Kerekou, Ahmed (Mathieu) 1933—
Ahmed (Mathieu) Kerekou 1933—
President of Benin
Benin, the former French colony of Dahomey, became independent on August 1, 1960. It was renamed the People’s Republic of Benin in 1975 as part of an ideological shift to a Marxist-Leninist state following a 1972 military coup led by Mathieu Kerekou. Sandwiched between Nigeria to the east and the even smaller nation of Togo to the west, Benin receives little attention in the United States. The American ambassador left in 1975 and did not return until diplomatic relations were restored in 1983, as the Kerekou regime sought to pursue a policy of liberalization. There is virtually no U.S. investment in this tiny nation, due in large part to its lack of exportable resources and the government’s Marxist-Leninist stance for so many years. Only in 1982 did Benin become an oil-producing state.
Kerekou has ruled Benin as its president since he came to power in 1972. He brought to Benin a much-needed political stability, military rather than civilian rule, and a Marxist-Leninist ideology. The twelve years following independence were characterized by extreme political instability, as regional leaders vied for power. Benin’s tribal groups fall into three distinct geographical regions, and each region had a powerful political leader. The three-way political competition between Hubert Maga, leader of the northern Bariba ethnic group, Sourou Migan Apithy representing the southeastern Yoruba and Goun tribes, and Justin Ahomadegbe of the southwest and south-central Fon group, created twelve years of continuous ethnic tensions in Dahomey. During this period, military officers intervened six times to quell political bickering and calm ethnic and regional conflicts.
The final military intervention came on October 26, 1972, when Major Mathieu Kerekou established himself as the leader of a new military regime. The coup ended the triumvirate presidential council of Maja, Ahomadegbe, and Apithy, a compromise government that lasted just over two years. Five years earlier, in 1967, then-Captain Kerekou had backed Major Kouandete’s seizure of power, which led to the appointment of Emile Zinsou, a conservative politician from the 1940s, as president. In the 1967 coup, the junior officers were content to relinquish power to their seniors; but in the 1972 coup, Kerekou and other junior officers established their own regime and removed the senior officers from command
Adopted first name, Ahmed, upon conversion to Islam, 1980; born September 2, 1933, in Kourfa, Atakora, Dahomey (now Benin); member of the Somba ethnic group; married with children. Education: Attended the Saint-Louis Secondary School, Senegal; attended the Military Training College, Frejus, France; and the Saint-Raphael Military School, France.
Served in the French army 1960-61, joined the Dahomey army, 1961; aide-de-camp to President Hubert Maga, 1961-63; participated in coup that removed President Christophe Soglo, 1967; chairman of Military Revolutionary Council, 1967-68; promoted to rank of major, 1970; deputy chief of staff, 1970-72; Minister of Planning, 1972; led coup, 1972; President of Republic of Benin, 1972—; Minister of National Defense, 1972-90.
Addresses: Office —Presidence de la Republique, Cotonou, Benin.
by appointing them to sinecures as heads of state-run companies and other positions. The marginalized senior officers made one attempt to regain power in 1973, but were unsuccessful.
The 1972 coup was instigated by a group of junior officers who asked Kerekou to join them just before the coup took place. At that time, Kerekou had ties to senior as well as junior officers. After the coup, Kerekou took over as chief of staff. In justifying the coup, Kerekou said he had not “seized” power but “collected” it back. His statement reflected a militaristic philosophy of political power as well as the fact that the armed forces had become the vehicle for the political aspirations of certain officers.
Kerekou resolved conflicts with other members of the coup over his authority through a series of administrative changes that strengthened the powers of the presidency and gradually downgraded or removed others from the government. He then brought his own supporters into the government. Following the coup, former heads of state and ministers were placed under arrest, except for Zinsou, who was in France. The ministers were gradually released after they returned some of their corrupt gains from holding office. Maga, Apithy, and Ahomadegbe were not released from house arrest until 1981.
