In the heart of the large Dantokpa market in Cotonou, the corn sales shop belonging to the Makpènon family has been less busy than usual for several days. The company, like others in the economic capital of Benin, is slowing down due to the rise in corn prices. In the space of a few days, the price of a kilo of corn doubled, going from 200 to 400 CFA francs (from 0.30 to 0.60 euros), even peaking at 450 CFA francs, according to market traders. . The 120 kilo bag can reach 36,000 CFA francs (55 euros), when it did not exceed 30,000 CFA francs.

The price rise in Benin results from the closure of the border with Niger, the country’s main trading partner, following the July 26, 2023 coup, and the end of fuel subsidies in neighboring Nigeria, where the Benin sources its supplies for its domestic consumption. The rising cost of food in the small West African country has prompted unions to call for a series of unprecedented protests against the “cost of living”. The first two demonstrations were dispersed by police, who fired tear gas. The third, scheduled for Saturday May 11, was authorized.

“Going to the market has become torture. Everything costs us so much that we are helpless,” laments Roberte Akododja, 42, owner of a bistro in the working-class district of Gbégamey, in Cotonou. “Even in restaurants, you have to pay more for regular meals or settle for small portions,” adds Delphin Agossohou, administrative executive.

Camille Ségbedji, one of the leaders of the National Union of Secondary Teachers and Administrative Personnel of Benin (Synepas), complains of the absence of a “fair agricultural policy” on the part of the government in the face of the decline in purchasing power. In 2023, Benin’s economy proved resilient, despite the external economic shocks the country faced, according to the World Bank. During a council of ministers held on Wednesday, however, the government temporarily suspended cereal exports in order to curb the surge in prices.

Protesters arrested

Political gatherings have become rarer in Benin since President Patrice Talon came to power in 2016, with some major opposition leaders in exile or imprisoned. Critics regularly accuse the head of state of having made an authoritarian turn in this country once praised for the dynamism of its democracy.

Protesting high costs, major unions organized a demonstration in Cotonou on April 27, which was quickly disrupted and banned by police, who used tear gas to disperse the gathering. Nearly thirty demonstrators and leaders of the trade union movement were arrested that day, before being released a little later. “Workers are struggling to make themselves heard. We have demands, but no way to express them,” explains Arsène Olory-Togbe, a 48-year-old nurse.

On May 1, the Benin Workers’ Union Confederation (CSTB), the country’s main trade union organization, organized a new demonstration, which was immediately banned by the authorities. Seventy-two demonstrators were arrested, including twenty-one placed in pre-trial detention for cannabis consumption. “Ridiculous and toxic argument from a power in decline which invents subterfuges to intimidate workers,” Nestor Kouakanou, a CSTB union member, told Agence France-Presse.

“Our motivations relate to the majority of unhappiness among citizens today: the high cost of living and the decline in purchasing power,” explained Anselme Amoussou, general secretary of the Confederation of Autonomous Trade Unions of Benin (CSA- Benin), second largest trade union organization in the country.

Despite the ban and cancellation of demonstrations in recent days, trade unionists once again called on the population to protest on Saturday in Cotonou against the rise in prices. “No worker is happy to take to the streets, it is never with joy of heart. But in certain situations, it is necessary,” explained Mr. Ségbedji, from Synepas. For Mr. Amoussou, workers want dialogue and respect for union rights. “Wondering whether a peaceful demonstration will be repressed is sad for a democracy like Benin,” he laments.