Benin – Revolutionary Constructive Resistance

Benin – Revolutionary Constructive Resistance

Conférence Nationale des Forces Vives

By Jørgen Johansen and Stellan Vinthagen


Six waves of peaceful revolutions 

During the last thirty-five years political revolutions have taken place on four continents and they have been without major uses of violence from those who have demanded change. From Poland 1980-89 and all the way to Egypt 2011 one can see six “waves” where massive civil society mobilization has brought demands on, or managed to overturn or reform, the ruling regime. These waves are not clearly delineated and do not follow a strict chronological order, but they can still be grouped after there similarities. In the first wave we have Poland, Bolivia 1982, Uruguay 1984 and the Philippines 1986. This wave had one important common denominator: the Catholic Church played an important role in Eastern Europe (Luxmoore and Babiuch, 1999) and the other Catholic states with Liberation Theology (Gutiérrez, 1973, Dunkerley, 1984, Malloy and Gamarra, 1988). The next wave was Eastern Europe from 1989 and those parts of the Soviet Union that liberated themselves and became independent states in a peaceful manner (Sixsmith, 1991, Legters, 1992, Wheaton and Kavan, 1992, Opp et al., 1995, Cirtautas, 1997, Grix, 2000, Petersen, 2001, Stjernø, 2005, Sarotte, 2009, Sebestyen, 2010, Bunce and Wolchik, 2011). After that there came a wave mainly consisting of former French colonies in Africa south of Sahara. It is this group and especially the case of Benin that this article will be concerned with (Decalo, 1997, Seely, 2005, Gisselquist, 2008, Seely, 2009). Benin was followed by six other states; Congo in February 1990, Gabon in March 1990, Zaïre February 1991, Togo July/August 191, Niger July 1992, and Chad January 1993 (Nwajiaku, 1994, p. 429). The next wave started with Serbia 2000 and continued with Georgia 2003, Ukraine 2004 and has thus far reached Kirghizstan and Lebanon 2005. These are called the colored revolutions (Peczak and Krajewska-Wieczorek, 1991, Kuzio and Wilson, 1994, Zajovic and Aleksov, 1997, Kandiâc and Fond za humanitarno pravo., 2001, Karumize and Wertsch, 2005, Kuzio, 2005, Paulson, 2005, Wilson, 2005, Åslund and McFaul, 2006, Collin, 2007, Knudsen and Kerr, 2012). Then we have seen a number of popular riots in countries with collapsing economies from 2009 onwards. “Kitchenware Revolution” in Iceland was first (Reuters, 2009, Waterfield, 2009) followed by the “Penguin Revolution” in Latvia (Forssman, 2009, Huffington Post, 2009), and huge protests in Hungary (Kulish, 2009) and the Czech Republic (BBC, 2012). In January 2013 the government led by Boiko Borisov resigned in Bulagaria (Reuters, 2013). Massive demonstration of the victims of speculative and badly handled economy forced the governments to step down. In 2011 the so-called “Arab Spring” burst out and we have most probably not seen the end of that wave yet (Gardner, 2011, Korany and El-Mahdi, 2012, Noueihed and Warren, 2012).

All these examples have been categorized in a variety of ways. While media have often used expression such as “peaceful revolutions” or given them names after a symbol (Orange in Ukraine (Krushnelnycky, 2006), Rose (Karumize and Wertsch, 2005) in Georgia Cedar in Lebanon (Knudsen and Kerr, 2012) and so forth). Many academic texts have discussed whether they should be called “peaceful”, “nonviolent”, “unarmed” or whether they should be called revolutions at all.

A. S. Cohan (Cohan, 1975) lists six characteristics for a typical revolution:

Alternation of the basic values and myths of a society.

Alternation of the social structure.

Alternation of social institutions

Changes in the structure of leadership, in terms of either the personnel of the elite or its class composition.

Nonlegal or illegal transfer of power.

Presence or dominance of violence in the actions leading a regime to collapse.

For point VI it is probably correct to understand that the use of violence is by those who want a change. We have seen that state actors, such as police, military, and security forces, have used violence even when the opposition abstains from violence. Some of these cases, like Iran 1979 (Abrahamian, 1982, Hooglund, 1982, Hiller, 1983, Arjomand, 1988, Foran, 1994, Ganji, 2002, Ritter, 2013), have been very bloody, but most of the violence is from one side. In this text we use the term Nonviolent Revolution for cases of what Skocpol call Political Revolutions (Skocpol, 1979), but add that the opposition shall not use organized violence as part of their strategy. In the case of Benin there was not much use of violence by any actor.

Cohan describes revolution as:

“that process by which a radical alternation of a particular society occurs over a given tome span. Such alternation would include (a)  a change in the class composition of the elites, (b) the elimination of previous political institutions and their replacement by other (or by none), or an alternation of the functions of these institutions, and (c) changes in the social structure which would be reflected in the class arrangements and/or the redistribution of resources and income (Cohan, 1975, p. 31).

This definition will exclude cases like Benin. The use of national conferences as a main ingredient in the transition does not necessarily includes a change in the class composition of the elite. Neither does it demand elimination of previous political institutions; at least not all of them.

We will not use much space on a debate about terminology, but in the context that we are discussing the present issue it is important to see that these events share the fact that they have succeeded in strongly influence the power of the old regime. This has been done outside the accepted constitutional processes and civil society actors have been central driving forces. The strategies used have not included the use of or threat of organized armed violence. These peaceful strategies have not necessarily had a pacifistic morale as their basis but neither did they build their strategy on massive use of violence. It has instead been pragmatic evaluations of what possibilities one has had for winning the struggle. It is necessarily so that many contextual factors impact the causes, realization, and outcome of revolutions such as these. The contexts have varied a lot and there is difficult to see any common factor for all cases.