Kerekou’s military regime marked a clear break with all earlier Dahomeyan governments. He introduced revolutionary changes into political and economic life. The state sector was rapidly expanded through nationalization, and the “national revolution” would follow a Marxist-Leninist course that was officially adopted in 1974. The decisive break with the old system was symbolized by changing the name of the country to the People’s Republic of Benin in 1975.
In his first major speech in November 1972, Kerekou announced a policy of national independence to represent national interests and an end to foreign influence in education and culture. His core philosophy was one of “militant nationalism,” reflecting a common belief among Dahomey’s educated citizens that previous governments were too closely aligned with France and French interests. Not allowing the left to replace or control his government, Kerekou would wait for two years before making any official mention of socialization or the nationalization of foreign businesses. Any radical measures in the early years of his regime were modest, including, for example, the opening of diplomatic relations with China, North Korea, and Libya, as Dahomey became part of the non-aligned or “progressive” bloc of nations.
Opposition to the new regime was difficult. As expressed by students, labor, and the Left, the opposition desired the restoration of a civilian, popular-based regime and a reduction in austerity measures and rural exploitation. In January of 1973 Kerekou lifted an existing ban on student organizations that had been imposed on more than 300 student organizations, the largest being the UGEED (Union generale des etudiants et des eleves du Dahomey). After the ban was lifted, the union’s leadership helped to radicalize the government by organizing anti-French demonstrations.
The student-dominated FUD (Front unique democratique) called for a mass political party and the democratization and civilianization of the regime. Kerekou dismissed their demands but left the organization alone. Following student strikes over conditions and the regime’s perceived conservatism in January of 1974, Kerekou dissolved some 180 student organizations, and some students were drafted into the army. Kerekou later denounced the students as “anarchists playing the game of anti-revolutionaries.” The UGEED was then banned.
Among the political changes made in the first years of the new regime was the implementation of a plan to reorganize local and regional government. Following high-level deliberations in November of 1973, a “decentralization” of government was implemented to allow “the organized masses to recover control of the state apparatus.” In the rural sector, directly elected local revolutionary committees were created at the village, town, and commune levels. Above these were appointed district and provincial councils. By the end of 1974, some 1,500 local committees were said to exist, giving the people a sense of participation that would help the military regime overcome its opponents. Urban changes involved creating CDRs (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution) at places of work and residency. Military officers were appointed as political commissars to be responsible for the organization, instruction, and mobilization of the people.
Kerekou announced the adoption of an official Marxist-Leninist ideology in a speech commemorating the second anniversary of the 1972 coup. His November 1974 speech proposed the same nationalistic goals of 1972, but they now required a socialist strategy. The speech was designed to legitimize his regime and to placate pressures from the left for further radicalization. From the pattern of socialism that evolved in Benin, it was apparent that socialism was not something held as a conviction by Kerekou and the officer corps. It was an ad hoc and changing doctrine rather than a cohesive set of premises. As outlined in the anniversary speech of 1974, its main tenets included independence from external economic control through nationalization, the transformation of society through an alliance of farmers and workers, and the realignment of foreign policy toward the “progressive bloc.”
Kerekou announced the first nationalizations, of the oil distribution network and private education, on November 30, 1974. In response, France froze all of its subsidies, loans, and grants pending a resolution of the nationalization issue. Since the value of the nationalized assets was worth less than one year of aid from France, Kerekou agreed to compensate the private companies who had suffered nationalization. The deterioration of Benin’s economy and balance-of-trade can, in part, be traced to poorly planned extensions of state control over the economy. Declines in productivity and inefficiency associated with the reorganization and centralization of commercial life also led to corruption.
The Kerekou regime’s popularity had diminished by 1975, which became a year of crisis for the government. Austerity measures introduced in 1974 and again in 1975 alienated trade unionists, civil servants, students, and even many teachers. A January 1975 coup attempt by Captain Assogba on behalf of former President Zinsou was followed by a June murder of one of the coupmakers, Capt. Michel Aikpe, by the presidential guard. The death of Aikpe marked the regime’s biggest crisis and was followed by an eruption of internal and external opposition. In protest, trade unions, many urban revolutionary committees and CDRs, and members of the national revolutionary council joined to call for a general strike. The strike was harshly repressed, resulting in several deaths. Many trade unionists were arrested, and the revolutionary council and civil service were purged of suspected opponents. Kerekou withdrew to the army barracks at Cotonou and ruled from there.
