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Benin: Democratic Succession

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Apr 9, 2006 (060409)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"The constitution favors the change of power and the change of heads of state. These fundamental prescriptions of our constitution of 11 December 1990 must resist all opportunistic revisionism, short-term interests and subjectivism." - Outgoing Benin President Mathieu Kerekou, who turned over the presidency on April 6 to his elected successor Yayi Boni, a strong critic of Kerekou's record.

Both Kerekou and his predecessor Nicephore Soglo were ineligible to run under the constitution, which prohibits candidates over 70 years old.

The transition in Benin, commented This Day of neighboring Nigeria, demonstrated a "high level of political development" and a level of respect for the democratic process which "should humble betterendowed African countries. ... Until one elected president hands over the reins of power to another elected president in a free and fair election, then democracy cannot be said to be taking root in any country." (

Benin, which led the way in the wave of democracy movements in West Africa in the early 1990s, has again set an example for political transition. As noted in the articles below, the voters hope that the political example will be matched by changes in the difficult economic situation facing the country.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains two articles from the UN's Integrated Regional Information Networks summarizing recent developments in Benin, and an analysis of earlier trends in Benin from the Nordic Africa Institute.

For additional background, the Benin news portal has a wide range of articles from Beninois newspapers and other sources. The Benin government website is at, the website of the incoming president is at, and there are background articles and a transcript of the segment on Benin from the film Hopes on the Horizon, at

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

Benin: President Mathieu Kerekou leaves after 29 years

Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)
UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

[The material from IRIN may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.]

Cotonou, 7 Apr 2006 (IRIN) - Bucking a regional trend towards constitutional revision and chaotic political successions, Benin's long-serving ruler Mathieu Kerekou at midnight on Wednesday observed the constitutional age limit and ceded the presidency to Boni Yayi, in a bow to democracy.

Since first seizing power in a military coup in 1972, Mathieu amassed 29 years as ruler of Benin. He converted first his military dictatorship into a one-party Leninist-Marxist state in 1975, but in 1990 pulled off Africa's first successful transition from dictatorship to democracy.

After losing an election and standing down in 1991, he won a free and fair presidential ballot in 1996, and was awarded a second term in 2001.

Fittingly for a man who ran his country through different ideologies, Kerekou's motto was "the stick cannot break in the arms of a chameleon". His trademark swagger stick was emblazoned with a chameleon.

Kerekou's adherence to the constitution and his successful engineering of a peaceful succession is made all the more remarkable given the often less than democratic norm in the region.

"General Kerekou has not given in to temptation, which is remarkable in Africa," said a Cameroonian newspaper, referring to the fact that he actually stood down. "This action has planted Benin firmly in the club of democracies and also opened the voice of political rejuvenation and perhaps even the style of governance".

In neighbouring Burkina Faso, President Blaise Compaore reassumed power in November 2005 after 18 years. Neighbouring Togo has been ruled by the Gnassingbe dynasty for over 38 years and the last election was hotly criticised.

Elsewhere in the region Omar Bongo in Gabon is currently Africa's longest-serving leader and was also re-elected for another seven years in December 2005. Chadian President Idriss Deby has recently changed the constitution to allow himself to run again.

Benin, Ghana and Senegal are the only West Africa countries deemed "free" by the U.S. political rights and civil liberties monitoring NGO Freedom House. However during a state visit to Senegal, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi this week suggested 82-year-old Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade should change the constitution to stand for life.

Throughout his ten-year reign, Kerekou followed a liberal economic path, and improved Benin's international standing. Benin has taken part in several United Nations peacekeeping missions elsewhere in Africa.

In his message to the nation in July 2005 Independence Day celebrations, Kerekou celebrated Benin's constitution. "After 15 years of democratic experience, our country lives in peace. The institutions of the republic function properly, Benin's people enjoy all their fundamental liberties. Freedom of the press is guaranteed. The legal environment is cleaned up.

"The constitution favours the change of power and the change of heads of state. These fundamental prescriptions of our constitution of 11 December 1990 must resist all opportunistic revisionism, short-term interests and subjectivism. The constitution was made as a basic reference and the test of authenticity of the new democratic culture is whether the political actors from now on stick to it responsibly."

Kerekou was born in 1933. He attended schools in Senegal, Mali and France and served in the French army before returning to Benin with the rank of lieutenant. In 1965 he served as aide de camp of Benin's first post-independence president Hubert Maga.

Benin: President-to-be pledges change "with God's blessing"


Cotonou, 3 Apr 2006 (IRIN) - Boni Yayi, the former banker and political novice who will be sworn in as Benin's new president this week following a landslide election victory, has promised sweeping change for the tiny West African nation "with the blessing of God."

The high-flying 54-year-old economist who takes over 6 April from outgoing President Mathieu Kerekou is a devout evangelist who publicly thanked God after heading a field of 26 candidates in the first round of the vote -- his maiden political run. "God builds and blesses all destinies," he said in a victory statement entitled "My prayer for economic renewal."

