Benin (Northwest Africa) was a French colony from 1893 until it gained its independence in 1960 and was renamed République du Dahomey, after which it remained a part of the French community. There was a series of military coups between 1962 and 1972, the last bringing to power Major Mathieu Kerekou, who remained president until 1990. Kerekou introduced a Marxist-Leninist one-party state. In 1975 the country’s name was changed to the People’s Republic of Benin.
During the second half of the 1980s, an escalating fiscal and political crisis led to Benin becoming ungovernable. By 1989, financial institutions had collapsed, the public service staff had not been paid for seven months, inflation had spiralled, and public service strikes were spreading. By November a general nationwide strike was threatened. In midyear President Kerekou was presented with reform demands by moderate opposition leaders, which he rejected. He continued to engage with these leaders, bringing one of them (Robert Dossou) into his cabinet, where he soon played a major role in coordinating a transition. In December 1989, Kerekou sought to reduce pressure by announcing the end of Marxism-Leninism and the acceptance of a multiparty system. Under intense pressure from France, he also announced a committee of ministers under Dossou that was to organize an assembly of “all the living forces of the nation, whatever their political sensibilities.” Dossou developed plans for an inclusive deliberative assembly, and on December 27 President Kerekou made a public request for suggestions about how to reconstruct the country. Seven volumes of responses were later presented to the national conference. A preparatory committee under Dossou involving government and opposition members decided the composition and the agenda of the conference, and agreed on basic principles to be met by a new constitution. This body played the role of a roundtable (see part 3.2.2), and contributed much to the success of the conference by ensuring basic understandings among key opponents before the conference met. Though a reluctant reformer, the president supported the process throughout.
Membership of the national conference numbered approximately 488. About 10 percent of the seats were reserved for government supporters, and fifty-two “political tendencies” were represented. They included unionists, civil servants, students, religious groups, agricultural producers, and Beninese living abroad. Representatives of international missions and of international financial institutions attended. The vast majority of members were drawn fromthe political class and the educated elite, contrary to the statement that the conference represented all “living forces of the nation.” The conference sat for only ten days (February 19 through February 28, 1990), but due to the prior agreements reached in Dossou’s committee, it was able to achieve a great deal. Its proceedings were broadcast live on television and radio, and it attracted a great deal of international media attention. It deliberated on the seven volumes of views from the public. It decided on the main issues to include in a new constitution. One of its first acts was to declare itself sovereign. It then put in place a transitional constitution, dissolved the existing national legislature and executive, appointed the members of both the transitional legislature (le Haut Conseil de la Republique, or High Council of the Republic) and the transitional executive, adopted plans for multiparty elections, and designated the High Council responsible for developing the final draft constitution. The president accepted the declaration of sovereignty in exchange for a pardon for any crimes he might have committed. The decision on the pardon helped keep the focus of the conference on finding ways forward rather than considering what punishments were needed for past wrongs.
Much of the work of the conference was done in committees, the most significant being the Commission of Constitutional Affairs, which prepared a preliminary draft text for the constitution that was submitted to the High Council, where the main drafting work was done in a constitutional drafting committee. By prior agreement, the latter body included five members of the Commission of Constitutional Affairs as well as ten members appointed by the High Council. After several months’ work, the draft constitution was finalized late in 1990 and adopted by the High Council, with two main issues remaining controversial. One concerned the strength of the executive, with most in the High Council favoring a strong president and a minority wanting a semipresidential system (a position favored by the former president). The other was age limits for the president, with the High Council supporting an age requirement of 40 to 70 years, a limit that would have excluded some likely presidential candidates. The referendum for final adoption of the constitution was used to resolve these issues. Voters were offered the draft constitution incorporating both the strong executive and the age limits, and given three ballot papers to choose from:
- A white ballot paper, signifying a “Yes” vote for the whole constitution;
- A green ballot paper, also signifying a “Yes” vote, but without a presidential age limit;
- A red ballot paper, signifying a “No” vote, which was understood as supporting the semipresidential executive system.
The referendum, held on December 2, 1991, resulted in overwhelming support for the draft constitution, inclusive of age limits for the position of president, as reflected in the following votes:
- white, 73.3 percent;
- green, 19.9 percent;
- red, 6.8 percent.
The constitution was therefore approved, and parliamentary elections were held under it in February 1992. The two rounds of presidential elections required to deliver the absolute majority vote for the winning candidate required by the new constitution were held in March 1992.