The fact that many of these peaceful revolutions have taken place in connection to elections where the opposition has made allegations of cheating is an example of one such contextual factor that we can identify in many, but not all, cases. The same with the media situation; access to means of communication has proven to be important in several revolutions. A third example is the existence of support from external actors (Johansen, 2009, Johansen, 2010). In the same way it has been decisive whether oppositional groups have been able to create broad alliances. Without a united opposition the chances for victory seem very slim. The strength of standing together is seldom long lasting. What we have seen in several of the peaceful revolutions is that the unity in the opposition seems to break up as soon as the old regime has been forced to step down. The development in Egypt after the fall of Mubarak is just one more example of the difficulties for former opposition groups to be in position and run the country (Korany and El-Mahdi, 2012). Benin had to some degree a different development than most other revolutions until 1989-90. The constructing element with cooperation between the opposition and the old regime is unique. When it come to stability, sustainable democracy, and improvement they seem to have succeeded better than most other revolutions We will in chapter XXX present a thesis for why they managed better.

The role of analyzing and understanding the contexts is crucial. Economical, cultural, religious and historical facts are determining factors in the possibilities and consequences of political and social uprisings. Skocpol posited that ‘‘revolutions cannot be explained without systematic reference to international structures and world-historical developments’’ (Skocpol, 1979). It is easy to agree.

In this article we will study the case of transitions in Benin 1989-91 and specifically analyze the roles of: The historical context, the present context, the use on active nonviolence, external actors, sources of inspiration, and the relations between the new leadership and the old regime.

Benin prior to the revolution

In English there exists very little literature on the third and fifth of these waves of regime changes. As always there are exceptions and Political Reform in Francophone Africa (Clark and Gardinier, 1997) is a brilliant example. Another is The legacies of transition governments in Africa by Seely (Seely, 2009) and her PhD thesis (Seely, 2001). But neither of these is focusing specifically the use of civil resistance in the transition.

Benin was the state where changes first became apparent and the demands for higher transparency, more political alternatives and the first national congress took place. Benin is a small and very poor country; in 1989 it had approximately 5 million inhabitants and a mean life expectancy of 49 years. In 2010 life expectancy has improved to 56 years and the population has grown to more than 9,5 million (UNICEF, 2013). The 2011 maternal mortality rate per 100,000 births for Benin was 410. This is compared with 468.9 in 2008 and 587.6 in 1990 (Unites Nations Population Fund, 2011). The educational system was in a very bad state and over 50% of the population was analphabets (UNICEF, 2013). The national population census in 2002 recorded 59 different ethnic groups in Benin (Heldmann, 2013). French was the official language and a large number of tribal languages were spoken throughout the country.

Benin has a long history, but in this context it is relevant to shortly mention that France took control of the territory in 1892 and annexed it with French West Africa. It received greater autonomy in 1958 under the name of Dahomey Republic and became fully independent 1 August 1960 after negotiations with France (Kneib, 2006). Subsequent to these twelve years of violent conflicts with ethnic and social causes followed. Military coups followed each other and Sourou Apithy, Hubert Maga and Justin Ahomadegbé, each representing different parts of the country all strived for power. Early in the seventies they agreed on the creation of a presidential council where they all had a seat (Collins and Burns, 2007, p. 360). In 1972 Mathie Kérékou led a successful military coup and removed the council. He soon installed a Marxist rule with himself as president and leader of the Revolutionary Military Council. Banks and the petroleum industry was nationalized and the country was renamed Benin (Decalo, 1997, p. 44-51). In 1980 Kérékou converted to Islam and for a time he called himself Ahmed. In 1982 Benin became a member of Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Later he let himself be baptized as a ”born again Christian” (IRIN, 2005). At this time he earned the nick name ”The Chameleon” due to his constant changes of political and religious identity (Claffey, 2007).This confusing politics can be explained by, among other things, with the intent of creating a national unity and reducing the ethnical and religious tensions. The country has 27,1% Catholics, 24,4% Muslims, 18 % other Christian factions, 17,3% Vodou, 6% traditional animistic religions and 6,5% claiming to have no religious faith (U.S. State Departement, 2007). As a Marxist Kérékou tried to convince the left wing of national politics and with membership in OIC he sought support form the Muslim part of the population. He remained president until the peaceful change in 1991. That he was later elected president again in 1996-2006 is interesting, but not central for the theme of this article.

Complex and Manifold Causes

The opening of the political space in Africa was the result of a very complex interplay between external and internal actors. The end of the Cold War of course affected Benin, just like all other Marxist regimes all over the world. President Kérékou had to struggle with the many internal problems of the country. The army was divided and many feared that Benin again would end up as the country with the most military coups in African history. During the eighties the economy had hit bottom and France had already declared that the days of saving Benin from economical chaos was over. Economical support form France had been absolutely decisive for Kérékou since he never managed to gain any significant sums of money from his Arabic and Eastern European allies.

In the following we will in more detail describe the historical background to the transition that took place in 1989-91.

Economy in bad shape

At the beginning of the eighties the country received support form some international lenders and a few other countries. But with a national debt of 677 million dollars in 1985 and a total export of 148 million dollars in the same year, it was obvious that the crisis soon would be absolute. International Development Association (IDA), Switzerland, West Germany and USSR promised new loans and debt restructuring. But this didn’t matter much for the ordinary student or worker. Some promises were never kept and those who were never hade any positive impact for those at the base of the societal pyramid.

Ordinary people reacted on the mismanagement, the wide spread corruption and moral decay. Benin had a relatively well-developed civil society; especially compared to other African states. There were academic organizations, workplace unions, organized farmers, women and a number of religious organizations. Just as in East Germany many went in exile. Especially among higher educated middle class many fled to France. Many left for better educations and/or better jobs; other was so fed up with double standards and the empty promises of the regime that they choose to move to another country. The number of people who left the country exploded so quickly that authorities took action to reduce the number of emigrants. Everyone who left Benin without permission from state had their property confiscated. Among those who stayed a wide spread smuggling of goods from neighboring countries, especially Nigeria, grew. Systems of organized bribes were developed in order for people to pass the borders ”unseen”. Customs officials, transporters and police officers saw a chance to top up their low salaries. This parallel economy was absolutely necessary for the total economical situation in the country. Many worked with and got their livelihood from the smuggling and commerce of smuggles goods.

