Benin was the theatre of so many coup d’états and putsches after independence in 1960 that it was baptized the « Sick child of Africa ». A military coup in 1972 brought Mathieu Kérékou to power. In 1974, he surrounded himself with Marxist executives and adopted a single party state. Lauded by the Beninese for many years, the regime slid into an economic slump in the second half of the Eighties, accelerating his downfall. This was consecrated by a National Conference in 1990. Ten years on, a Literature and Communications lecturer from the University of Benin (Togo), editor of Propos Scientifiques, and a Togolese opposition Member of Parliament (1994-1999), offers an appraisal.
Cotonou, 28 February 2000: the inauguration of the Place de la Conférence Nationale. The event is designed to be the resounding consecration of the programme elaborated to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the illustrious Conference of the Vital Forces of the Nation which, in 1990, opened up bright political perspectives for the Republic of Benin.
The Beninese can quite justifiably be proud of having succeeded their democratic transition as, under other skies, the path has been totally chaotic, desperately calamitous, the national conferences only heralding a period of worst nightmares for some and of illusory trances for others.
What are the reasons for this success in Benin, which many well-informed observers are quick to point to with a flourish?
It is worth highlighting the objective factors which testify to the profound changes to have taken place making Benin, a former totalitarian State, a modern democratic republic today. The following points are striking:
– political changeover takes place;
– the Constitutional Court, democracy’s regulating institution, is functional;
– permanent democratic debate takes place without any major incidents.
In 1991, Mathieu Kérékou lost the presidential elections to Nicéphore Soglo, the Prime Minister who emerged from the National Conference. For five years, he led the Republic of Benin without being hindered by the former Head of State, the « revolutionary Marxist », who played the game perfectly by keeping his head down. In 1996, General Kérékou took a spectacular revenge, not by using arms, but through universal suffrage and the urns.
In the space of five years, therefore, there were two political changeovers. Some people were disappointed to see the very same Kérékou, a natural chameleon, manage to pass himself off just as well as a democrat than as a dictator, implying that one system was the same as the other. In reality, the Beninese experienced two diametrically opposed situations, one of which was intolerable, the other bearable: in 1972 Mathieu Kérékou imposed himself on the people of Dahomey; in 1991 and 1996, the Beninese imposed their will on Kérékou. In 1972 the people were subjected to him; in 1996, they took him on themselves.
In a well-functioning democratic system, political conflicts are not arbitrated by the rash, sudden, and brutal intrusion of the army, but by an institution designed for this purpose, which forms a credible point of reference, and whose unbiased decisions are opposable to all citizens, who willingly accept them.
In 1996, when the results of the second round of the presidential election were declared and Mathieu Kérékou’s unimaginable victory became a reality, Nicéphore Soglo seemed to hesitate as to whether or not he ought to accept the bitter verdict. In other circumstances, in the same climes, the hesitation of the unlucky candidate, who was still the President of the Republic after all, would have quickly been backed by a subjugated regulatory institution, which would have soon reversed the results. But the Constitutional Court managed to remain faithful to its mission, and Nicéphore Soglo was forced to swallow his pride. And hence, enter Kérékou the second.
Freedom of speech, freedom of the press or of association, translated by a multiplicity of news organs, of meetings of religious or intellectual groups of all denominations, these are some of the ingredients which constitute the democratic backdrop. But the main ingredient is the political activity explicitly spearheaded, without trussings, by the politicians or political parties in all points of the territory where a democracy has been proclaimed. You can measure a country’s state of democratic advancement from the way in which political debate is held there, and from the citizen’s degree of anxiety each time they express their political convictions wherever the place may be. It is clear that the more concerned the citizen is for his/her well-being in such circumstances, the more democracy has broken down.
It is rare for the leaders of political parties to be attacked in the Republic of Benin just for preaching the good word of their convictions, or for setting up local or regional groups. The manhunts so dear to fascist or dictatorial regimes are no longer current fare in Benin. That the leaders of the Renaissance du Bénin party be attacked by political opponents during an information tour of Bassila, for example, would be seen as horribly barbaric and inconceivable today. Political debate takes place relatively free of major incidents, and in an explicit and permanent manner! And when election time draws nigh, no political tendency feels especially threatened any more than any other does…
The democratic process’s track record is thus generally positive in Benin. In fact, this result should not be seen as unduly surprising, given that the Beninese people took preliminary measures which inevitably led to this objective, notably through the way in which the National Conference was thought out and prepared on the one hand, and the democratic transition handled on the other.
But one preliminarily catalyzer was also necessary: namely a vendetta free socio-political context.
It is striking to note that in the four decades since their country attained international sovereignty, and despite the multiple episodes they have been through, the Beninese have never resolved their political problems by physically eliminating any of their leaders. Benin is one of the rare, if not the only African country, or at least Black African country, in which former Heads of State are still found alive after having been overthrown by a coup d’état. What an admirable spectacle it was at the National Conference to see four former Presidents of the Republic (Hubert Maga, Sourou Migan Apithy, Justin Tometin Ahomadegbe, Emile Derlin Zinsou) sitting together to reflect upon the rebuilding of a country that each had led in his day!