Since Aikpe was a southerner and Kerekou was a member of the northern-based Somba ethnic group, Aikpe’s murder was seen as part of a pattern of regional favoritism. Following the incident, many southern civil servants and diplomatic staff abroad resigned. In July 1975, many exiled politicians, civil servants, and intellectuals formed a new opposition group, the FLRD (Front for the Liberation and Rehabilitation of Dahomey), in Brussels. Kerekou used this as an opportunity to further purge opponents, and a February 1976 trial resulted in many exiles being condemned to death.
By 1975, though, Kerekou’s government was strong enough to withstand virtually all opposition, which at the time was weak and unpopular by comparison to the opposition movements of the 1960s. He had created enough popular consent through the impact of his policies and increased participation; and the government had actually begun reforms that promised stability, such as the popular rural literacy campaigns. To further legitimize his regime, Kerekou announced the formation of an official political party toward the end of 1975, in conjunction with changing the name of the country to the People’s Republic of Benin. In May 1976, the PRPB (Parti de la revolution populaire de Benin) held an extraordinary congress and elected a 27-person central committee with a clear civilian majority. Comprising mainly Kerekou supporters, the central committee of the official party was the first key institution since the coup that was not dominated by the military.
The next five years of Kerekou’s regime were devoted to building the state and building socialism. In 1976, several steps were taken to strengthen Kerekou’s position and centralize power and authority in the presidency. He expanded the elaborate security apparatus, reorganized ministries, and reorganized the military and paramilitary forces. In 1977, one last surge of opposition appeared in the form of a mercenary invasion that one commentator termed “tragicomic.” Gabon and Morocco as well as Emile Zinsou were implicated by a subsequent United Nations inquiry.
The result of the 1977 mercenary invasion was to further legitimize the existing government. Kerekou enjoyed increased popularity, however briefly, and the prospect of former leaders returning to power was eliminated. Kerekou expanded the army from 1,650 to 2,100 members and became the chief of general staff and took charge of the militia. Around this time, complaints of torture of political prisoners began to surface. Benin also responded to the mercenary invasion by becoming more isolated internationally and relying on ties with Libya and other “radical” African states. Benin distanced itself from neighboring states, including Gabon, Ivory Coast, Togo, and other African nations seen as being allied with the exiled opposition.
In November 1977, a new constitution was drafted and opened to public debate, marking the fifth anniversary of the 1972 coup. Elections were held in November 1979, where a single list of candidates representing different strata and groupings within Benin’s society was presented. The final list of candidates was selected from candidates proposed in meetings in villages, towns, and at the district level, giving the general population a greater sense of participation in government.
In late 1979, Kerekou called a meeting of some 400-500 administrators to discuss political matters. Participants freely criticized the regime and some of its reforms. A month later, the PRPB held a congress where these concerns were echoed. As a result, the central committee was nearly doubled from 25 to 45 members, and the political bureau increased from seven to thirteen. These structural changes allowed more civilians and critics to gain access to these hitherto tightly controlled bodies.
In early 1980, a new government was formed amid a sense of political and economic decline. The change also marked a shift toward liberal policies and Western alignments. The early years of the 1980s were a period of broad debate, with the state newspaper Ehuzu containing material critical of government policies. Many of the reforms introduced in the 1970s were recognized as ineffective or corrupt. In 1983, a new five-year plan was presented to raise foreign aid, but only one-third of the needed funds were forthcoming. From 1983 onward, Benin’s accumulated debts, declining productivity, and failure to control imports drove the economy closer to crisis.
In 1987 Kerekou retired from the army to concentrate on the economic crisis. A cabinet reshuffle involving changes in most of the economic ministries left only one military officer in the new government. In March of 1988 a coup attempt involving mainly junior officers, but including two senior military officers who had been involved in the 1972 coup, was preempted. By the time they came to trial in July of 1989 nearly 150 military officials had been arrested. A Libyan official was implicated as the primary instigator and supplier of funds and arms.