Workers were very disappointed with their ”Marxist” government. Salaries had not been raised significantly since 1982 and due to inflation purchasing power hade been reduced significantly. Negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) broke down in 1984. Kérékou refused to go through with the privatization and deregulation that IMF demanded (Nugent, 2004, p. 387). This was an especially hard stroke against the countries educational system. In the beginning of 1987 students no longer received student grants and organized a full day strike at Benin University March 18. According to a communiqué from Party de la révolution populaire du Benin (PRPB) broadcasted through radio in Cotonou a small group of ”Anarchist students” had created unrest. But the party promised that all disturbers would be taken care of and if necessary the university would be closed. They also cited the president who said that their should be ”no pity” for those who were behind the revolt. (Keesing`s Record of World News 1987: 35367) State employees had several of their benefits revoked and in 1988 the state was no longer able to pay salaries every month. They state acknowledged and obligatory union fired its top leader. Shortly afterwards he got the job back by decree of the president. But the union was not able to keep strict control in the long rung. Members organized themselves according to ethnical and ideological lines. In October 1989 the striking members finally won the struggle demanding that the union should no longer be formally connected with the dominant state party.

In 1989 the Benin banking system collapsed. This was not solely a result of economic mismanagement. Many employees in high positions of the state banks hade embezzled and transferred large amounts of money to foreign bank accounts. When the banks literally were out of notes Kérékous last days of authoritarian rule was over. This acute liquidity crisis resulted in many spontaneous demonstrations and riots in the cities. The regime had difficulty controlling the divided army. The situation that now arose was new for many of the oppositional groups. They put their conflicts aside and formed a new unified front against president Kérékou and his regime. Such a coalition has shown itself to be decisive in other successful peaceful revolutions.

The role of the International Context

The year was now 1989 and in France and most of the present or earlier colonies celebrated the 200-year jubilee of the French Revolution. Seminars, conferences, parades and meeting took place concerning revolutionary history and the 1789 revolution. Many similarities between the events in Benin and France 200 years earlier exist. The most obvious being the idea of a national congress where the opposition gathered to overthrow the dictatorship and lead the country out of its crisis. Other similarities are that much of the discontent was based in the difficult economical situation and that strong inspiration came from new ideas. 1789 it was the Enlightenment thoughts of democracy, while 1989 took important inspiration from Eastern Europe and China. Not only the Marxist groups celebrated and discussed. In the same way as the different classes were involved in France many different groups of the Benin society were engaged. In April and May the people of Benin saw television reports on workers and students in Beijing (Mu et al., 1989, Salisbury, 1989, Yu and Harrison, 1990)  that raised revolutionary demands on their regime. Many parts of the civil society were in a revolutionary euphoria (Decalo, 1997, p. 53). There were also lively debates about the new ideas from Moscow where Gorbatjov had introduced increased openness with perestroika and glasnost (Beissinger, 2002). All these were important factors for the events that were to take place.

Religious division lines

To be written!

Human Rights

Amnesty International in April 1987 demanded that the government should release 88 people that were illegally imprisoned and who according to several sources had been subjected to torture. Several of these had been involved in the student protests of 1985 or were suspected of being members of Parti communiste du Dahoemy (PCD). PCD was at this time a communist party in opposition to president Kérékou. They worked under ground and membership of the organisation was punishable by law. In September 1993 the party became legal under the name of Parti communiste du Benin (PCB).


Students take the lead

To be written!


Well organized women

To be written!


Trade Unions calls for strikes

To be written!


Nonviolent Means

To be written!


Sources of Inspiration

To be written!


Transition and outcome

To be written!




”Conference Nationale des Forces Vives”

To gather such a ”national conference for the forces of life” was to become an example for many other countries. It is such national conferences that is the most important common trait of the peaceful African regime shifts and the subsequent democratizations. The same month similar meetings were announced in Congo, in March 1990 in Gabon, February 1991 in Zaïre, July and August of 1991 in Togo, July 1992 in Niger and in January 1993 in Tchad. XXX

But when it all began in Benin it didn’t even go nearly as the president had hoped for. Kérékou had misjudged the mood and situation. He hoped to be able to calm the delegates and continue as president. 19 February 1990, 488 representatives from 50 oppositional groups gathered for a ninth day conference in the largest city of country, Cotonou. Lead by president Kérékou representatives from the government, several public authorities, the military, religious and political organizations and networks of different kinds had gathered (Nugent, 2004, p. 387). Straight from the start the conference rejected the agenda that Kérékou had proposed and they refused to accept him as chair of the meeting. Instead they elected Archbishop Isidore de Souza to lead the conference. From that moment on the gathering became historical and would have major consequences for the African continent (Keesing’s Record of World Events 1990: 37238). What followed has been described as a civil coup d’état. The same conference that Kérékou himself had planned with the goal of reconciliation and support for his political agenda declared itself sovereign and in principle removed the president of the country (Keesing’s Record of World Events 1990: 37238). An interesting thing to note is that just as when the Polish Union Solidarity negotiated with Minister of Interior Kiszczak in 1980 every word of the negotiations became public. From Cotonou everything was broadcast in both radio and television. It is known that some parts of the military that were still loyal to Kérékou wanted him to dissolve the conference, arrest those who hade returned from exile and force the economical reforms by military means. Those parts of the army that supported this line were mainly from the northern parts of the country or ex-Marxists. But the army was to divided and possibility that it would end in a blood bath resulted in no support for this line. Every commentator has agreed to this analysis in retrospect. Several high officers had clearly stated that they would not use violence against their fellow countrymen in Cotonou (Bratton and van de Walle, 1992, p. 424, Decalo, 1997, p. 55).

It was during the sixth day of the conference that the main issue was decided. It was the proposal that the conference was now to consider itself sovereign and having the power to execute decisions it now arrived at (Laloupo, 1993, Nzouankeu, 1993, p. 44-45). What was initially a forum for discussion had now become the most important and powerful political organ of Benin. In order to avoid further confrontations it was decided that Kérékou was to continue as interim president until free and secret elections could be held. He saw that this was the end and publicly apologized for the regrettable events during his presidency. In addition to the divided army and the fear of a blood bath, it has been suggested from several people that a delegation in Cotonou from the World Bank that followed the conference was a cause of the development. Violent clashes would probably not result in the delegation traveling back to Washington with a suggestion for increased support. In this context it should be noted that Nicéphore Soglo that became interim Prime Minister was a former employee of The World Bank and had full support from France. This indicates that external financial and political actors had an important role in the development of events. Even if they did not sit at the negotiation table they obviously hade an impact on the outcome.

