Benin, one of the first African nations to ditch a Marxist dictatorship in favor of democracy, this spring demonstrated its commitment to the new process of peaceful change by voting out the architect of reform and voting back in the man who took it down the Marxist road in the first place.
Returning to the helm of this small West African nation on the Gulf of Guinea was Mathieu Kerekou, a French-trained army major who staged a coup in 1972, ruled for 17 years as a military dictator, then orchestrated the country's democratic transformation.
Voted out in March was Nicephore Soglo, a former World Bank economist and strong supporter of virtually everything Americans usually have in mind when they tout democracy to developing nations as the wave of the future: free elections, respect for human rights, market reforms, privatization, reduced government spending and the lifting of price controls to permit economic competition.
Both men agreed publicly that, whatever else the election results meant, there would be no return to the past.
Mr. Soglo, in Washington last week to attend a meeting of the Overseas Development Council and to renew old contacts, said things are different from when Mr. Kerekou took over the first time.
"Twenty-four years ago he came to power by the barrel of a gun. This year it was by way of the ballot box," he said in an interview with The Washington Times.
Mr. Soglo expressed optimism that there will be no exit ramps on the reform road.
Mr. Kerekou expressed similar thoughts in an interview with Agence France-Presse shortly after his victory: "I repeat my desire to be president of all the people of Benin, to work throughout my mandate for national reconciliation and to establish a climate of tolerance in our nation."
U.S. officials tend to take Mr. Kerekou at his word.
"We don't think he will reverse course. We are prepared to work with him," a U.S. official said.
One of the things the United States will pursue, in line with President Clinton's commitment to an open global marketplace, is a greater role for American firms in Benin.
France has maintained an economic armlock on Benin, as it has in all its former African colonies. This was the fruit of President Charles de Gaulle's 1958 "contract with Africa," an offer to France's sub-Saharan colonies of political independence in exchange for a continued close economic association with France.
That offer was accepted by all except Guinea, which then was given independence while France took virtually everything in the country that was not tied down.
In return for the acceptance by the rest of Francophone Africa of France's economic and cultural primacy, Paris has paid a heavy price. It has provided troops for standby defense of its African friends from their internal enemies as well as financial and trade support for development.
For years France propped up the CFA franc, in use throughout its former colonies, …