President Mathieu Kerekou leaves after 29 years

Bucking a regional trend towards constitutional revision and chaotic political successions, Benin’s long-serving ruler Mathieu Kerekou at midnight on Wednesday observed the constitutional age limit and ceded the presidency to Boni Yayi, in a bow to democracy.

Since first seizing power in a military coup in 1972, Mathieu amassed 29 years as ruler of Benin. He converted first his military dictatorship into a one-party Leninist-Marxist state in 1975, but in 1990 pulled off Africa’s first successful transition from dictatorship to democracy.

After losing an election and standing down in 1991, he won a free and fair presidential ballot in 1996, and was awarded a second term in 2001.

Fittingly for a man who ran his country through different ideologies, Kerekou’s motto was “the stick cannot break in the arms of a chameleon”. His trademark swagger stick was emblazoned with a chameleon.

Kerekou’s adherence to the constitution and his successful engineering of a peaceful succession is made all the more remarkable given the often less than democratic norm in the region.

“General Kerekou has not given in to temptation, which is remarkable in Africa,” said a Cameroonian newspaper, referring to the fact that he actually stood down. “This action has planted Benin firmly in the club of democracies and also opened the voice of political rejuvenation and perhaps even the style of governance”.

In neighbouring Burkina Faso, President Blaise Compaore reassumed power in November 2005 after 18 years. Neighbouring Togo has been ruled by the Gnassingbe dynasty for over 38 years and the last election was hotly criticised.

Elsewhere in the region Omar Bongo in Gabon is currently Africa’s longest-serving leader and was also re-elected for another seven years in December 2005. Chadian President Idriss Deby has recently changed the constitution to allow himself to run again.

Benin, Ghana and Senegal are the only West Africa countries deemed “free” by the U.S. political rights and civil liberties monitoring NGO Freedom House. However during a state visit to Senegal, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi this week suggested 82-year-old Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade should change the constitution to stand for life.

Throughout his ten-year reign, Kerekou followed a liberal economic path, and improved Benin’s international standing. Benin has taken part in several United Nations peacekeeping missions elsewhere in Africa.

In his message to the nation in July 2005 Independence Day celebrations, Kerekou celebrated Benin’s constitution. “After 15 years of democratic experience, our country lives in peace. The institutions of the republic function properly, Benin’s people enjoy all their fundamental liberties. Freedom of the press is guaranteed. The legal environment is cleaned up.

“The constitution favours the change of power and the change of heads of state. These fundamental prescriptions of our constitution of 11 December 1990 must resist all opportunistic revisionism, short-term interests and subjectivism. The constitution was made as a basic reference and the test of authenticity of the new democratic culture is whether the political actors from now on stick to it responsibly.”

Kerekou was born in 1933. He attended schools in Senegal, Mali and France and served in the French army before returning to Benin with the rank of lieutenant. In 1965 he served as aide de camp of Benin’s first post-independence president Hubert Maga.