An important factor to keep in view is that Kérékou probably had a larger personal interest in saving the country from chaos and collapse than for example General Éyadéma in Togo. Kérékou has been described by many as a patriot that in many situations put the country before his own personal interests. He did not have the same personal involvement, and therefore responsibility, for many of the injustices that took place during his rule. He was also granted amnesty by the conference and therefore did not risk future trial and punishment.

Several authors have in addition to these conciliatory traits put forward the idea that the national conference can be seen as a form of revenge of the civil society against president Kérékou. At many occasions had they opposed the regime on specific issues and also against Kérékou personally. African leader had with some success used three different strategies when protests became to massive. If the demands were economical they had relented for a time and given those who complained certain increases in salaries or other economical benefits. But Benin was poor, also in natural resources, and could therefore not revitalize the economy by such simple means. That the international lenders and donors decreased their support also made the situation worse.

The other tactic was to give representatives of those who complained positions inside the system or give other political concessions. This was used in situations where the economy did not allow meeting the demands. President Kérékou gave several people from the opposition seats in the administration in the end of 1989. In August he appointed the head of the Legal Faculty Finance Minister in an attempt to face the turbulence and the demands for his resignation (Heilbrunn, 1993, p. 286). In September he went as far as abandoning Marxism-Leninism as the official policy of the state (Keesing’s Record of World Events, 1989: 37115) and pardoned many imprisoned opposition figures.

The third tactic was to increase repression with police and military force (Bratton and van de Walle, 1992, p. 424). This required that the army and the police were loyal and that threat of violence would lessen the oppositional activity. The problem for the rulers was that brutal repression against those on strike and demonstrators was that it could backfire. The backfire effect had led many in power to lose political power completely.

In the end of 1989 the Benin opposition forces were no longer focused just on single issues. At this time they stood together behind the demand that the whole system needed to change (Bratton and van de Walle, 1992, p. 424). They had no more patience; this time it would not be enough with lesser changes of the regime’s policies. The exceptional and new was that the civil society stood up against a state on the African continent. A nonviolent strategy was the basis for this political experiment. I will return later in this text to the question of how deliberate or planned the strategy was.

As I have already mentioned, these actions inspired others to try the same strategy. But as the development of neighboring Togo west of Benin showed, it was no guarantee for success. In Zaïre and Gabon the regimes also agreed to gather national conferences, but they did not manage to proclaim free elections or overthrow the regimes. Even if Togo, Zaïre and Gabon were unsuccessful, others continued with similar strategies and many managed to realize important changes. Republic of Congo and Nigeria are other examples were national conferences like these clearly had a decisive role in creating more democratic societies (Bratton and van de Walle, 1992, p. 423).

In Benin it was mainly organizations and networks from the southern parts of the country that had built a force strong enough to challenge the regime. Furthermore France had given clear signals that it would no longer support every former colony. Democratization, functioning economy and less corruption were important criteria for support from Paris. In the Francoafrican summit in La Baule in France June 1990 President Mitterand declared that it was about time that former colonies started a process of democratization. He also said that not everyone represented in the national conference of Benin were good friends of the French state (Keesing’s Record of World Events 1990: 37524). This was a veiled confirmation that Kérékou could be removed without France interfering.

The introduction of a multi-party system in Benin was the beginning of something new. A whole new way to do politics had to develop. The first free elections in the country were held in 1991, this time with several political parties to choose from. Politics was still based too a large extent on ethnicity. But differing from the tripartite power in the seventies there was now many political opportunities and ethnical groups with their own leaders.

Civil Society in Benin

Civil society as a concept is difficult to define. In an African context it is even harder. It is difficult to find equivalents of the traditional popular movements of the Nordic countries in an African country like Benin. Zolberg in 1968 writes that Africa is ”an almost institutionless arena with conflict and disorder as its most prominent features” (Zolberg, 1968, p. 70). John Mw Makumbe discusses in International Affairs whether one can talk about a civil society in Africa at all (Makumbe, 1998, p. 305-317). He writes that the colonial governments destroyed most of the civil groups and organizations that existed before the colonial era. These groups were seen as threats and as a potential basis for mobilization against the colonial rule. During colonial times there was also active policies with the goal of hindering political influence from other groups than those that the colonial power trusted; which was almost exclusively one’s fellow countrymen. African were in most cases excluded from those organizations that existed. Makumbe ends his article with the conclusion that there exists a civil society in Africa, but that it has difficulty growing stronger (Makumbe, 1998, p. 316). The states have not been independent long enough to be able to create large and effective organizations.

In this chapter the concept of ”civil society” is used in its historical meaning, including basically all organized activity outside the state domain. An exception is groups using armed violence. This includes religious communities, private enterprises, professional organizations, trade unions, student organizations and oppositional parties. We have used this definition of the concept partly because the literature on political change in Benin uses a similar concept and partly because it is well suited for our analysis in the theoretical discussions in this text.

Benin was to some degree different from many other African states. Almost unique was the fact that Benin had relatively strong organizations that were not under control of the authorities (Harbeson et al., 1994, Widner, 1994, Monga, 1995). There were organizations that represented social, religious, professional and political interests (Makumbe, 1998, p. 308). It was when these civil society movements agreed on gathering their forces to end twenty years of authoritarian rule under president Kérékou that the opposition gained power to challenge the regime. Their primary demand was that all large oppositional groups were allowed to send representatives to a meeting, including those groups that had left the country for political reasons. This conference should be empowered to discuss present grievances and suggest political reforms. After that free elections where to be held.

Kérékou agreed to this in the hope of arriving at a reconciliation politics and an acceptance of the harsh economical austerity measures that was necessary to save the financial system. The country had been forced to give in to the strict demands of structural rationalizations that global financial institutions demanded and that bitter medicine would not be accepted by the opposition.

The division of Africa that the European colonizers made did not make it easier for the new born countries to function properly after independence. Traditional ethnical and cultural unites were often fragmented and many states suffered from actually being constituted by a mosaic of cultures, languages, religions and traditions. That most of the African states were liberated with guerilla warfare as the dominant method of struggle meant that new leaders were recruited from the ranks of Marxists guerillas. Their training, upbringing, experience, knowledge, language and even custom of clothes were totally dominated by warfare, military structures and military ways of thought. Amanda Peralta describes a similar experience from her struggle in Argentina (Peralta, 1990). But much of the discussion is just as important in an African context. The outcome for the African states were, with few exceptions, communist one-party-states with were limited democratic rights and freedoms.

