The following is a complete transcript from the HOPES ON THE HORIZON Benin story:
I am speaking to Africa. I am speaking to Africa. That is right, I am going to address the African people.
NARR: Today, African griots sing of new heroes activists who fought to reclaim the promises of the independence generation. The West African nation of Benin saw one of the first struggles for democracy.
In January of 1989, Benins university students and professors launched a massive strike against their government. They were soon joined by elementary and secondary school teachers: all of them angry at a state-run system that had failed to pay salaries or scholarships for months.
The protests were directed at President Mathieu Kerekou. Kerekou had come to power in a 1972 coup. He installed a repressive military dictatorship, which ruled through the Marxist Party for Popular Revolution in Benin, the PRPB. Those who opposed him were jailed or exiled.
By 1989 Benins citizens had no say in how their country was governed and no control over its economy, which was on the verge of collapse.
ZINATOU TRAORE Market Trader
When the strikes first began, the entire country was devastated. Women suffered terribly. Nothing was being sold in the market. We wondered how we would ever get out of these difficulties.
NARR: In May the economic crisis grew so severe that the government shut down the banks, which were all state owned.
PASCAL GANDAHO University Union Leader
The failure of the bank was a definite sign that the country had reached a crossroads.
NARR: By July, the nation was descending into chaos. President Kerekou agreed to meet with strike leaders, including Professor Robert Dossou, one of the few politicians who did not belong to Kerekous Party.
ROBERT DOSSOU Professor of Law
I told him, he must first install a multi-party system. Secondly, he must grant amnesty to all political prisoners in jail and also allow all exiles living outside the country to return. Thirdly, stop the repression and negotiate with the protestors.
NARR: Kerekou agreed to release political prisoners, mostly to satisfy conditions for financial aid from the French government and the International Monetary Fund. But the prisoners he freed formed an even harder core of opposition to his leadership.
SERAPHIN AGBAHOUNGBATA Released Political Prisoner
It was like being a great football player who was held in reserve. He watched the game and was not happy with how it was going. We wanted to join and continue until total victory, meaning the destruction of Kerekous autocratic regime.
NARR: By now, almost the entire nation was on strike. All normal activity ceased, as demonstrations became daily events.
Then Benins protesters took strength from another popular uprising.
On the 9th of November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, I was in Brussels. Alone in my hotel room I celebrated by drinking a bottle of champagne.
So when I returned home on the 13th of November, I dropped my suitcase and ran to see President Kerekou. I told him, President, you have seen that the Berlin Wall has fallen. Why are you hesitating about my proposal? Unless we act quickly, there will be a civil war. And he said, Drop it. Drop it. I am thinking about a national conference.
NARR: But Kerekou continued to procrastinate and pressure mounted. Then during demonstrations on December 4th, five protestors were killed. Three days later Kerekou surprised the nation by announcing that Marxism was no longer the state ideology.
He called for a national conference where Benins people would meet to address the countrys problems, and appointed a committee to organize it.
Led by Robert Dossou, the committee planned to invite a cross-section of Benin society, supporters as well as opponents of Kerekou. Many argued that the national conference should be granted the power to make final or sovereign decisions.
The only way for us to establish change was to have a national conference and make all its decisions sovereign.
The PCD Communists refused to go to the national conference. Not only did they refuse, but they called on all the people to reject the conference because it was an underhanded trick. It would give us absolutely nothing. All that this conference offered is the codification of freedoms already won by fighting in the streets. What the people really wanted was a more democratic government.
NARR: Yet many in Benin were willing to gamble hard-won freedoms on the possibility that the conference would bring real change. For its success, believers in Vodoun prayed ardently. So did Christians and Muslims.
On February 19, 1990, as surprise rains appeared in the middle of the dry season, the nine-day conference opened.
The rain that fell that morning was seen by many people as a blessing from heaven. And this cooled down some fears and some doubts. And afterwards we found ourselves in the conference hall. I cannot say that everybody truly believed, but they were there.
