Complicated former longtime president of Benin dies

February 2006 Photo: President Mathieu Kérékou (right) of Benin receives Brazil's president.

February 2006 Photo: President Mathieu Kérékou (right) of Benin receives Brazil’s president.

One of Africa’s most unusual and complicated leaders — Pastor Mathieu Kérékou of Benin — has passed away at age 82. The former radical military dictator and later civilian democratic president led Benin through several major transformations in its history, eventually earning him the surprising nickname “father of democracy.” BBC News:

Mr Kerekou had two spells as president totalling nearly 30 years, first coming to power as the head of a Marxist regime in 1972.

But he then accepted the idea of multi-party democracy and organised elections, which he lost in 1991. […]
He stepped down in 1991 after losing to Nicephore Soglo in a multi-party poll, but returned to power in 1996 having beaten Mr Soglo at the polls and then went on to win a second and final five-year term in 2001.

From 1972 to 1991, Kérékou served as the country’s military president, pursuing a radical new nationalism in his first two years and then a hybrid of nationalism and revolutionary Marxism-Leninism, backed by the Soviet Union. Much of it was marked by totalitarian violence and incompetent policy management. Over the course of his first presidency, the economic doctrines would grow less and less radically leftist and more moderate, eventually moving even to the center-right by the late 1980s.

During the early period, however, he renamed the country from Dahomey to Benin, in an effort to shed the French colonial legacies and avoid favoring one ethnic group over another, although both labels applied to pre-colonial African states in the area. Eventually, after facing down many coup attempts and amid growing economic stagnation and political unrest, he realized that his days were probably numbered if he clung to power — particularly with the Soviet Union’s fading influence and then disintegration — so he accepted a transition to multi-party democracy when it was demanded by a 1990 National Conference to fix the unraveling domestic situation.

Perhaps most importantly, however, Kérékou did not fight or cancel this transition when it became clear he would not be kept in power democratically, and he gracefully exited the political stage, even asking for forgiveness on national TV for whatever errors and crimes his regime had committed. He was permitted to remain president (albeit with an outside prime minister) through the 1991 elections, which he contested but lost by a landslide. 1991 in Benin became sub-Saharan Africa’s first successful direct handoff of power by a free election since the end of colonialism. This peaceful and stable transition likely helped spark or reinforce the coming wave of democracy in West Africa during the 1990s.

The onetime Marxist and atheist (rumored possibly also to have dabbled with Islam) staged an impressive comeback one term later, in 1996, this time as an evangelical Christian pastor, to become the second civilian president of Benin. This political comeback itself set its own precedent whereby former African military rulers would rehabilitate themselves as wise and experienced civilian candidates for the offices they once held by force.

Kérékou served two five-year terms as a civilian, from 1996 to 2006, before retiring again. Announcing, in 2005, his planned departure from the presidency per the constitutional term limits, Kérékou explained that a lifetime of high-level service had taught him one lesson many times: “If you don’t leave power, power will leave you.” Once again, he was strengthening democracy in Benin and the region.

His successor, President Thomas Boni Yayi, now nearing the end of his own second term had widely been rumored to be considering trying to remove the term limits provision but seems to have bowed earlier in 2015 to similar pressure to leave power before it leaves him. This decision to retire was likely reinforced by the Burkina Faso revolution in 2014 over an attempt to lift presidential term limits and the chaotic political violence in Burundi after the president sought a third term on a technicality. For now, the unexpected legacy of Kérékou, born-again democrat not totalitarian dictator, will live to see another day.

Odd moments in decolonization: São João Baptista de Ajudá

Fort São João Baptista de Ajudá was an early 18th century Portuguese fortress embedded within the city of Ouidah in Dahomey. The latter was an African kingdom that had itself just conquered the coastal city when Portugal was granted the territory for a fort, and then it became a French colony until 1960, and it was ultimately renamed Benin in 1975 during the country’s Marxist revolution.

While the fort zone and city were influential, initially, in the history of Portuguese slaving in West Africa and in the kingdom’s interface with the European powers, the fort was soon handed to a Brazilian company and later abandoned — whereupon it fell into disrepair until Portugal reclaimed it in the 1860s. But after this brief restoration to power, it rapidly lost influence and territory as France came to power in the kingdom around it. Even a late 19th century effort to establish a Portuguese protectorate over the city ended with complete French control of everything outside the physical walls of the fort. Quietly, Portugal began disengaging and pulling out but continued to assert authority over the “territory” into the second half of the 20th century.

When French Dahomey was decolonized in 1960, the fort at “Ajudá” was still a Portuguese-ruled enclave in Ouidah, and the Portuguese dictatorship was very determined to retain all its overseas possessions (most of which were then in or approaching open revolt, or had already been annexed to other liberated countries). However, despite its military and strategic origins, São João Baptista de Ajudá proved neither very valuable nor defensible a year later when Dahomey’s new republican government demanded control of the enclave. Mainly because it was infinitesimal in size and had almost no people. That being said, those still there seemed pretty darn determined to not go down without a fight … a really, comically pathetic fight.

From the Wikipedia summary of the final event:

Until its annexation by Dahomey in 1961, São João Baptista de Ajudá was probably the smallest recognized separate modern political unit, initially around 1 km2 and being reduced until only 2ha (5 acres) by that time: according to the census of 1921 it had 5 inhabitants and, at the moment of the ultimatum by the Dahomey Government, it had only 2 inhabitants representing Portuguese sovereignty, who tried to burn it rather than surrendering it. When the fort was captured, they were hastily escorted to the Nigerian border and expelled from the country.

So…not exactly the Alamo or 300 Spartans against the Persian Empire.

I assume that the lesson “pick your battles” was not taken to heart by those two residents and their five-acre colony.

In the end, the fort was not burned and was eventually restored as a historic site with funds from the post-colonial Portuguese government some time after the 1975 transition to democracy.

Dramatic engraving of Pirate captain Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts following the capture of 11 ships outside the Portuguese Fort at Ouidah. Engraved by Benjamin Cole.

Dramatic engraving of Pirate captain Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts, following his capture of 11 ships outside the Portuguese Fort at Ouidah in the other dramatic episode it is famous for. Engraved by Benjamin Cole.