Who did create the alliance that brought the demand of a national conference and free elections in Benin? As in many other African countries it was firstly university students that were driving in the struggle that would lead to democratization. Their difficult and worsening conditions as students made them willing to move into the streets in protest, going on strikes and demonstrating. The students had been on strike and demonstrated already in 1985 and from January 1989 they were on strike for several months. In March 401 teachers were fired for taking part in the strikes.

A splinter group from the state approved national union UNSTB was formed. They took the name CUEB. Others had been organized in the authoritarian FEANF organization that many broke from and created UGEED, an underground organization that became public first when the regime shift was a fact (Heilbrunn, 1993, p. 292).

The worsened situation that the students suffered directly was part of the ”structural adjustment program” that the World Bank and others hade demanded in return for loans to Benin (Nkinyangi, 1991). In April 1986 it was decided that salaries for government employees was to be cut with 10% to satisfy demands that the IMF had an that the government had been accepted in order to get stability loans (Heilbrunn, 1993, p. 283). The miserable economical circumstances was the cause of the first student actions in the end of the eighties and the student were also first on the scene when the situation became more critical during the fall of 1989 (Bratton and Van de Walle, 1997). Later the students presented more political demands. We can see parallels to Solidarity in Poland here as well. Their demand went from economical to political as they had success, were strengthened and more joined (Cirtautas, 1997). In Benin many students had attended Soviet universities, other French universities and colleges. The contacts that the well educated class had with the surrounding world was clearly an important source of knowledge of other events around the world at the end of the eighties, especially 1989. The fall of the Berlin Wall was naturally an important event also in Benin. That a country that called itself communist and hade a personal cult around its leader, as Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania, could remove its leader showed inspiring possibilities.

Even if there were very few international news in state media, students and people with higher education hade access to news through the weekly Jeune Afrique and the radio station Radio France Internationale (Bratton and van de Walle, 1992, p. 431). There is no doubt that the events in the rest of the world in the turbulent year of 1989 worked as form of catalyst for the events in Benin. When ex-president Julius Nyere of Tanzania returned from a visit in East German Leipzig, center for the demonstrations against the communist regime, and publicly stated that one party-systems were no longer ”holy” it fueled debate on the entire African continent, including Benin (Bratton and van de Walle, 1992, p. 431).

In addition to the students large groups of ”youth” and unemployed took part in the protests. We use quotes around ”youth” here because it is not their specific age that is significant. It was a question of groups that had not been able to enter adult life because of marginalization. Nwakiaku cites Achille Mbembe with the expression ”the politics of the belly” and argues that these demands should not be differentiated from the democratic demands of students, teachers, lawyers and political activists (Nwajiaku, 1994, p. 436). Another part of civil society that early on was participating in the protests was commercial actors and professional organizations. Africa has of course always had organizations working to improve conditions of life for their members. In the modern era Benin has had organizations such as APRT and UNACOBE. The latter was close to the government when it was funded in 1976 and gathered many local businessmen in a country wide organization (Heilbrunn, 1997, p. 478). Both organizations supported the democratic demands already in the beginning of the democratic movement (Nwajiaku, 1994, p. 433). They saw possibilities to better economic development as possibly the most important effect of a regime change. Every organization worked in their specific fashion. Their struggle for democracy was dependent on the individual organization, its structure, social basis and relation to the state (Heilbrunn, 1997, p. 473). All the women from Togo that went under the name of Nana Benz conducted currency exchange and had business with colleagues in Benin. Many even lived in both countries (Heilbrunn, 1997, p. 474). They had ”sisters” in Benin that were also strong and independent women. Many became members in UNACOBE and their relatively independency was supported by the organization. They were strong advocates for democracy, a multi party system and more transparency in Benin and Togo. When the banking system collapse UNACOBE revoked all its supported of president Kérékou and together with two other organizations it formed the women’s organization OFECAO.

Different from Togo, most organizations in Benin were decentralized and had a greater distance from state politics. An example is UNACOBE which had a regional structure i each of the six provinces, where each region had significant autonomy. They had great legitimacy defending local merchants from foreign competition. This is also an important explanation to why they grw stronger during the democratization process.  Many of UNACOBE’s leaders were also active in religious networks in the Vodou, Christian and Muslim congregations (Heilbrunn, 1997, p. 482). Their network, cooperation and continuous communication were decisive factors in the democratic movement. They later important roles during the Conférence Nationale des Forces Vives and later in the new regime (Heilbrunn, 1997, p. 474).

They demanded a new constitution, a multi party-system, liberalization of economic policy, an end to structural rationalization, freedom of association, right to strike, increased grants for students and improvements in university infrastructure (Nwajiaku, 1994, p. 435). In August 1989 teachers in the Synes union decided to join students and workers in the struggle for increased democracy. UNSTB that was controlled by the regime had at the time of the national conference lost the majority of its members (Nwajiaku, 1994, p. 435). During the first two weeks of 1990 a number of free unions were formed. One of these new unions were Synapostel which in January 1990 demanded rights to strike, free unions and representation in the delegation that negotiated with the World Bank. In the beginning they were secret and worked underground, but later they struggled in the open against the one party-state (Heilbrunn, 1993, p. 284). Many of the leaders of the new unions had been working for a long time in UNSTB but were among those shut out from wage negotiations and other economic issues.

In July 1989 the chairman of Lawyer’s union, René Ahouansou, and the head of the legal faculty at Université nationale du Bénin, Robert Dossou, presented a list of demands for political reform. It was delivered to president Kérékou and contained demands that the dominant party should renounce much of its monopoly and power it had in different parts of society. There were also demands for a general amnesty for political prisoners and that the repression against striking teachers had to stop. They argued that this was important to prevent violent riots in the country (Heilbrunn, 1993, p. 285).

