Op-ed: Markus Bayer is Ph.D. student and research fellow at the University of Duisburg Essen‘s Chair of International Relations and Development Policy.
We all know places where history was written. The Winter Palace in St Petersburg and the Bastille in Paris where the Russian and the French Revolution were triggered, or the railway wagon in the Forest of Compiègne where the First World War ended. Most of these places have a history of violence.
The Hotel PLM-Alédjo in Cotonou/Bénin has a different story. It is the place where the so-called third wave of democratization hit the African continent. It became the center of a political earthquake that sent shockwaves through the whole continent.
This impact was quite astonishing since the small country, located between Togo and Nigeria, has long been considered the “sick child of Africa”.From its independence in 1960, Bénin was riddled by numerous coups d’états, and today it remains one of the poorest states in Africa. But, from February 19th to 28th 1990 la Conférence Nationale des Forces Vives de la Nation – the Conference of the Living Forces of the Nation – convened in the Hotel Alédjo.
Initially intended as an advisory institution to get necessary reforms on track, the Conference declared itself sovereign and began working on drafting a new democratic constitution and molding the transition to democracy. The conference itself was the consequence of huge waves of protests and strikes, which made the country ungovernable during 1988 and 1990, and eventually enforced le renouveau democratique – the democratic renewal. As a result of the consultations, the first free presidential election was held in 1991, won by Nicéphore Soglo.
Consequently, Bénin’s Mathieux Kérékou became the first president on the African mainland who was defeated at the polls and peacefully resigned. Bénin’s democratic transition was so successful that many countries - like Togo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Namibia - adopted the concept of a National Conference to preside over the process of negotiating the transition and drafting the constitution, albeit with mixed results.
Since then, Bénin has held six consecutive presidential elections and witnessed another three peaceful democratic turnovers of power. Four peaceful turnovers is quite impressive and remains unequaled in Africa. In comparison, the most consolidated African democracies (South Africa, Namibia and Botswana) have never witnessed a peaceful turnover since their transition.
The people of Bénin are very proud of their role as democratic trailblazer and, as a consequence, feel deeply committed to their constitution. However, Bénin’s democracy has an Achilles heel. Being a low income country, Bénin has not witnessed much economic development since its democratization. Since 1990 the annual growth of the GDP per-capita has been at around 2%, with major setbacks in 2005 and 2010.
The current state of the PLM Hotel Alédjo, the birth place of Bénin’s democracy, metaphorically resembles the current state of democracy in Bénin. After the hotel went bankrupt the place underwent a conversion. People moved into the bungalows where the conference delegates were once housed, and now grow vegetables on the former lawn.
Bénin is an example of democratization without development, a combination that brings some serious problems with it. Communists in Bénin say: "We fought for freedom and bread - we did get freedom, the bread is still missing".
Even if this lack of economic development is unlikely to undermine the democratic consensus, it represents a severe obstacle for developing it further. So, twenty-six years after the democratic renewal Bénin remains a young and imperfect democracy in its consolidation phase, trapped between democratic principles that bring freedom, and anachronistic systems that secure a living.
The main building of the hotel is now in decay, but it still contains the two most valuable assets for the democracy in Bénin – first, the legacy of a peaceful, consensual transition and second, the physical voters register for the national and presidential election.
We can only speculate what a great democracy Bénin would be if its democratization, rooted in a nonviolent uprising and a national conference, was backed by a solid economic upturn.