Benin’s political history after colonialism was characterized by an early period of multiparty competition that proved unstable, and multiple interventions by the military, until the coup that brought Mathieu Kérékou to power in 1972. After gaining independence from the French in 1960, Benin’s first coup came in October 1963. A three-way ethno-regional split characterized postindependence politics, reflecting the traditional north/south socioeconomic division of early colonial development, but also two rival kingdoms in the southern half of the country. Benin, a country with a population today of about 8.5 million, has more than 40 ethnic groups. The three most important historically are the Fon (and related groups, such as the Adja) who inhabit west-central Benin and who together comprise about half of the population, the Yoruba who live in the east and comprise about 12 percent, and the Bariba of the north who comprise about 8 percent. However, as in many African countries with varied populations, regional differences are more important than strict ethnic classifications in Benin - for example, northern groups will often give political support to a candidate from a northern group, other than their own, before supporting a candidate from one of the two southern regions. At the time of the slave trade, the kingdom of Dahomey was flourishing in what is now west and central Benin. Centered in the town of Abomey, the area was ruled by the kings of Dahomey (from which the territory took its colonial name) from 1645 until the last king, Béhanzin, was deposed by the French in 1900.

In the eighteenth century, the kingdom of Dahomey captured additional territory in the south, and ushered in the decline of the Yoruba Oyo Kingdom based in Nigeria. The last Oyo kings were based in Porto-Novo, which is now the political capital of Benin. The Bariba kingdom in the north was centered in Nikki, and broke off from the Oyo empire in 1782. The French were able to exploit Dahomean-Oyo differences in colonizing the south, but faced greater resistance from northern populations. The territory was officially named Dahomey until 1974.

The transition from colonialism to independence, itself a critical juncture, helped shape the immediate future of politics in Benin just as the later democratic transition would. The main political contenders were temporarily united under the Union Progressiste Dahoméenne (UPD), but the party quickly splintered into the three ethnic and regionally based movements that would dominate politics until Kérékou came to power. These were led by Sourou Migan Apithy in the south-east (representing the Yoruba/Goun/Nagot, based in Porto-Novo), Justin Ahomadegbé in the center/southwest (Fon/ Adja, along the Abomey-Cotonou axis), and Hubert Maga in the north (Bariba and others, based in Natitingou). From the post-World War II period until independence, Dahomey’s political scene was a complex dance of changing political parties and shifting alliances, all involving the three main politicians and coalitions of two regional groups against the third. These patterns persisted after independence in 1960, and the instability of the three-way competition led, in part, to the later military coups. In the first military coup of 1963, the political alliance between President Maga and Vice President Apithy fell apart. Col. Christophe Soglo took over, to the delight of crowds demonstrating against Maga’s presidency. The coalition of Apithy and Ahomadegbe that replaced Maga also broke down, and Soglo staged another coup in November 1965, this time taking power himself. Soglo’s government did not last, and northern officers disgruntled with his regime’s paring down of the military (among other problems) ousted him in December 1967. These officers, led by Maj. Maurice Kouandété, provided for new elections where the “big three” politicians, Maga, Apithy, and Ahomadegbé, were banned from competing. When their supporters boycotted the polls, the election results were annulled and in July 1968 the military brought in Emile Zinsou, a politician with considerable French support, for a five-year term. Kouandété moved to oust Zinsou in 1969, however, following military infighting. This time, the military brought back the big three for new elections, but annulled the results when it became clear that Maga would win. As a compromise, in May 1970 the military established a triumvirate Presidential Council, where each of the three would rotate as head of state in two-year terms. After the first peaceful transfer from Maga to Ahomadegbé, the military again staged a coup in October 1972, this time installing Maj. Mathieu Kérékou as president, with a military administration. Though Kérékou came to power in 1972, he did not promote any specific political ideology until 1974, when he renamed the country the People’s Republic of Benin and adopted Marxist-Leninist rhetoric. He also brought many sectors of the economy under state control and denounced the Western world, especially France, for its imperialist tendencies. This ideological resentment cut Benin off from important sources of international aid and funding, and made it very difficult for the small agrarian economy to function. Apart from rhetoric, the regime did relatively little to arouse international condemnation on human rights grounds. “Always a blend of radical dogma and pragmatism, militant socialist utopianism and jaded crass elite opportunism, fire-eating Marxist vituperation and naïve cryptoTroskyite deviationism, the ‘Revolution’ had at least the distinction (not always obvious) of being relatively devoid of the harsher aspects of similar experiments in other parts of the world” (Decalo 1995, 11). Kérékou created the Parti pour la Révolution Populaire du Benin (PRPB) in 1975 which, like the RPT in Togo, attempted to absorb all aspects of civil society under its rubric. In 1977 the Marxist constitution, or “Basic Law,” came into force.

Two years later a Revolutionary National Assembly was elected, with members drawn from the ranks of various regional and vocational groups, as approved by the party. Unlike Togo, the army’s ethnic composition did not favor Kérékou’s own group (he is a Somba, from the north) to the exclusion of others. He allowed northerners to rise through the ranks and attain officer posts, which many Somba and Fulani did in 1984. This is not to say that Kérékou did not protect himself or remove officers who appeared to be a threat to his regime. Kérékou also created new military branches, such as the presidential guard, to shore up his support without alienating other ethnic groups already represented in the army. He lasted longer in his post than any of the officers who helped bring him to power, and though members of the military participated in his cabinets, their positions were not guaranteed. Kérékou’s regime faced opposition from within and without from its earliest days. On the one hand, a vocal student population, backed by the intelligentsia of Benin, thought the regime was too conservative in its reforms and too high-handed to be genuinely socialist. On the other hand, within his own administration were members of the militant leftist clique, the Ligue Internationale de la Defense des Droits du Peuples (Ligue), a group that constantly sought to influence Kérékou’s policies in more radical socialist directions. More popular with students and trade unionists than the Ligue was the Parti Communiste Dahoméen (PCD), a Marxist party declared illegal by the regime. Though there were few active civil society groups in this period, there were independent Development Associations headed by prominent figures in different regions, but they were strictly apolitical and in some cases co-opted by the regime. Students protested off and on throughout the period of military rule, and particularly against the regime’s reversal of a long-standing policy of guaranteed employment for university graduates. Protests and strikes by students, teachers, and trade unions became more frequent and more virulent as the economic crisis worsened, and officials uncovered two coup plots by members of the military in 1988. The stability associated with Marxism-Leninism and one-party rule was starting to break down in the mid- to late-1980s.

The period 1974–1989 in Benin provides the most immediate contrast for those interested in explaining the dimensions of political change in the 1990s transition. For the most part, Benin in this period functioned as many one-party states in sub-Saharan Africa at the same period. The most important actors were to be found in the ruling PRPB party, though a few independent groups like the Development Associations were permitted to operate with limited capacity. A few other important actors operated without necessarily having official sanction, such as the PCD. The PRPB was institutionalized to a great degree as the supreme governing body of the country, operating through the political institutions like the legislature and presidency. Kérékou’s strategies for managing the status quo alternated between co-opting and repressing potential dissidents, and the agenda amounted to what those political elites in the PRPB thought was most important in terms of providing a solid political base of support. We now turn to more specifics on the political system in Benin prior to transition, to help draw a contrast, and detail the events leading up to the political transition and the formation of the National Conference.

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Legacies of Transition Governments in Africa- Benin Background