A fourth group in the civil society in Benin that played an important role in the critical face leading up to the national coalition in February 1990 was the religious organizations and networks. As stated previously the population contains a diversified mix of religions. No single religion dominates the whole country. Colonialism and subsequent missionary activity had resulted in 42 % professed themselves to Christianity and close to 25 % were Muslim. The traditional religions, with voodoo dominating, still had a more or less practicing part of the population at 24 %. The different religious communities are organized in congregations and similar structures and meet regularly. It has been difficult to find good documentation on the exact role of these communities during the revolutionary processes that led up to the national conference, but many point out that they did participate. It is a reasonable hypothesis that they were important information channels. At or in connection to their meetings and gatherings news spread, events were discussed and possibly decisions were made about participating in actions of different kinds. Terence Ranger discusses religious movements role in African politics south of Sahara thoroughly (Ranger, 1986).   Even if Ranger does not discuss Benin specifically it is obvious that both Christian, Muslims and traditional religions played an important role in the political agenda. Religious leaders were respected in Benin just as in other countries.

Information and Communication

Media became important during the last years before the national conference. In 1988 Kérekou lifted the strict state censure and many new publications, fiercely critical of the regime, started. In Cotonou March 1988 La Gazette du Golfe started publication and three months later Tam-Tam Express (Gbado, 1990, p. 10). They let the opposition forward with their views and an arena for spreading and discussing the critique was created. They also transmitted impulses from the important revolutionary events in the rest of the world. But in a small country with widespread analphabetism ether media was more important than newspapers and journals.

After decolonization of Africa south of Sahara the number of radio stations increased tremendously. In 1960 there were 252 radio stations and fifteen years later 458. Even more important is the fact that in 1965 there existed 23 radio receivers per 1000 people, increasing to 164 per 1000 in 1984 (Nugent, 2004, p. 382). UNESCO worked actively on giving the population outside the larger cities access to radio. The major international radio and television networks like CNN, BBC World Service, Voice of America and Radio France Internationale were de most important sources providing insight on current political events abroad. Under the one party regime censorship was widespread and many news were never reported. It was common practice for government ministers to not make any appearance in domestic media, but agreeing to interviews in international media where they rebutted the allegations of the opposition. This implies that they saw the international arena as more important than the domestic and internal debate. During the same period as the national conferences more and more private radio stations appeared. Even during the years of harshest repression there existed a phenomena in the cities under the name radio trottoir (pavement radio). It was rumors and stories that were spread through word of mouth in marketplaces and other places were people met. Private newspapers often relayed these “news”. This gave them greater legitimacy, since they were written “black on white”. James Scott in his books Weapons of the Weak (Scott, 1985) and Domination and the Art of Resistance (Scott, 1990) shown the effect and weight of these types of subcultural forms of resistance and communication. Scott bases his works on empirical research from Asia, but it is nonetheless possible to draw general conclusions the research. It was also common that private newspapers spread stories that later were spread by radio trottoir (Nugent 2004: 384). This was a two way channel that was created in Benin, between printed media and the discussions of people in the street and in private. It was not only a possibility to write articles or letters from the reader, but the newspapers actively searched for and relayed the discussions taking place on pavements and in town squares.

In other words, the communication possibilities were decisive in giving the opposition a way to organize and discuss its goals and strategies.


Reasons of the Protest, Sources of Inspiration and Results

Benin was no isolated event in French speaking Africa. According to Bratton and van de Walle the yearly British publication Africa South of Asahara mentioned seventeen large scale political protests in Benin from 1985–1994 (Bratton and Van de Walle, 1997, p. 286-287). This makes Benin one of the African countries with most political protests during this period. Strikes and demonstrations dominated the political mass protests. Most of the political activity took place in the cities, but many in the countryside also took part in the strikes.

Bratton and van de Walle have identified the four most important factors explaining the causes of political protests in Africa. They can be ordered in importance, starting with the most important factor: 1. Competition in the civil society (measured by numbers of active trade unions in the country); 2. Political activity (measured by number of elections during the post colonial period); 3. Number of neighboring countries with the same colonial background; and 4. Number of Structural Adjustment Programs (Bratton and Van de Walle, 1997, p. 150-151).

They have made their study on Africa as a whole and it is debatable to what degree it is accurate for Benin. But as we saw earlier, the number of unions increased heavily during the period leading up to the national conference. Concerning number of elections, Benin could not show that many. During president Kérékou the Marxist-Leninist regime did not bother with keeping elections. But when the Revolutionary Military Council was dissolved in 1979 parliamentary elections were held. There were also parliamentary elections in 1984 and 1989. However, there were no presidential elections between 1970 and 1991, when the national conference declared one. Of the neighboring Togo, Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria, the first three were French colonies. Here is a clear correlation with Bratton and van de Walle’s investigation. Concerning the fourth factor, the number of Structural Adjustment Programs, it is obvious that these programs were seen as an important cause of the worsened economical conditions. In summary, the general results for Africa seems to fit the Benin situation quite well.

Many have claimed that the economical factors behind the changes were the most important. And it is obvious that all countries where democratization took place through national conferences had economical problems. It is also a fact that many of the protests started out as reactions against miserable economical conditions. However, there are many countries that has had similar and far worse economical conditions without it leading to demands for national conferences or any other type of democratization. We have not seen examples of similar processes on the African continent without a history of economic problems. But we have neither seen many examples of blooming economies in Africa south of Sahara during the first decades after decolonization.

Bad economical conditions are an important and maybe even necessary factor for starting the process, but it is not enough of an explanation in itself. In a discussion on the role of the economy one also has to include a class perspective where one analyzes which class in society that a) has economical hardships and b) takes initiative to protests. It is well known that the poorest rarely has a surplus, resources, time and initiative to lead protests. It is also probable that the limit of a “tolerable” economical situation for the educated middle class is a more important factor than ditto for the lowest classes. If the middle class no longer receives the standard of life they expect they can participate in a revolt even if they are far better of than the poorest in society. It is the difference between expected development and actual development that is the decisive factor. Tedd Gurr in Why Men Rebel has describes in detail how relative deprivation can be used as an indicator on the likelihood of a revolt (Gurr, 1970).

