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Democratization without Development: Benin 1989–2009

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In contrast to a widely held view that sees Benin’s democratic transition in 1989 primarily as the fall-out of global tendencies, this paper focuses specifically on the internal causes of this historical event, which it locates in the context of the history of Dahomey/Benin since 1960 and the country’s political economy. It argues that, while the Renouveau Démocratique doubtlessly represented a significant step towards democracy, it did little to change the country’s deep-rooted political-economic structures. Since Dahomey gained independence in 1960, it has been a structurally deficient rent-based economy. None of the regime changes of the past 50 years—independence in 1960, the adoption of Marxist-Leninism in 1974 or the Renouveau Démocratique of 1989/90—have succeeded in changing anything in relation to this fundamental fact. Thus, the crisis of 1989 was primarily a crisis of a particular pattern of political-economic regulation. None of the regime changes of the last 50 years, however, succeeded in resolving the country’s basic development problem, i.e. how to transform a structurally deficient rent-based economy into a productive one. Likewise, throughout the entire period from 1960 to 2009, basic elements of the political culture of the country remained unchanged. Neopatrimonialism, personalization, authoritarianism, regionalism and generationalism became, at best, more subtly differentiated as a result of the democratic renewal. To this extent, the Beninese democratic renewal of 1989/90 highlights the problematic connection between democracy and economic development.

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  1. The name of the country changed from 'Republic of Dahomey' to 'People's Republic of Benin' in 1975 and 'Republic of Benin' in 1991.

  2. This tradition was continued with President Yay Boni, who was elected in 2006 and had previously held the position of President of the West African Development Bank (BOAD). As was the case with his predecessor Soglo, great—and unrealistic—hopes have been pinned on him by the “international community”.

  3. As a participant at a conference on the “Social Dimension of Structural Adaptation” sponsored by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ), I witnessed the big demonstration on 10 December 1989 on Cotonou’s Lenin Square directly. It was very noticeable how quickly the linguistic usage of our Beninese partners at the conference changed over the course of this three-day conference: while they consistently addressed each other on 9 December as “comrade”, by the 11th this term had been replaced by “monsieur”.

  4. For an introduction into the vast literature on the subject, see (Buchanan et al. 1980; Hazem and Luciani 1987). For an initial application to Benin, see (Bierschenk 1993a). Elwert 1990 referred to the centrally-administered rentier state as a “commando state”.

  5. The revenue from the transit economy cannot, however, be fully considered as rent as its realization necessitates business service, i.e. a productive investment (which in the case of Benin is largely carried out in the—in part illegal—informal economy). Arguing for considering development aid a type of rent is not to deny, as (Collier 2005) has argued, that it can, under certain conditions, be relatively more beneficial—or less harmful—for development than oil.

  6. This observation is applicable to all poor African states. The aid regime which gave rise to the rentier state had its origin in the immediate aftermath of the war (Cooper 1997) and therefore pre-dates independence.

  7. For a case study on one of the members of this elite from the north of the country and on the gradual traditionalization of this elite, see Bierschenk 1993b.

  8. This mechanism was examined in detail for the city of Parakou in Bierschenk 2000, 2006.

  9. The figures provided by Ronen 1975: 152 for public sector employees are, however, inconsistent: they are supposed to have been 7,888 employees in 1961 and over 18,000 in 1962.

  10. This theme is particularly well documented for West Africa. See for example Naudet 1999; Lecomte and Naudet 2000.

  11. A similar conclusion is also reached by Kohnert D. (2007) who, however, primarily bases his objections on methodological doubts as to whether the high level of significance of the information economy for economic development can actually be quantified.


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Correspondence to Thomas Bierschenk.

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Bierschenk, T. Democratization without Development: Benin 1989–2009. Int J Polit Cult Soc 22, 337–357 (2009).

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