One sign of Benin’s economic decline was its involvement in the West African toxic waste scandal, in which it was revealed that Benin had agreed to allow dumping of toxic waste at ridiculously low prices. Several ministers were dismissed amid this scandal, which upset Benin’s eastern neighbor, Nigeria, whose leader, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, had declared participation in toxic waste schemes a capital offense.
Opposition to the Kerekou government reflected declining economic conditions in 1989. The year began with student strikes, which were quickly joined by civil servants who paralyzed government offices. Security forces opened fire without warning in response to rioting and the sacking of public buildings. At the end of January, Kerekou ordered civil servants be paid two months salary out of the four months owed to them. In April, teachers in Porto-Novo went on strike to claim three months back salary. They were joined by teachers in Cotonou and in July by state employees. The banks were ordered to pay December’s salary to state employees.
In June, direct elections for 200 people’s commissioners resulted in an unusually high percentage of “no” votes, which ran as high as 15.8 percent in Mono province and 15.2 percent in Oueme, which includes Porto-Novo, the focus of discontent and student-led disturbances earlier in the year. In August, Kerekou was re-elected as head of state for another five-year term. In October, the government suspended publication of the independent weekly, La Gazette du Golfe, one of the few publications critical of the government.
As 1989 ended, the mounting crisis included strikes, corruption, and unpopular austerity measures. A special joint session in December of the PRPB, the national assembly, and the executive council agreed to drop Marxism-Leninism as the country’s official ideology. Kerekou called for a national conference to be held in the first quarter of 1990 to discuss further political reforms. On February 25, 1990, the National Conference of Active Forces of the Nation proclaimed itself a sovereign body whose decisions were mandatory. It declared the constitution null and void and existing state institutions suspended. The conference, called by Kerekou and held in Cotonou, included 488 delegates representing about 50 opposition groups.
On February 27, Kerekou declared the proceedings of the national conference a “civilian coup d’etat.” However, three days later, he endorsed all of its decisions, saying, “This is not a defeat. It is not a capitulation. It is a question of national responsibility.” On March 1, the constitution was revoked and the national assembly dissolved. The name of the country was changed from People’s Republic of Benin to Republic of Benin, reflecting the disavowal of Marxism-Leninism. During the transition, Kerekou was to remain head of state, but the defense portfolio was removed from his responsibilities.
Nicephore Soglo, a former World Bank administrator, was elected as prime minister by delegates to the national conference. Legislative power was vested in a 50-member High Council of the Republic, with 25 members being elected. This body included the three former civilian presidents who had recently returned from exile: Hubert Maga, Justin Ahomadegbe, and Emile Zinsou. On March 9 Kerekou inaugurated the High Council and formed a 15-member all-civilian government that was accountable to it. Kerekou remained president and head of the armed forces. The new government was headed by Prime Minister Soglo, who also became Minister of Defense.
A press release on the “New Democratic Era in Benin” set out the political transition program. It involved a new constitution, new electoral laws, and the free formation of political parties. All of this would lead to legislative and presidential elections to be held in February and March 1991. Prime Minister Soglo praised President Kerekou for accepting the political reforms and appealed to all citizens to return to work. Benin thus became the first sub-Saharan African nation to return, by popular coercion, to a multi-party democracy.
Africa South of the Sahara 1991, Europa, 1990.
Allen, Chris, et al., Benin, the Congo, Burkina Faso: Economics, Politics and Society, Pinter Publishers, 1988.
Decalo, Samuel, Historical Dictionary of Benin, 2nd edition, Scarecrow, 1987.
Keesing’s Record of World Events, Longman, 1990.
The Military in African Politics, edited by John W. Harbeson, Praeger, 1987.
The Performance of Soldiers as Governors: African Politics and the African Military, edited by Isaac James Mowoe, University Press of America, 1980.
American Spectator, May 1990.
New Republic, March 13, 1989.
Time, May 21, 1990.
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