In the second run-off round, the political debutante who had no party backing and ran with support from a coalition of small groups, went on to secure a whopping 1,979,305 votes against 637,937 for challenger Adrien Houngbedji, a veteran politician who heads the Democratic Renewal Party, one of the country's main parties.

Commentators said Yayi's seemingly miraculous 74.51 percent win reflected the country's deep desire for change rather than divine intervention. "Boni Yayi is not a messiah! But he is the man of the hour," said the daily newspaper Nokoue. In the 15 years since the introduction of multi-party democracy, Benin's political leaders had failed popular expectations, the paper said. "Benin today is a misery," agreed Dobou Dine Prudencio, a computer specialist. "President Boni Yayi is the hope of all Benin, especially the youth."

After resigning this year from his job of 12 years as president of the West African Development Bank (BOAD), Yayi launched his run for political office under the slogan "With Boni Yayi it can change, it must change, it will change." Disappointed Beninese signed up by the droves to the vision of this technocrat, who after completing a PhD in Economics in 1991 worked for two years as advisor on monetary and banking affairs to then president Nicephore Soglo before going on to BOAD in 1994.

After being officially proclaimed winner of the election by the Constitutional Court last week, Yayi said. "The people want prosperity. I am convinced that together we will succeed in changing to create a new Benin."

Hit by plunging cotton sales, a spiralling oil bill, rising food prices and corruption, Benin's 7.5 million people appear to have found hope for the future in the president-to-be's wide-ranging programme to pump new life into the economy by beating corruption and mismanagement, while providing fresh political direction and moral impetus. "We expect the new president to ease our suffering and bring better welfare with a new team. We are waiting to see the result of these comings and goings," said Akim Ossnu, a security guard.

Benin is rated among the world's 20 poorest countries by the United Nations. Life expectancy is 54 and a third of the population is illiterate and lives below the poverty line.

During his 12 years at the helm of the BOAD, Yayi reorganized and cleaned up management, increased activities and spending, and brought in new shareholders and funds. During his campaign for the presidency he pledged that if elected, one of the top priorities of his five-year mandate would be to end corruption and economic crime and reinstate ethical values and respect for the state. "Our working method will leave no place for impunity," he said.

Yayi has pledged to develop Benin's traditional economic role in the region as a provider of shipping and services for its landlocked northern neighbours, Burkina Faso and Niger, while developing ties with the giant on its doorstep, Nigeria. "I will seek to set up a strategic partnership with this brother nation," he said.

On the domestic front, Yayi said he would battle attempts to whip up ethnic trouble, pay out unpaid salaries to civil servants, provide civic instruction in schools, create a better investment climate and promote peace.

Demonstrating his aim to harness aid from all sides, one of his first visits after being proclaimed winner of the poll was to contender Houngbedji, whom he praised for his fair play. "Noone will be left aside," he told reporters. "We need to rebuild the country."

Democratic Consolidation in Benin Lessons from the 1996 Presidential Election

Leonard Wantchekon Assistant Professor of Political Science, Yale University

Paul Ngomo Research Assistant, Yale University

News from the Nordic Africa Institute, May, 2001

[For full article, including bibliography, see]

Historically we have ample evidence that the process of political reform or democratisation is at best a very long-term and complicated affair. Recent experience from Africa shows that it can also be rather messy.

In the popular discourse of today democratisation is rather simple. Most of the discussion focuses around the question of free and fair elections and countries are judged according to the number and performance of elections. The Republic of Benin, one of the smallest African countries with a population of some five million has, thus, been held up as a success story and is today seen as a guide for other countries in the region and for Africa at large. However behind this façade of success the situation is not so straightforward.


The first twelve post-independence years of the Republic of Benin were characterised by political instability with an alternation of civilian and military rule. The country experienced its fifth and last military coup in 1972. The coup led by Mathieu Kérékou paved the way for a leftist dictatorship, which lasted for 18 years.

In February 1990, mass protest and external pressure by France led the military regime of General Kérékou to convene a national conference (a gathering of representatives of all the political groups of that time) that gave birth to a democratic renewal. A transition government and parliament were created and a new constitution written and voted on by referendum, providing for a multiparty democracy. Since then Benin has experienced three parliamentary and two presidential elections.

The country's first presidential election took place in 1992 and was won by Mr Nicéphore Soglo, a former World Bank official. He was Prime Minister in the Transition Government that governed the country from 1990 to 1992. The country had its second regular presidential contest on 3 March 1996 and Nicéphore Soglo lost to General Kérékou, the former autocrat. The outcome took many people by surprise. There had been little doubt that Soglo would be re-elected after five years of relative economic prosperity.

