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Benin's Kerekou Promises to Step Down

  • Nico Colombant

Benin's long-standing president, Mathieu Kerekou, says he will not change the constitution to run again in elections next year. If he holds to his promise, the move would differ from undemocratic patterns in neighboring countries.

Speaking this week to a group of school teachers, 72-year-old President Kerekou said he is not interested in just political power, and he added, "...anyway if you do not leave power, power will leave you."

During the speech, he clearly said he would not pursue changing the constitution to take away its two-term limit or to remove the 70-year-old maximum age for any candidate.

His announcement followed months of speculation and political debate on whether or not Benin's constitution should be changed.

Benin journalist Gerard Guedegbe says the uncertainty was even becoming dangerous. "The fact that President Kerekou did not make his position clear created a kind of social and political tension that is not so securing for peace preservation," he said. "But now that we clearly know that he is not going to modify the constitution to be a candidate again, it is like a freedom for both politicians who work with him and for those that have been campaigning for months against the modification of Benin's constitution."

President Kerekou first took power in a military coup in 1972 and declared Benin a one-party Marxist-Leninist state. He stepped down under popular pressure 18 years later, and then lost elections in 1991 to former World Bank official, Nicephore Soglo, who was in power five years.

But Mr. Kerekou abandoned socialism and presented himself as a born-again Christian to win elections in 1996 and 2001. Regional analysts say if he steps down it would be a positive step for democracy in a region often characterized by lack of political transition.

Chad's President Idriss Deby recently won a referendum to take away a two-term limit, while in neighboring Togo, Faure Gnassingbe replaced his dead father in a coup, before winning what are widely seen to have been rigged elections. There are also cases where heads of state go against their word, like Central African Republic's Francois Bozize, who promised not to run for president after leading a coup, only to win elections this year.

But Cotonou-based journalist Gerard Guedegbe says Mr. Kerekou has always stayed true to his word, throughout his long career. "People say that now that he has said it by himself and that we heard it clearly, there is no doubt. He is someone who is used to saying what he is going to do," he said. "Everyone can feel well at ease now and people say that President Kerekou is no more going to [be] president."

The journalist also says there is probably not enough support in parliament to modify the constitution and not enough money in state coffers to organize a subsequent referendum.

The early favorite for the scheduled March 2006 election is now former cabinet minister Bruno Amoussou, who leads the Party of Democratic Renewal. Heated discussions are focusing on whether there will be a six-month residency requirement for candidates, which could exclude popular politician Yayi Boni. He lives in Togo for his work as chairman of the West African Development bank.

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