Another explanation for the revolts is that large parts of Africa have a tradition of showing discontent in times of trouble. Protests, strikes, boycotts, demonstrations and revolts have frequently been used by teachers, students, public employees and other workers during the whole post colonial period. In French speaking countries like Congo, Mali, Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal open confrontations have been common. The same with English speaking countries like Kenya, Zambia and South Africa. In Sudan president Nimiery was forced to resign after large protests in 1985. There is in other words nothing exceptional in the fact people make protests when they are discontent. The unique aspect of the events of 1989 and onwards in the French speaking countries was that the demands were not only for the regime to step down, but for the national conferences to take place. This contains an unusual constructive element where the intent was to enabling a majority of the citizens of the country to take part in an open debate on what needed to be done. The demands for these kinds of conferences are a qualitatively new dimension of the history of revolutionary movements. This is a new invention in strategies for national liberation. To be inclusive and constructive is something completely different from armed revolutionary struggle to take power and put authoritarian regimes in place. It is possible that we can see the first grains of what would later happen in South Africa, were Nelson Mandela allowed the old apartheid representatives be a part of the first ANC-government. The events in Benin were to have enormous consequences on the whole continent. It should be noted the strategy not always was a success. In the same way as every political tool or strategy can fail, there were also here attempts that did not succeed. One reason was that many leaders of authoritarian regimes saw what had happened in Benin and did all they could to avoid similar outcomes. In Congo president Sassou-Nguesso refused to take part in a national conference. It was only after the defense chief had declared himself neutral in relation to the internal conflicts and been unwilling to use soldiers against the striking workers that he accepted the demand (Bratton and Van de Walle, 1997, p. 173).

To what degree preparations of the civil society preceded their actions is uncertain. There is no documentation to prove that the Benin opposition had planned their actions in the long term. Training and practical exercises in civil disobedience or similar are not documented either. This does not necessarily mean that it did not take place, but my assessment is that it probably did not. As mentioned above lots of inspiration was drawn from other countries, both historical and contemporary, but no direct forms of cooperation or exchange of strategies can be proven. That idea of nonviolence had been spread around the world and developed in different contexts is not unknown, it is thoroughly treated in chapter three of Stellan Vinthagen’s book Ickevåldsaktion (Vinthagen, 2005, p. 105-153). But in the case of Benin it was probably more on the idea level and less on the on the practical side of exchanging experiences. Most information probably came from media and not from individuals or groups that had fought for democracy in other countries.

Even if there are no roots reaching back to the independence struggle in India there are clear parallels to Gandhi’s wish for a common state for Hindus, Muslims and the British when British colony was liberated (Ashe, 1968, p. 353-385). Gandhi’s project failed and the wave of national conferences and democratization processes that took place in Africa during the nineties was far more successful in maintaining national unity. These countries were not divided like India.

Gandhi is also relevant when discussing what inspiration from other countries that played a role in Benin. That Gandhi began his work against oppression and towards ethical and sustainable societies during his years in South Africa (Pyarelal, 1980, Pyarelal, 1986, Nayar, 1989) is hardly an important factor for the developments in Benin. However, it is likely that many of those inspired by Gandhi that worked for freedom and democracy in the US (Martin Luther King), in Eastern Europe (Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel), Philippines (Corazon Aquino) or the students at Tiananmen Square in Beijing affected the well educated in Benin. Benin had a relatively high level of students and they did not live a vacuum. Political history was part of the on going discussions. It is also possible that Kwame Nkhruma in Ghaa XX ref?? and the struggle they fought against the British colonial empire was an important inspiration.  But the language barrier between French and English speakers could have been an issue. As we mentioned above the many revolutionary events in the communist countries during 1989 were important themes having an impact on the Benin context. The fall of the Berlin wall was of course just as an important event in the Marxist-Leninist Benin as it was everywhere else in the world. That it was possible to change an authoritarian regime was probably the most important message. No cases of transferred strategic ideas or other forms of direct contacts between Eastern Europe and Benin has been found. This does not necessarily mean that there have been none, but they are not known in the literature.

The peaceful means obviously had a great impact on the result. Strikes, demonstrations, boycotts and other forms of protest has a completely different effect than violent means such as guerilla warfare. Open protests are less elitist than wars where only the physically able and armed can participate. Demonstrations on streets and squares can gather everyone able to move in public space. Peaceful means also creates less conflict than means involving violence. Violence and killing, in small scale or massacres, often breed new conflicts in the future. Survivors and their representatives has a tendency to want to “hit back” against the perpetrators of violence. This “justified violence” is mostly a theoretical concept. The victims, their friends and relatives cannot se the justice in the loss of a loved one. Violence hurts all the roles that person has. The policewoman can also be a mother, chess player, union activist, lover, daughter and neighbor. If she is killed all these roles are taken from her. Here nonviolence shows one of its largest advantages: It can be directed at a specific role and is therefore far more exact and precise than the always brutal violence. During the period after the peaceful revolution Benin has far fewer conflicts than what would probably be the case if the upheavals where bathed in blood.

One external actor that is often seen as an important player in many of the irregular regime shifts during the end of the eighties was the Catholic Church lead by Polish pope John Paul II. In countries such as the Philippines (Bonner, 1987, p. 414, Schirmer and Shalom, 1987, p. 250-252), Poland (Ash, 1991, p. 107-109, 213-217 and 239-241) and Bolivia it is well known that the church played an important role inspiring and giving moral support. To what degree they helped with other forms of support is not known. But it is not unlikely that there was both economical support and transfer of knowledge. Liberation theology with its radical politics was also represented on the African continent. That Catholic Arch Bishop Isidore de Souza was appointed to lead the national conference implies that the church and its representatives enjoyed great confidence in Benin.

According to an article in Time magazine by Lisa Beyer the proposal for a national conference was presented to president Kérékou in a memorandum by the French ambassador in December 1989. Specific constitutional changes were proposed in this memorandum. According to the article Kérékou followed the recommendations almost without exception. In exchange “considerable” support in the form of aid was promised. Beyer also cites the French cooperation and development minister Jacques Pelletier: “The wind that blows in the east should not be stopped in the south”. In what degree the proposition originated in Paris or whether it was the opposition that had whispered in France’s ear we do not know. Others have pointed out that many traditional African societies (including Benin) have a tradition of gathering for “village councils” where diverging wills can meet to discuss common solutions (Bratton and Van de Walle, 1997, p. 172). The idea might come from Paris, been inspired by the events in 1789 and at the same time been well received since it was a form of conflict management that the Benin population was familiar with.

