issue 176 - October 1987
Before the scramble for Africa late last century, the land that is now called Benin had seen some of the most brilliant civilizations in Africa. But since then this thin slice of West Africa has led a less dazzling existence. Economically absurd colonial divisions led to constant political unrest. There were 26 colonial governors in 50 years, and since independence there have been four republics and ten presidents.
The latest of these, President Kerekou, was installed in the early 1970s. He announced in 1972 that Dahomey (as Benin was then known) would adopt Marxist-Leninist ideology.
Major companies were nationalized in 1974 and the following year Kerekou established a sole political party.
But the economy stagnated under Kerekou's version of centralized state control, with the industrial sector going into severe recession. Ten years after the nationalizations, Benin began looking Westwards for help.
At the end of 1985, American naval vessels paid a courtesy visit to the port of Cotonou. Three months later, a government delegation visited the United States seeking American trade and investment.
When the Americans bombed Tripoli in 1986 Beninois came out on the streets of Cotonou and Porto Novo, the capital, in support of Libya But the Minister who addressed the crowds was careful to point out that Benin had no quarrel with US businessmen; it needed the support of 'the positive aspects of US capitalism.'
Later that year, the President made a fundraising tour of European capitals, the longest trip he had ever made there.
And in a significant gesture to potential donors, General Kerekou retired from the armed forces in January 1987, at a stroke becoming much more acceptable as a civilian head of state.
At the moment the Government is looking hard at the remaining state-owned bodies, with a little help from a special section of the World Bank set up to advise on public sector reform and privatization. An agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) now seems likely, followed by the inevitable adjustment package of cut-backs in public spending.
Socialism is just a word used in speeches. The inevitable social unrest began with student riots in 1985. Amnesty has reported increasing detentions without charge or trial.
But the economic crisis continues. In a classic piece of racist scape goating, the President made a vitriolic speech in March 1987 blaming the Asian community for the economy's slow progress. The long-term hope on which Kerekou appears to be pinning his future is the Seine offshore oilfield. If all goes well, the petrodollars should start arriving in just a few years.
Leader: President Matthieu Kerekou
Economy: GNP per capita $260 (US $14,110)
People: 4 million
Health: Infant mortality: 115 per 1,000 live births Percentage of population with access to clean water 21%
Culture: Ethnic groups: Adia and Four in the south, Beriba in the north.
Sources: World Bank Report, The State of the World's Children, Economist Intelligence Unit, Africa Review
Official Marxist - Leninist ideology, but since 1984 in search for capitalist investment.