ROBERT DOSSOU Chairman, National Conference Organizing Committee
History follows its course, passing through painful moments, and also peaceful moments. Mr. President of the Republic.
MATHIEU KEREKOU President of Benin (Archival)
The democratic revival we have just promoted in our country is an inescapable necessity of our time.
NARR: 520 delegates, from students and union workers to military leaders, listened as Kerekou reminded them of the tight grip he held on Benins military government.
MATHIEU KEREKOU (Archival)
It is therefore not desirable for the participants of this conference to elaborate a list of good intentions and try to make the operation utopian.
PASCAL GANDAHO National Conference Delegate
Mathieu Kerekou played a rather ambiguous role, because he seemed like he was not at all opposed to the conference but at the same time he acted as if the conference delegates were his guests.
NARR: Many of those present hoped to achieve a civilian coup, but they were cautious about speaking out in the presence of Kerekou and his army. Yet even this tentative beginning was having an electric effect on Benin society.
During the conference, no one in the private or public sector worked. The sellers of transistor radios were doing the biggest business in the country. Everyone would buy himself a little transistor radio and you would see them on their motor scooters in the street holding the handlebar with one hand and the radio with the other.
NARR: For six days, delegates avoided the issue of sovereignty, and whether the conference would lead to the formation of a new Benin government.
We postponed and postponed until the 25th. Then we decided to get down to business. We would have to abandon the conference unless we could declare sovereignty.
When the debate began, Kerekou called me and asked, What does it mean, sovereignty? I told him whatever the conference decides, no one can overrule that decision.
NARR: Members of Benins powerful military were strongly opposed, and raised the specter of a military coup.
COLONEL KOUANDETE Former Military Ruler (Archival)
You forget the army, when the army will still be here.
There were military men around Kerekou who became angry because they believed that you should not treat the head of state in this way.
COLONEL MARTIN AZONHIHO Minister of Security and National Orientation
We are in Africa, under the Tree of Talking. And when you are under that tree, there is a chief. You are invited to come and eat. You come in, you are a guest, and you take the pot! What does that mean?
I was among those who said, No. We had good reason to say no to sovereignty.
BERTIN BORNA Vice-Chairman, National Conference Presidium
The debates were very long and difficult. General Kouandete threatened that he was going to stage a coup and even some former heads of state were shaking.
JUSTIN AHOMADEGBE Former President of Benin (Archival)
He is a pro at coup detats. If he says it, he will do it!
We were afraid, not just me but the whole country. We were told they were going to kill people, even the head of state. So we were all afraid.
Emotions were very high. If the president decided that he was fed up with the conference, I did not see anyone who could change his mind. We would be heading towards violence.
NARR: After hours of angry debate, a vote was taken during Kerekous absence. Overwhelmingly, the delegates chose sovereignty.
Informed of the decision, Kerekou was outraged.
MATHIEU KEREKOU Archival
You tell us that there is no longer a government, that the state no longer exists. But it is intolerable to believe that the current government is resigning, or that it will resign at the end of your labors.
NARR: Fearful they would be overruled, the delegates pushed ahead. They had only two days to elect a transitional government, which would write a new constitution and address the nations financial crisis.
Soglo, Soglo, etc. cheering, etc.
NARR: Nicephore Soglo, a World Bank economist, was chosen as interim prime minister.
Delegates offered Kerekou and his government amnesty, and proposed that he remain as Head of State, but with severely reduced powers. In the last moments of the conference, tension mounted as people waited to learn how the former dictator would react.
Today, Wednesday, February 28, 1990, with the entire nation of Benin as our witness, we solemnly affirm our commitment to honor all the decisions of this national conference.
NARR: A year later, on March 24, 1991, Nicephore Soglo was elected President in a free and fair, multi-party election. Benin had completed its non-violent transition to democratic rule.
The greatest change has been freedom. Today we have a free press. Human rights are not fully established but we are making progress thanks to the structures that we have put in place.
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