Mathieu Kérékou

Mathieu Kérékou
President of Benin
In office
October 26, 1972 – April 4, 1991
Preceded by Justin Ahomadégbé-Tomêtin
Succeeded by Nicéphore Soglo
In office
April 4, 1996 – April 6, 2006
Preceded by Nicéphore Soglo
Succeeded by Yayi Boni
Personal details
Born September 2, 1933 (1933-09-02) (age 78)
Kouarfa, Dahomey
Political party PRPB (1975–1990)
Religion Evangelical Christianity

Mathieu Kérékou, (born 2 September 1933[1]) was President of Benin from 1972 to 1991 and again from 1996 to 2006. After seizing power in a military coup, he ruled the country for 17 years, for most of that time under an officially Marxist-Leninist ideology, before he was stripped of his powers by the National Conference of 1990. He was defeated in the 1991 presidential election, but was returned to the presidency in the 1996 election and controversially re-elected in 2001.


Military background

Kérékou was born in 1933 in Kouarfa, in the north-west of the country. After having studied at military schools in Mali and Senegal,[1] Kérékou served in the military. Following independence, from 1961 to 1963 he was an aide-de-camp to President Hubert Maga;[2] following Maurice Kouandété's seizure of power in December 1967, Kérékou, who was his cousin,[2][3] was made chairman of the Military Revolutionary Council.[2] After Kérékou attended French military schools from 1968 to 1970,[2] Maga made him a major, deputy chief of staff, and commander of the Ouidah paratroop unit.[2][3]

1972 coup and single-party rule

Kérékou seized power in Benin in a military coup on 26 October 1972,[1] ending a system of government in which three members of a presidential council were to rotate power (earlier in the year Maga had handed over power to Justin Ahomadegbé).[4]

During his first two years in power, Kérékou expressed only nationalism and said that the country's revolution would not "burden itself by copying foreign ideology ... We do not want communism or capitalism or socialism. We have our own Dahomean social and cultural system." On November 30, 1974, however, he announced the adoption of Marxism-Leninism by the state.[5] The country was renamed from Dahomey to People's Republic of Benin a year later, and the banks and petroleum industry were nationalized. The People's Revolutionary Party of Benin (Parti de la révolution populaire du Bénin, PRPB) was established as the sole ruling party. In 1980, Kérékou was elected president by the Revolutionary National Assembly; he retired from the army in 1987.[6]

It has been suggested that Kérékou's move to Marxism-Leninism was motivated mainly by pragmatic considerations, and that Kérékou himself was not actually a leftist radical; the new ideology offered a means of legitimization, a way of distinguishing the new regime from those that had preceded it, and was based on broader unifying principles than the politics of ethnicity. Kérékou's regime initially included officers from both the north and south of the country, but as the years passed the northerners (like Kérékou himself) became clearly dominant, undermining the idea that the regime was not based in ethnicity.[4] By officially adopting Marxism-Leninism, Kérékou may also have wanted to win the support of the country's leftists.[7]

Kérékou's regime was rigid and vigorous in pursuing its newly-adopted ideological goals from the mid-1970s to the late 1970s. Beginning in the late 1970s, the regime jettisoned much of its radicalism and settled onto a more moderately socialist course as Kérékou consolidated his personal control.[8]

Kérékou survived numerous attempts to oust him, including an attack by mercenaries at the airport in Cotonou in January 1977 as well as two coup attempts in 1988.

It was hoped that the nationalizations of the 1970s would help develop the economy, but it remained in a very poor condition, with the state sector being plagued by inefficiency and corruption. Kérékou began reversing course in the early 1980s, closing down numerous state-run companies and attempting to attract foreign investment.[4] He also accepted an IMF structural readjustment programme in 1989, agreeing to austerity measures that severely cut state expenditure.[4][7] The economic situation continued to worsen during the 1980s, provoking widespread unrest in 1989. A student strike began in January of that year; subsequently strikes among various elements of society increased in frequency and the nature of their demands grew broader: whereas initially they had focused on economic issues such as salary arrears, this progressed to include demands for political reform.[7]