When politicians evolve in an environment unscarred by vendettas, in which they do not have to worry whether so-and-so has gone into politics to avenge the memory of a father president of the Republic killed in an armed takeover, then the notion of private affairs or of the settling of scores is easier to avert, and the struggle becomes resolutely political for everyone concerned. It is thus a major asset that the Beninese socio-political climate is not a bloodstained one. This parameter has encouraged conviviality on a long-term basis, thereby reducing the risk of turning one another’s political adversaries into out-and-out undying enemies.
After having been led into bankruptcy by seventeen years of PRPB (Parti de la Révolution Populaire du Bénin) rule, the Beninese people had, at the end of the day, got the measure of the risks of social dislocation facing them if they did not succeed in creating the conditions for a new citizen-oriented departure.
Furthermore, a fitting framework for reflection had to be found, debates had to be led to a positive conclusion with no slip-ups, and the outcome had to be staunchly accepted.
Robert Dossou’s entry into Mathieu Kérékou’s last government before the National Conference did not fail to take observers by surprise. In fact this character is one of the most controversial political actors since the days when, as President of the FEANF (Fédération des Etudiants d’Afrique Noire en France), he was given the nickname of « Pope » in Paris. On his return to Benin, Robert Dossou, a lawyer at the Cotonou bar, professor and dean of the law faculty at the National University of Benin, was de facto constantly present on the political scene, whilst formally and structurally being absent. It can now be said that Robert Dossou’s entry was a posteriori salutary for Benin. The National Conference was prepared and made effective by him. Dossou was not the only player, but his involvement was decisive.
The well thought-out and prepared Conference of the Vital Forces of the Nation was held in the record space of ten days. In this short space of time, the Beninese managed to engage in a fundamental debate about the problems undermining their country, drew sensible conclusions, and set up milestones for the construction of a new political, economic, and social machine to meet the whole population’s aspirations.
The National Conference’s peaceful functioning was essentially the doing of a prelate, Archbishop Isidor de Souza, the Archbishop of
Cotonou, and President of the Episcopal Conference of Benin. It took talent and special charisma to run a conference this size involving the most prominent political figures at a time when the country was in the most acute turmoil of its history. Archbishop de Souza managed to exert a moral authority appropriate to the circumstances. Thanks to his know-how, the National Conference found the right tone, adopted sound resolutions, and concluded its works in a atmosphere of reconciliation.
Would the National Conference have had the same successful outcome if General Mathieu Kérékou hadn’t have been a chameleon? The man proved his great capacity to adapt to the most difficult situations, to take the most unexpected turns.
Accepting the dissolution of the single party, symbol of absolute power, willingly giving up his monopoly of State power, remaining deaf to the entreaties of an entourage anxious to safeguard its interests at any price, all these are signs of an exceptional psychological aptitude that is highly uncommon amongst dictators. In this respect, Mathieu Kérékou remains the political player who made the greatest concessions for Benin’s renaissance.
But the key to success came primarily from the fact the the Beninese people clearly perceived that, in their march towards democracy, they necessarily had to accept a transition period in which the different political forces would reconcile and learn to build the foundations of a new society together.
After the torments of dictatorship, the populations could either opt for radical revolution, or for progressive radical change. The choice of the National Conference, conceived of as it was, was not that of revolution. It had to be accepted, therefore, that it was not a question of beheading Kérékou and seizing his body, but of bringing the dictator round to handing over power to leaders who came from the ranks of the people, after and through the prerequisite of a consensual handling of the country’s affairs.
Archbishop de Souza’s merits have to be acknowledged here once again. After having been one of the men of the National Conference, he was incontestably the man of the transition. President of the transitional legislative body, the prelate constantly sought to reconcile Mathieu Kérékou, the Head of State, and Nicéphore Soglo, the transition Prime Minister. He managed to bring Kérékou round to accepting the idea of standing down; he managed to get the Beninese political class to agree that Mathieu Kérékou had to be amnestied.
This amnesty was the consecratory element in the Beninese people’s move to democracy!
After having shaken off a ferocious dictatorship which had given the people little freedom, the Beninese had little choice but to equip their country with a political system that guaranteed both stability and encouraged individual and collective freedom.
For want of knowing exactly which regime was the best suited to the political situation of the time, it was at least their duty not to ignore that which was not. The Beninese perfectly understood that a semi-presidential (or semi-parliamentary) regime would not help them out. The division of executive power between the President of the Republic and the Prime Minister, even when not in a situation of cohabitation, is not the best way of uniting energies in a country crippled by socio-political injustices for so long. The leaders have more confidence and can better stand up to the different attacks when they act in virtue of a legitimacy incarnated by an individual directly elected by universal suffrage. If Nicéphore Soglo was able to complete his mandate (1991-1996), if Mathieu Kérékou has lasted without being a danger to democracy, it is largely due to the presidential regime which the Beninese had the inspiration to set up in their Republic.
Without being a model, the Beninese example should remain a reference. A lot of French-speaking African countries are trapped in the atavistic cycle of the semi-presidential regime. They come off more or less alright when the President of the Republic and the Prime Minister are of the same political persuasion. But what a mess at times of cohabitation!
Huenumadji Afan is a Lecturer in Literature and Communications at the University of Bénin (Togo).
Editor of Propos Scientifiques
Opposition MP (CAR) in Togo (1994-1999)///Article N° : 5464