, the institutions in charge of receiving and monitoring asset declarations never reported on the compliance of those subject to this obligation. Since 2014, the authority responsible for receiving copies of the declarations – the former National Authority for the Fight against Corruption (ANLC) – has published periodic reports, presenting the list of those subject to the obligation who have or have not fulfilled their duty. Over the years, the reports have revealed the gross violation of this obligation: according to the ANLC’s 2016 report, only 8 out of 83 members of parliament made their declaration 9 months after taking office. In response, the ANLC has organized several advocacy activities and even interrogated those subject to the obligation to declare, in order to further increase the number of declarations made.
In its report, Social Watch Benin makes several key recommendations for priority actions to be taken to ensure the full implementation of the UNCAC in Benin, for example:
- Encourage the swift appointment of the President of the Court of Audit and the members of this institution, in order to strengthen control over the management of public finances.
- Ensure that the decree to be issued by the Council of Ministers, redefining the list of public authorities and officials subject to the obligation of declaring their assets, complies with the provisions of international commitments ratified by Benin, which do not exempt members of parliament and mayors from such an obligation to declare their assets.
- Authorize the publication of the full report of the review of Benin’s implementation of the UNCAC by the UNODC, when complete.
- For the effective monitoring of declarations of interest, create an independent structure or entrust this task to the High Commission, making the declarations available online, in a standardized format which can be filled in by those subject to filing them in digital form, making them easier to analyze.
- Instruct the Investment and Export Promotion Agency (APIEx) to publish and make a register of companies and businesses available online, as well as a central register of beneficial owners of companies and businesses.
More detailed recommendations, specific to the mandates of different governmental bodies and entities, are provided in Chapter VI of the report.