Transition to democracy

In the period of reforms towards multiparty democracy in Africa at the beginning of the 1990s, Benin moved onto this path early, with Kérékou being forced to make concessions to popular discontent. Benin's early and relatively smooth transition may be attributed to the particularly dismal economic situation in the country, which seemed to preclude any alternative.[4] In the midst of increasing unrest, Kérékou was re-elected as president by the National Assembly in August 1989,[6] but in December 1989 Marxism-Leninism was dropped as the state ideology,[9] and a national conference was held in February 1990. The conference turned out to be hostile to Kérékou and declared its own sovereignty; despite the objections of some of his officers to this turn of events, Kérékou did not act against the conference,[4] although he labelled the conference's declaration of sovereignty a "civilian coup". During the transition that followed, Kérékou remained president but lost most of his power.[7][10]

During the 1990 National Conference, which was nationally televised, Kérékou spoke to the Archbishop of Cotonou, Isidor de Souza, confessing guilt and begging forgiveness for the flaws of his regime. It was a "remarkable piece of political theater", full of cultural symbolism and significance; in effect, Kérékou was seeking forgiveness from his people. Such a gesture, so unusual for the African autocrats of the time, could have fatally weakened Kérékou's political standing, but he performed the gesture in such a way that, far from ending his political career, it instead served to symbolically redeem him and facilitate his political rehabilitation, while also "securing him immunity from prosecution". Kérékou shrewdly utilized the timing and setting: "Culturally as well as theologically it was impossible to refuse forgiveness on these terms."[8]

World Bank economist Nicéphore Soglo, chosen as prime minister by the conference, took office in March, and a new constitution was approved in a December 1990 referendum. Multi-party elections were held in March 1991, which Kérékou lost, obtaining only about 32% of the vote in the second round against Prime Minister Soglo;[11] while he won very large vote percentages in the north, in the rest of the country he found little support.[4] Kérékou was thus the first mainland African president to lose power through a popular election.[4][12] He apologized for "deplorable and regrettable incidents" that occurred during his rule.[6] His election defeat marked the first time in post-colonial Francophone Africa that an incumbent lost a free election.

After losing the election in March 1991, Kérékou left the political scene and "withdrew to total silence", another move that was interpreted as penitential.[8]

Election as President, 1996

Kérékou reclaimed the presidency in the March 1996 election. Soglo's economic reforms and his alleged dictatorial tendencies had caused his popularity to suffer.[6] Although Kérékou received fewer votes than Soglo in the first round, he then defeated Soglo in the second round, taking 52.5% of the vote.[11][3] Kérékou was backed in the second round by third place candidate Adrien Houngbédji and fourth place candidate Bruno Amoussou;[3] as in 1991, Kérékou received very strong support from northern voters,[13] but he also improved his performance in the south.[3] Soglo alleged fraud, but this was rejected by the Constitutional Court, which confirmed Kérékou's victory.[14] When taking the oath of office, Kérékou left out a portion that referred to the "spirits of the ancestors" because he had become a born-again Christian after his defeat by Soglo. He was subsequently forced to retake the oath including the reference to spirits.[15]

Disputed re-election, 2001

Kérékou was re-elected for a second five-year term in the March 2001 presidential election under controversial circumstances. In the first round he took 45.4% of the vote; Soglo, who took second place, and parliament speaker Houngbédji, who took third, both refused to participate in the second round, alleging fraud and saying that they did not want to legitimize the vote by participating in it. This left the fourth place finisher, Amoussou, to face Kérékou in the run-off, and Kérékou easily won with 83.6% of the vote.[11][16] It was subsequently discovered that the American corporation Titan gave more than two million dollars to Kérékou's re-election campaign as a bribe.[17]

During Kérékou's second period in office his government followed a liberal economic path. The period also saw Benin take part in international peacekeeping missions in other African states. The constitution of Benin prohibited Kérékou from running again in March 2006, since he was older than 70 years, the limit, and the constitution also would not allow him to run for a third term. Kérékou said in July 2005 that he did not want the constitution to be changed;[18] there was, however, speculation that he had wanted it to be changed, but faced too much opposition.[19]

On 5 March 2006, voters went to the polls to decide who would succeed Kérékou as President of Benin. Yayi Boni defeated Adrien Houngbédji in a run-off vote on 19 March,[11] and Kérékou left office at the end of his term, at midnight on 6 April 2006.

