President Mathieu Kerekou of Benin who has dominated the politics of this small West African country for over 30 years, has pledged to step down next year at the end of his current five-year term.
Speaking to a group of 200 primary and secondary school teachers at the presidential palace on Monday, the 72-year-old head of state said he would not be a candidate in presidential elections due in March 2006.
"If you don't leave power, power will leave you," he said.
Kerekou ruled out changing the constitution so that he could stay in power for longer. He recalled that public pressure had forced him to step down in 1990 after he had ruled Benin for 18 years as a military head of state.
"If you show your wish to remain in power or try to insist on staying there and the people don't want you, you are heading for the sort of trouble which Benin managed to avoid in 1990," Kerekou said.
Kerekou began life as an army officer and rose to the rank of major. He seized power in a military coup in 1972 and promptly declared Benin to be a Marxist-Leninist one-party state.
However, as the winds of change spread through Africa following the collapse of the Soviet Union, he bowed to mounting opposition pressure and stepped down as president 18 years later.
Kerekou tried to regain power in free elections in 1991, but he lost to Nicephore Soglo, a former World Bank official, who ruled this former French colony for the next five years.
But abandoning socialism and presenting himself as a born-again Christian, Kerekou made a political comeback, narrowly beating Soglo in the 1996 presidential election.
He won a second term in 2001, but the constitution bans him from remaining in power for more than two elected terms in a row.
It also excludes Kerekou from remaining in power on the grounds of age, since no presidential candidate can be over 70.
Several other African presidents have changed their country's constitution to allow them to stay in power indefinitely.
President Idriss Deby of Chad has just introduced such a constitutional amendment that abolishes a two-term limit and clears the way for him to contest presidential elections next year. And President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda is in the process of pushing through similar changes.
In recent months there had been speculation that Kerekou was planning a similar initiative.
But political upheavals in neighbouring Togo following the death in office of President Gnassingbe Eyadema may have convinced him to quit while the going was good.
Over 38,000 refugees have fled Togo since the election of Eyadema's son, Faure Gnassingbe, to succeed him in April. More than 23,000 of these refugees have ended up in Benin.
Kerekou told his audience on Monday; "Benin is a pioneer of democracy in Africa and will remain so right the way down the line. I am not going to spoil what I have helped to create."
Hilaire Hunkonnou, one of the teachers present, told IRIN afterwards: "I congratulate the president for this wise decision. We are really happy. This shows that President Kerekou is a real democrat…He doesn't want to be like other African heads of state. He doesn't want war in Benin. He is a president worthy of honour."
Kerekou's decision to step down and leave Benin's 1990 constitution intact throws next year's presidential race wide open.
Soglo will be unable to seek a second term since he, like Kerekou, is now past the age limit of 70, and Kerekou has not been grooming any particular favourite to succeed him.
No leading politicians have so far declared publicly that they are planning to run for president, but political analysts believe that several are discreetly preparing the ground to stand in the March 2006 election.
They include Adrien Houngbedji, a lawyer and former speaker of parliament under both Soglo and Kerekou, who leads the Party of Democratic Renewal (PRD), Bruno Amoussou, the leader of the Social Democrat Party (PSD), who was minister of planning until a cabinet reshuffle in March, and Yayi Boni, the chairman of the Lome-based West African Development Bank.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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