By: Leonard Wantchekon , Assistant Professor of Political Science, Yale University and Paul Ngomo, Research Assistant, Yale University
Historically we have ample evidence that the process of political reform or democratisation is at best a very long-term and complicated affair. Recent experience from Africa shows that it can also be rather messy.
In the popular discourse of today democratisation is rather simple. Most of the discussion focuses around the question of free and fair elections and countries are judged according to the number and performance of elections. The Republic of Benin, one of the smallest African countries with a population of some five million has, thus, been held up as a success story and is today seen as a guide for other countries in the region and for Africa at large. However behind this façade of success the situation is not so straightforward.
The first twelve post-independence years of the Republic of Benin were characterised by political instability with an alternation of civilian and military rule. The country experienced its fifth and last military coup in 1972. The coup led by Mathieu Kérékou paved the way for a leftist dictatorship, which lasted for 18 years.
In February 1990, mass protest and external pressure by France led the military regime of General Kérékou to convene a national conference (a gathering of representatives of all the political groups of that time) that gave birth to a democratic renewal. A transition government and parliament were created and a new constitution written and voted on by referendum, providing for a multiparty democracy. Since then Benin has experienced three parliamentary and two presidential elections.
The country’s first presidential election took place in 1992 and was won by Mr Nicéphore Soglo, a former World Bank official. He was Prime Minister in the Transition Government that governed the country from 1990 to 1992. The country had its second regular presidential contest on 3 March 1996 and Nicéphore Soglo lost to General Kérékou, the former autocrat. The outcome took many people by surprise. There had been little doubt that Soglo would be re-elected after five years of relative economic prosperity.
Thus, the central enigma of the 1996 Benin election was the defeat of the incumbent president whose achievements made him one of the most respected African technocrats of his generation. The surprising return of the former discredited strongman, via the ballot box, gave rise to serious doubts over the capacity of Benin to sustain a long-term rule of law building process.
Why did Soglo, the incumbent president lose to Kérékou despite an economic record by far superior to his opponent’s in 1989? Why did a political leader portrayed as a competent technocrat, whose economic achievements revitalised his country lose the presidential election to an opponent who led the country to bankruptcy after seventeen years in office? What is the rationale behind Benin’s surprising 1996 leadership turnover?
We argue that Soglo lost the election because of his lack of political leadership. We show that the second presidential election held in Benin was a ‘critical test’ whose outcome unquestionably showed that country to be a democracy among other democracies.
Good economic record but questionable political leadership
Soglo is generally portrayed as the reformer who restructured a bankrupt state. Between 1990 and 1996, government revenues increased by 232 per cent. The growth rate of the GDP, which was only 1 per cent in 1989 increased to 6.2 per cent between 1990 and 1994. Overall the growth was twice as much as the general population growth (nearly 3 per cent). The investment rate increased by 20 per cent in 1995. Until the devaluation of the national currency, the Franc CFA in 1994, inflation had stayed under control.
Unlike normal leadership turnover in democratic electoral processes where incumbent candidates may be dismissed by voters because of their inability to manage the economy, the rationale of Benin’s 1996 electoral outcome derives from strictly political reasons that arose when the rulers democratically elected in 1991 squandered their credibility by acting inconsistently with the spirit of political pluralism. From 1992, he was frequently accused of governing without including the members of the coalition parties, who supported his candidacy during the 1991 presidential election. While in power, Soglo faced many challenges in parliament. He reacted to these challenges by consolidating the power of his party, the Renaissance du Benin, created in 1992 by his wife, Mrs Rosine Soglo. The hegemonic tendencies of his party became evident in 1993 after the breakdown of his coalition in parliament.
In 1994, when the legislature rejected his budget proposal, Soglo’s relations with the political establishment became more strained and polarised. The political history of the country from independence to the beginning of the democratic renewal reveals the crucial importance of local leaders. Neglecting this reality Soglo launched several attacks on local leaders who disagreed with him.
An inappropriate leadership strategy aggravated by despotic inclinations seriously handicapped Soglo’s chances of winning the 1996 elections. Moreover, the regime’s legitimacy was also undermined by persistent accusations of corruption and arrogance in the president’s inner circle, which Soglo had packed with family members. His propensity to appoint his family members to public offices soon became the subject of controversy. At least four Soglos surrounded the president: a brother, two cousins and his son. The president also appointed his brother-in-law as the minister in charge of national defence.
All Soglo’s opponents joined Kérékou to prepare for the elections. In the end, Soglo, the respectable technocrat lost to Kérékou, the former dictator. In many respects, Soglo’s unwise leadership strategy, the fears about his one-party state mentality and accusations of corruption accounted for his defeat.
The Benin lesson
The most significant event of the electoral 1996 outcome of the presidential election in Benin is not really Soglo’s defeat. In short, it is the paradox of the return of Kérékou and the popular support he received to bring about his comeback. Were the president-makers (the members of the coalition that chose Kérékou as their candidate) and the majority of the voters amnesiac and liable to misunderstand the lessons of the past? On closer examination, the central issue does not lie here, but has to do with the set of institutions and structures that made it possible to express the will of the majority. The outcome of the 1996 electoral contest in Benin is not only interesting because of the return of Kérékou, but because it brings to light some theoretical lessons that may be useful in understanding the essential patterns of democratic consolidation.
An important lesson from Benin’s electoral experience is the triumph of democratic procedures in the consolidation of the regime. This approach establishes elections as crucial tests and a suitable way to choose rulers and to solve political disputes. It is worth noting that such an understanding of elections has also been mentioned in the contemporary literature on the transition process and democracy. Although elections are not what democracy is all about those held in Benin have shown the vitality of democracy as a procedural method that can be used to dismiss an unwanted ruler who acts unwisely in order to prevent him from compromising a democratic consolidation. Besides this, they have illuminated the fact that economic competency may not be the factor that decides election outcomes. A ruler may lose elections even if he is competent. Thus, he can be held accountable on issues other than economic performance. In general governments are ‘accountable’ if citizens can discern representative from unrepresentative governments and can sanction them appropriately, retaining in office those who perform well and ousting from office those who do not.
We argue that the surprising outcome of the 1996 presidential election brings to light what was really at stake on the election day: a choice between democratic consolidation and the return of the era of strong men whose practices are inconsistent with the spirit of democracy. By voting for Kérékou, the majority did not compromise the future of democracy in Benin. What was at stake was the defence of democratic institutions that seemed endangered by a political leadership that displayed a lack of political flexibility, despite an unquestionable economic competency. Thus, economic competence is not always enough to justify dictatorial actions at the expense of the consolidation of democracy.
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