It was 1989, shortly after the Berlin Wall fell and the Communist Empire imploded.
A 1987 economic adjustment plan set up by the International Monetary Fund imposed drastic measures of economic restructuration on the then-Marxist government of president Matthieu Kerekou (who rose to power after a 1972 coup), as Soviet support was weakening. A second plan followed in 1989, prompting hire freezes, forced early retirement and 10% taxation on state workers’ salaries. The result: massive student strikes and a popular uprising not unlike what has been taking place in Tunisia and Egypt. The death of two young students from bullets shot by the army had quite a galvanizing effect on a small scale revolution which was until then, a mostly student movement. Within weeks, the demonstrations turned into a generalized uprising involving all strata of Beninese society. Facebook and Twitter had yet to be invented, as had the Internet, so news of a revolution in some insignificant West African country with a history of coups d’état as catalysts of political change were lost in the whirlwind caused by the fall of the Soviet Union. It remains that what happened then, if gone unnoticed when it occurred, is now considered a model to be duplicated in African countries seeking to engage in democratization.
Social and political unrest, lack of support from the Soviets and former colonizing power, France, forced president Kerekou to renounce the authoritarian Marxist ideology in favor of democracy. Intellectuals, political opponents, student representatives and members of the business class suggested holding a Conference Nationale, a national conference that would include all productive representatives of Beninese society. This was how teachers, farmers, business men and women, students, members of the clergy, domestic workers, all speaking different dialects were invited to attend a month long of negotiations that began on February 19, 1990. Every gathering, presided over by a cardinal, a university professor, a lawyer with knowledge of constitutional law and other prominent members of the political class (many returning from exile), was broadcasted on national radio and the country literally stood at a stand-still while new, solid foundations were being laid for its future. Kerekou remained president during the conference, careful not to create a vacuum of power in critical times. The conference -very reminiscent of the American pre-declaration of independence continental congress of 1775- was a complete democratic success and led to the drafting and the adoption of a new Constitution. A transitional government was instituted in 1990 with a newcomer, Nicephore Soglo as Prime Minister and was tasked with peacefully leading the country toward a multiparty system, democracy and the first real presidential elections since 1960. If the successful presidential and parliamentary elections of the following years (1991-1995-1996-1999-2001-2006 and 2011) are any indication, the process that took place in Benin could very well be a blueprints for democracy in countries with similar historical, socio-economic, political and cultural backgrounds.
Tunisia began its revolution a month ago; Egypt began her own shortly after. Twenty days of popular protests in Cairo culminated in Hosni Mubarak’s resignation but the question is who will lead the country toward democracy, and how can this be done peacefully? With the army now in power, Iran, Israel and the rest of the Arab world on the lookout, ownership of the state-managed Suez Canal now undetermined, Egyptians have challenges ahead of them. Once they learn to look past now famous Tahrir Square and the euphoria dims, the reality of paving the way from a repressive past to a democratic future will slowly emerge. This means beating the odds of repression returning under the disguise of religious fundamentalism. Transition should include a power-sharing agreement as inclusive of all actors of the socio-political scene as possible and this cannot be done, as it has in the past, with intrusion from countries with economic or strategic interests in the region. It is a time-consuming and necessary process but will Egyptians allow the West to become the architect of their new political institutions or will they emulate the example of one of their own?
It’s too soon to tell.
But revolutions have a propensity to spread and have a ripple effect on regions, especially when they reached the desired outcome in as little as one instance. Signs of unrest are already prevalent in other countries across the continent. So who will be next? Libya? Algeria? Burkina Faso? Chad? Not sure. The only certainty at this point is that Mubarak’s forced resignation re-establishes an International Law precedent; article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recognizes that all peoples have the right of self-determination. It also acknowledges their right to freely determine their political status with the support of an international community that is more involved than it was during the pre-social media era. So this is it. Tunisia launched an irreversible process that makes the status quo, the current state of affairs in several countries no longer acceptable.