Mathieu Kerekou, Olusegun Obasanjo (Nigeria), and John Jerry Rawlings (Ghana) are some of the many former military rulers to come back to power and win democratic elections in African countries. But they are the only one to date to have not modified their constitution in order to remain in power.

Religion and symbolism

Kérékou allegedly converted to Islam on 28 September 1980 while on a visit to Libya, and changed his first name to Ahmed,[20] but he later returned to the use of the name Mathieu. This alleged conversion may have been designed to please the Libyan leader in order to obtain financial and military support. Alternatively, the conversion story may have been a rumor planted by some of his opponents in order to destabilize his regime. In any case, it was never proven and has been refuted by Kerekou himself. He subsequently became a born-again Christian.[21][22]

Nicknamed "the chameleon" from an early point in his career,[23] Kérékou's motto was "the branch will not break in the arms of the chameleon".[1][8] The nickname and motto he adopted were full of cultural symbolism, articulating and projecting his power and ability. Unlike some past rulers who had adopted animal symbolism intending to project a violent, warlike sense of power, Kérékou's symbolic animal suggested skill and cleverness; his motto suggested that he would keep the branch from breaking, but implicitly warned of what could happen to "the branch" if it was not "in the arms of the chameleon"—political chaos.[8] To some, his nickname seemed particularly apt as he successfully adapted himself to a new political climate and neoliberal economic policies in the 1990s.[23]


  1. ^ a b c d "Après 29 ans de pouvoir, le Président Kérékou tire sa révérence", IRIN, 6 April 2006 (French).
  2. ^ a b c d e Profiles of People in Power: The World's Government Leaders (2003), page 55.
  3. ^ a b c d e 'Kunle Amuwo, "The State and the Politics of Democratic Consolidation in Benin, 1990–1999", in Political Liberalization and Democratization in Africa (2003), ed. Ihonvbere and Mbaku.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Samuel Decalo, "Benin: First of the New Democracies", in Political Reform in Francophone Africa (1997), ed. Clark and Gardinier.
  5. ^ Victor T. Le Vine, Politics in Francophone Africa (2004), page 145.
  6. ^ a b c d Abiodun Onadipe, "The return of Africa's old guard - former African leaders, mostly dictators, bid for a return to power", Contemporary Review, August 1996.
  7. ^ a b c d Chris Allen, "'Goodbye to All That': The Short and Sad Story of Socialism in Benin", in Marxism's Retreat from Africa, ed. Arnold Hughes.
  8. ^ a b c d e Patrick Claffey, "Kérékou the Chameleon, Master of Myth", in Staging Politics: Power and Performance in Asia and Africa (2007), ed. Julia C. Strauss and Donal Cruise O'Brien, pages 98–101.
  9. ^ "Upheaval in the East; Benin, Too, Gives Up Marxism for Reforms", Reuters (The New York Times), December 9, 1989.
  10. ^ Lisa Beyer, "Africa Continental Shift", TIME, May 21, 1990.
  11. ^ a b c d Elections in Benin, African Elections Database.
  12. ^ "Official Result in Benin Vote Shows Big Loss for Kerekou", Associated Press (The New York Times), March 26, 1991.
  13. ^ "World News Briefs; Benin Presidential Vote Heads for a Runoff", The New York Times, March 6, 1996.
  14. ^ Benin, Year in Review: 1996,
  15. ^ Yale Richmond, Phyllis Gestrin, Into Africa: Intercultural Insights (1998), page 36.
  16. ^ "Benin 'day of mourning'", BBC News, April 6, 2001.
  17. ^ "US company admits Benin bribery", BBC News, March 2, 2005.
  18. ^ "Kerekou says will retire next year, will not change constitution to stay in power", IRIN, July 12, 2005.
  19. ^ Ali Idrissou-Toure, "Africa's big men cling to power", Spero News, July 18, 2005.
  20. ^ biographical entry for Kérékou.
  21. ^ Okanla, Karim (20 August 2003). "Benin's 'magical' leader". BBC News. 
  22. ^ Samuel Decalo, "African Personal Dictatorships", in The Journal of Modern African Studies, volume 23, number 2 (June 1985), pages 209–237.
  23. ^ a b "The Chameleon's triumphal return", African Business, 1 April 2002.

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