ADD BENIN, formerly Dahomey, a sliver of what once was French West Africa, to the very short list of African countries struggling to build a working democracy. That its passage is little known is due not simply to Benin's modest place in the American scheme of things but to the fact that the change was launched by an unusual political transformation rather than by an upheaval that left a lot of bodies lying around.

For most of two decades Benin had been run by an army officer, Mathieu Kerekou. He embraced a version of Marxism-Leninism (mocked as "Marxism-Beninism"), called in the Soviets (who wanted landing rights for planes supporting their Angola adventure) and assorted Libyan, North Korean and Romanian thugs, set up a crude and corrupt one-party state and ran the economy into the ground. The whole place collapsed last January into protest strikes and demonstrations for reform. It helped that meanwhile the Soviets had found perestroika and were winding down somewhat in Angola. East Europe's example of self-liberation also counted. Benin's aid donors, led by the World Bank, provided a useful nudge.

Mr. Kerekou, who is still president, had the saving grace to summon a broad-based national conference. It got started on establishing a democratic system, freeing up a heavily state-controlled economy and, not least, chasing the stolen money. The conference elected as interim prime minister an accomplished technocrat, a French-trained former World Bank executive director named Nicephore Soglo, who was given full powers to put into effect a structural adjustment program worked out with the World Bank; he has been in Washington doing the rounds. A referendum on a new constitution is due in August and elections next March.

Misrule and a Soviet connection produced a Marxist-Leninist nightmare for Benin. France, the former colonial power, wearily let it happen. Benin's fellow Africans had their own cares. Changes in the international atmosphere and the availability of a few able patriots on the scene have now given Benin a second chance. It's still a dauntingly long way from becoming an African success story, but it deserves help in trying.