In any case, the conference came to form a significant part of the process. As we have observed many times before, it is difficult to create a strong enough opposition if the different oppositional elements are unable to cooperate and unite in a single front. In Serbia 2000, Georgia 2003 and Ukraine 2004 it was decisive that the opposition had left their internal difficulties and stood united. Most regimes can relatively easily handle a divided opposition. At the conference this unity was obvious when the president was ousted as chair of the conference; when Isisdore de Souza was unanimously chosen instead; when the conference appointed itself the highest authority in the country; when free elections for parliament and president were declared; that there would be a referendum on the new constitution and that all decisions were to be implemented.


Based on the complex picture of the history leading up to and the realization of the national conference in Benin that we have described it is nevertheless to early to draw any certain conclusion on cause and effect among the many factors, events and contexts that are relevant. More research is needed. Some of it is made, but for example a deeper study of the nonviolent means that the opposition used is missing. What has been written up until now has not been focused on the influence of means on the development and the result. Many of the contextual factors has been discussed and some of the external actors have been analyzed. But an overall analysis of the different elements of a such a study is missing.

Charles Tilly emphasizes the importance of coalitions and argues that social movements contributes to democratization when they fulfill the following criteria:

I totally agree that coalitions are necessary, but there are more variables that must be included in order to explain social movements positive contribution to the democratization of states. (Tilly, 2004, p. 142-143)

We will now shortly draft how such an analysis can be made. The starting-point is that factors can be divided into a) important, b) necessary and c) sufficient elements d) counter productive and e) irrelevant. In the first group factors are placed that has played an important role for the development of events, but which are not necessary for the result: Possibly, the demand for a united opposition with common demands can be placed here. In group “b” factors that have impacted the process in a significant manner can be placed. Much indicates that the difficult economical situation during the need of the eighties is such a factor. But it could be the change in situation, rather than the situation in itself, that was decisive. It is possible that two objectively similar situations are perceived differently depending on recent improvements or worsening. As we have pointed out above it is important with a class perspective in the analysis. In group “c” factors that have not only been important and necessary for change, but even sufficient in themselves. It is possible that there are no such single factors, but it should be included as a possibility. In the debate of external funding of the movements in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine suggestions have been made that the financial support from American actors was the decisive factor for the result. No one has presented strong empirical evidence for this, but the debate continues. Group “d” are those kinds of factors that does have an impact contrary to the intention. One typical example could be if an opposition group receives financial support from abroad and the authorities successfully can label them puppets of a foreign actor. Or violent actions that backfire. In category “e” you will find all the types of activities that has minimal, if any, impact on the situation. Without any empirical support our guess is that there are more of this type than what many donors/supporters, stakeholders and recipients will confess.




Table 1: Three phases and five types of factors based on a similar tool for analyzing external support. (Johansen, 2010)


Another set of variables necessary for this kind of analysis is during which phase of the process that these factors function. Here it might be practical to divide it into three phases: The initial, concerning preparations and background. After that there is implementation, which means the escalating part of the process when the decisive events take place. Not without interest is of course the result, in other words the changes that actually form the outcome. Important variables in one phase could have less importance in another. If a comparative analysis of a large number of empirical examples are conducted it is likely that patterns will emerge that can lead towards more solid theories on the functions of social movements on state level democratization processes. It might also be interesting to find correlation between the internal democratic level of the social movements and the level of democratization that is the result of their political impact on society.

When compiling the result it is important to do the analysis in different time perspectives. What is celebrated as a victory can feel like a bad solution a few weeks, months or years later. Once again it is important to keep a class, gender and age perspective in the analysis. The upper class and a growing middle class can be very content, while poor senior citizens, unemployed and students wants the “good old days” back. Women are in a different situation than men and younger and older people have different needs. Almost all countries that have gone through peaceful revolutions have shortly thereafter imposed a neoliberal market economy where the role of the state is heavily reduced. This is probably the best system for increasing growth created by man. But it totally lacks mechanisms for distribution of the wealth. This results in greater class differences in economies following neoliberal principles and values.

To measure the result it is central to have a notion of the expectations. Many of the peaceful revolutions have been focused on expectations on what one did not want, for example not wanting the current regime or certain politicians to lead the country. In Benin there were far more explicit and constructive wishes for the future. Freedom of speech, general and free elections, multi party-system, right to strike, freedom of association and so forth were demands presented during the national conference. And this was what was realized when the conference took power in its own hands. In the economical sphere, it was less clear what the demands where other than a better economical situation for the people. That market liberalism was to rule was not clearly pronounced. The negative consequences of this system were, as far as the literature shows, is not part of the debate either.

On one level this review of the democratization in Benin can tell us something about the preparation and implementation of the resistance against the authoritarian regime. But one should not draw too far-reaching conclusions. One should be careful since it is only a single case. These are complex processes where many parts are far from sufficiently researched. The Benin example nonetheless shows a different kind of resistance compared to the peaceful revolutions in Poland 1980-89, Philippines 1986 or Serbia 2000. During a central phase of the struggle in Benin the resistance was took the form of the opposition inviting the formal authorities to discussions; and this took place altogether on the terms of the opposition. Discussions also took place in most other examples of peaceful transfers of rule and democratization processes, but in Benin the alliance was broader than usual and therefore stronger. The constructive path showed good results and built the groundwork for a future united state. This reminds us of what Nelson Mandela did fourteen years later when ANC after its land slide victory invited representatives of the white minority to take part of government during the first term. Not because they had to, but for reconciliation and building a common future for all citizens. In both these cases a form of resistance less marked by traditional power relations and more by wisdom, a view to the future and good insights into sensible conflict management. Of course it is based on a power relation, but the power is not used to fight and humiliate the antagonist. The power is used to decide how the changes are to be made. It is as much about the process as the goal.

The Benin example should be studied in more detail. The same goes for the other cases of irregular regime shifts in Africa. Much remains before we have a good understanding of these revolutionary events. If we want to learn how to manage these national conflicts on government, democracy and the inclusion of minorities we should study the best examples. Benin is a good place to start.




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