Mathieu Kerekou, a Major in the Benin Army on October 26, 1972, marched on the Presidency to seize power and save the country from anarchism and becoming a failed state. He then proceeded to clear the mines of ethnicity and political instability, mainly planted by France, the departed colonial master.
As independence approached, there were two main political tendencies, each floating away from the fading dreams of French ‘Assimilation’ policy. The Republican Party of Dahomey (PRD) led by accountant, Sourou-Migan Apithy and the Democratic Union of Dahomey (UDD) with Justin Ahomadegbe as leader. France tried to maintain its hold on the country by sponsoring an ethnic and regional divide. It rallied some elites in the North to form a rival party based on a campaign of alleged marginalization and domination by other parts of the country. This became the Democratic Movement of Dahomey (MDD) with Hubert Maga as leader.
Until Kerekou emerged twelve years after independence, the country was virtually on the boil with all sorts of political experiments including serial coups, diarchy and rule by councils; in fact, he was the twelfth Benin Head of State in twelve years. There was a political crisis within three months of independence with opposition ministers from the UDD resigning and the ruling coalition conspiring to proscribe the party.
In 1963, President Maga removed Vice President Apithty and sent him out of the country as Ambassador to France. Colonel Christophe Soglo who overthrew Maga on October 23, 1963, recalled Apithy as President with Justin Ahomadegbe as Vice President. When the latter tried to remove President Apithy, Soglo on April 29, 1963, staged another coup and appointed the National Assembly President, Tahirou Congacou acting Head of State. Within four weeks, Colonel Soglo removed Congacou and imposed himself as new Head of State.
Perhaps the most dramatic period in Benin history was in the last two weeks of December 1967 when it had four Heads of State; the incumbent Colonel Soglo was overthrown on December 17, 1967 and replaced by Lt. Colonel Alphonse Alley who later handed over power to Dr. Zinsou. The latter was then overthrown and a three-man Military Directorate took over. Former President Maga was cruising to victory in the 1970 elections when it was annulled. As a political solution, a three-man Presidential Council made up of the three leading politicians; Maga, Ahomadegbe and Apithy was established with an understanding that they rotate the Presidency every two years. It was this contraption Kerekou cleared to give Benin political stability.
Kerekou was an accidental product of the French colonial army. He did not think much of French superiority, was radical, patriotic and Pan Africanist. His accent immediately raised the red flag when he not only announced a programme of unity , but also independence from France, and a rejection of all economic systems in favour of a Dahomey ‘system’
Benin is an amalgam of various pre-colonial kingdoms, the best known being Abomey (Dahomey) which had an efficient administrative system, a thriving economy based on palm oil produce, and to a lesser extent, slave trade. It had the famous army of Amazons; some five thousand women soldiers. The Kerekou government thought it was better to adopt a more representative name, so in 1975, it renamed the country, Peoples Republic of Benin, presumably, taking the name from the Bight of Benin.
A year before, the regime had made a left turn, taking the road towards socialism and establishing a new party of the poor, workers and middle class peasants. He also changed the National Anthem and flag.
It was the Cold War era and Western powers were not about to lose one of their satellite countries. So on January 16, 1977 a mercenary force made up of Europeans and Africans invaded the capital, Cotonou. Landing at the airport, they made a rapid advancement at the presidency, were repelled and a Guinean captured. After the aborted invasion, Guinea, Nigeria and Benin investigated the assault in which a number of people were killed.
The investigation claimed that the invaders were trained in Morocco and staged the attack from Gabon. In reaction, Gabon expelled Beninese and broke diplomatic relations in 1978 which were not restored until 1989. The same band of mercenaries, led by the notorious Colonel Bob Denard in May 1978 successfully invaded the Comoros and removed the government.
One of the biggest challenges Kerekou had was when its neighbouring Big Brother, Nigeria on whom Benin economy leans, decided in 1984 to shut their common border over complaints of smuggling. It took two years to re-open, by then other economic challenges had compounded matters resulting in massive student demonstrations in 1985.
By 1990, Benin could no longer meet its basic responsibilities including salary payments. With the Socialist Bloc collapsing, internal dissent, exiles and the West tightening the screws, Kerekou agreed to calling a ‘Conference of the active forces of the country’ which began on February 19, 1990. Curiously for a man who had been in power for eighteen years, he agreed to a conference composition in which his government and supporters were a minority, and his opponents had a stifling majority. He had enough forces to stop the conference, or when within one week, it voted to reduce his powers and appoint a Prime Minister, to disband it. But he accepted all the decisions including a new constitution. With that, he became a lame duck president and was voted out of office the following year.
But within a few years, the populace realized that it had made a mistake. In comparison with Kerekou, the Nicephore Soglo administration was seen as a spend drift, lacking the commitment and patriotic zeal of its predecessor. Twenty four years after he first took power, and five years after being voted out of power, Kerekou galloped back to power in 1996, beating the incumbent by 52.49 to 47.51 percent in a run-off. He was re-elected in 2001. He retired from the Presidency on attaining the statutory age of 70, and passed away on October 14, 2015.He was a remarkable African of his day.
Lakemfa is a Labour leader and a Senior Journalist in Nigeria