When Tiny Benin Shook Dictators Across Africa

Why you should care

Because long before the Arab Spring, the “Benin Spring” changed Africa.

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Geo facts & figures

The Berlin Wall had fallen the previous month when Mathieu Kérékou, the army major turned socialist leader of the tiny West African nation of Benin, called a politburo meeting of his People’s Revolutionary Party of Benin.

The year 1987 had passed in a blur of strikes by civil servants, teachers and students. And now, in December, the government had run out of money to pay its own bureaucrats. Nevertheless, Benin’s rulers appeared intent on brazening it out like so many of their counterparts in Eastern Europe. Amid the protests, workers were applying finishing touches to a new, soon-to-be-unveiled statue of Lenin in the commercial capital, Cotonou. Then, the gaunt-faced Kérékou emerged from the meeting and made a shocking announcement: Marxism-Leninism would no longer be the state’s guiding ideology, and Benin would no longer be a single-party state.

Benin’s remarkable democratic achievements … are all the more significant as they were reached under conditions of dire poverty and in a very unfavorable regional context.

Thomas Bierschenk, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz

For a world in turmoil, Benin’s transition was easy to miss. That same month the U.S. military invaded Panama, and on Christmas, a firing squad executed Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife. But in Africa, Benin’s shift began a far broader transition with an impact still felt today.

The Benin government announced it would call a national conference to chart the country’s future. Consisting of 488 representatives from various political backgrounds, the summit in February 1990 decided to hold multiparty democratic elections in 1991. Kérékou ran in those elections, lost and handed over power — the first such democratic transition in all of post-colonial West Africa.

Benin started a wave of democratic transitions through similar national conferences, which swept the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of Congo, Togo, Burundi, Rwanda and Niger in the 1990s. But Benin’s 1989 transition stands out because unlike many of those that followed — including the Arab Spring two decades later — the West African nation’s shift neither followed nor sparked a civil war, says Thomas Bierschenk, professor of anthropology and modern African studies at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany.

“Benin’s remarkable democratic achievements should therefore be judged on their own terms,” says Bierschenk, “and are all the more significant as they were reached under conditions of dire poverty and in a very unfavorable regional context.”

Benin has since struggled to break free from the grip of poverty and corruption. An estimated 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. A third of the country doesn’t have access to clean drinking water. Half of its men and 3 in 4 women are illiterate. Benin’s economy is almost entirely informal and largely dependent on agriculture. But it remains a multiparty democracy, free from the civil wars that have afflicted others. By the end of the 1990s, the country had more than 100 registered parties — a fragmentation that political scientist Rachel Gisselquist, a research fellow at the United Nations University’s World Institute for Development Economics Research calls a “pulverized party system.” It has held three peaceful presidential transitions.

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Mathieu Kerekou, president of Benin.

Source Alain Nogues/Getty

Back in 1989, that appeared hard to imagine. Benin’s post-independence journey till then had followed a pattern that, with variations, had played out across Africa — Cold War–era military coups that deposed either socialist or pro-West regimes in country after country. Called Dahomey at the time, the country gained independence from France in 1960. After the military overthrew a series of governments, Kérékou came to power in 1972 and established a single-party Marxist-Leninist state. Three years later, the country changed its name to Benin. “Benin’s early periods of multiparty competition were short-lived and their legacy ambiguous,” writes Gisselquist in a chapter on Benin in Party Systems and Democracy in Africa, published in 2014.

Still, socialism ended more than a decade of ethno-political and regionalist conflicts the country had suffered since independence, says Bierschenk. And Benin’s state-centered development model led to the rapid expansion and democratization of education. But Benin’s dependence on oil imports left it vulnerable to global price fluctuations. By the 1980s, Benin was essentially bankrupt. To deal with the crisis, Kérékou introduced austerity measures that were euphemistically called “structural adjustment programs.” In 1987, Benin ended a policy of guaranteeing jobs to college graduates. Ironically, that particular move away from socialism was a key “cause for social discontent” in the run-up to December 1989, says Bierschenk.

By April 1989, though, civil servants too were protesting the nonpayment of salaries, and one by one, entire government ministries came to a standstill. The French government, which had been tacitly backing Kérékou, slowly suspended its aid, adding to the economic crisis. By December, shopkeepers had joined the protests as the disastrous state of the economy hammered their sales. When Kérékou visited the Dantokpa Market in Cotonou to pacify protesters, he had to flee as women flung shoes at him, noted American historian Patrick Manning in his diary, Memories of Democratization: Around the Atlantic in 80 Days, which is based on his visits to key African countries in churn at the time.

In 2011, a similar crowd attacked and killed Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The Arab Spring that included Gadhafi’s overthrow quickly turned to autumn — Libya remains divided among warlords. Kérékou on the other hand didn’t just survive, but returned to power in 1996, and then again in 2001. Three decades after its own spring, tiny Benin’s economy may still be struggling, but its democracy remains alive and well.

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