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Benin's long-ruling former president Kerekou dies at 82

Kerekou has ruled the West African country, on and off, for a total of 28 years.

Picture: Facebook.

COTONOU - Benin's long-ruling former president Mathieu Kerekou has died at the age of 82, leading to a week of national mourning for the Marxist who seized power in a coup but later set off a new wave of African democracy.

The death of Kerekou, who ruled the country on and off for a total of 28 years, comes as the leaders of several African countries such as Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo face accusations of seeking to retain power beyond constitutional limits.

President Thomas Boni Yayi announced Kerekou's death on Wednesday, calling him a "great man".

"In the government's name, I declare a week-long state of national mourning with all flags in the land flying at half-mast," Boni Yayi said in a statement on Thursday.

Considered by many to be the father of modern Benin, Kerekou was born in 1933 and received military training in Mali and Senegal before joining former colonial master France's army and rising through the ranks to major.

He seized power in the tiny West African country in 1972 and converted to a Marxist ideology two years later. He later renounced Marxism and came to accept multiparty democracy, organising a broad-based national dialogue in 1990 and stepping aside when he lost a vote the following year.

Kerekou made a political comeback five years later and was eventually re-elected in 2001. Faced with term limits and an age restraint, he ceded power to Boni Yayi in 2006.

In the streets of the capital Cotonou, the mood was sad in some quarters but celebratory in others.

"He is someone who murdered freedom in Benin," said Paul Esse Iko, secretary-general of the country's union confederation.

Elsewhere, radio stations played revolutionary songs from the 1970s and 1980s in tribute. "Are you ready for the revolution?," asked one song in the local Fon language. "We're ready," a chorus replied.

Yayi Boni is due to step down next year when his second term comes to an end.

One of the biggest issues in the campaign to succeed him will be reducing poverty and ensuring a fair distribution of the benefits of the cotton producer's growth, which the IMF has forecast at 5.5 percent this year and in 2016.