Benin President Patrice Talon looked set to win re-election on Sunday in a tense ballot, with critics accusing him of rigging the race in his favour by sidelining opposition leaders.
A cotton tycoon first elected to lead the West African nation in 2016, Talon faces two little-known rivals, Alassane Soumanou and Corentin Kohoue in Sunday’s vote.
Benin was once praised as a vibrant democracy in an often troubled region, but most opposition leaders are in exile, were disqualified by electoral reforms or have been targeted for investigation by a special court.
Tensions rose ahead of the vote, with protests breaking out in several cities in opposition strongholds.
In central and northern Benin, protesters blocked hundreds of cars and trucks travelling between the coast and the north.
Sitting between Africa’s powerhouse Nigeria and neighbouring Togo, Benin has seen some economic successes under Talon, who has played up his record while campaigning. He has promised a “KO” first-round win.
“I believe that today will be a great one. In the end, we will see that the intimidation, the fears have not mattered much,” Talon said after voting.
But Joel Aivo, one of the opposition leaders disqualified from running, said he would not vote and urged others to do the same.
“The president has chosen to run against himself in this unprecedented election,” the FRD opposition movement said, adding that candidates had been “driven into exile, arrested, thrown in prison”.
On Thursday, in the central city of Save, two people died and five others suffered gunshot wounds after troops fired tear gas and live rounds in the air to break up a demonstration.
The streets of Save were empty on Sunday, with all businesses closed. Soldiers were patrolling in the city, an AFP reporter said.