Thus, the central enigma of the 1996 Benin election was the defeat of the incumbent president whose achievements made him one of the most respected African technocrats of his generation. The surprising return of the former discredited strongman, via the ballot box, gave rise to serious doubts over the capacity of Benin to sustain a long-term rule of law building process.

Why did Soglo, the incumbent president lose to Kérékou despite an economic record by far superior to his opponent's in 1989? Why did a political leader portrayed as a competent technocrat, whose economic achievements revitalised his country lose the presidential election to an opponent who led the country to bankruptcy after seventeen years in office? What is the rationale behind Benin's surprising 1996 leadership turnover?

We argue that Soglo lost the election because of his lack of political leadership. We show that the second presidential election held in Benin was a 'critical test' whose outcome unquestionably showed that country to be a democracy among other democracies.

Good economic record but questionable political leadership Soglo is generally portrayed as the reformer who restructured a bankrupt state. Between 1990 and 1996, government revenues increased by 232 per cent. The growth rate of the GDP, which was only 1 per cent in 1989 increased to 6.2 per cent between 1990 and 1994. Overall the growth was twice as much as the general population growth (nearly 3 per cent). The investment rate increased by 20 per cent in 1995. Until the devaluation of the national currency, the Franc CFA in 1994, inflation had stayed under control.

Unlike normal leadership turnover in democratic electoral processes where incumbent candidates may be dismissed by voters because of their inability to manage the economy, the rationale of Benin's 1996 electoral outcome derives from strictly political reasons that arose when the rulers democratically elected in 1991 squandered their credibility by acting inconsistently with the spirit of political pluralism. From 1992, he was frequently accused of governing without including the members of the coalition parties, who supported his candidacy during the 1991 presidential election. While in power, Soglo faced many challenges in parliament. He reacted to these challenges by consolidating the power of his party, the Renaissance du Benin, created in 1992 by his wife, Mrs Rosine Soglo. The hegemonic tendencies of his party became evident in 1993 after the breakdown of his coalition in parliament.

In 1994, when the legislature rejected his budget proposal, Soglo's relations with the political establishment became more strained and polarised. The political history of the country from independence to the beginning of the democratic renewal reveals the crucial importance of local leaders. Neglecting this reality Soglo launched several attacks on local leaders who disagreed with him.

An inappropriate leadership strategy aggravated by despotic inclinations seriously handicapped Soglo's chances of winning the 1996 elections. Moreover, the regime's legitimacy was also undermined by persistent accusations of corruption and arrogance in the president's inner circle, which Soglo had packed with family members. His propensity to appoint his family members to public offices soon became the subject of controversy. At least four Soglos surrounded the president: a brother, two cousins and his son. The president also appointed his brother-in-law as the minister in charge of national defence.

All Soglo's opponents joined Kérékou to prepare for the elections. In the end, Soglo, the respectable technocrat lost to Kérékou, the former dictator. In many respects, Soglo's unwise leadership strategy, the fears about his one-party state mentality and accusations of corruption accounted for his defeat.

The Benin lesson The most significant event of the electoral 1996 outcome of the presidential election in Benin is not really Soglo's defeat. In short, it is the paradox of the return of Kérékou and the popular support he received to bring about his comeback. Were the president-makers (the members of the coalition that chose Kérékou as their candidate) and the majority of the voters amnesiac and liable to misunderstand the lessons of the past? On closer examination, the central issue does not lie here, but has to do with the set of institutions and structures that made it possible to express the will of the majority. The outcome of the 1996 electoral contest in Benin is not only interesting because of the return of Kérékou, but because it brings to light some theoretical lessons that may be useful in understanding the essential patterns of democratic consolidation.

An important lesson from Benin's electoral experience is the triumph of democratic procedures in the consolidation of the regime. This approach establishes elections as crucial tests and a suitable way to choose rulers and to solve political disputes. It is worth noting that such an understanding of elections has also been mentioned in the contemporary literature on the transition process and democracy. Although elections are not what democracy is all about those held in Benin have shown the vitality of democracy as a procedural method that can be used to dismiss an unwanted ruler who acts unwisely in order to prevent him from compromising a democratic consolidation. Besides this, they have illuminated the fact that economic competency may not be the factor that decides election outcomes. A ruler may lose elections even if he is competent. Thus, he can be held accountable on issues other than economic performance. In general governments are 'accountable' if citizens can discern representative from unrepresentative governments and can sanction them appropriately, retaining in office those who perform well and ousting from office those who do not.


We argue that the surprising outcome of the 1996 presidential election brings to light what was really at stake on the election day: a choice between democratic consolidation and the return of the era of strong men whose practices are inconsistent with the spirit of democracy. By voting for Kérékou, the majority did not compromise the future of democracy in Benin. What was at stake was the defence of democratic institutions that seemed endangered by a political leadership that displayed a lack of political flexibility, despite an unquestionable economic competency. Thus, economic competence is not always enough to justify dictatorial actions at the expense of the consolidation of democracy.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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