Kérékou is considered a charismatic and pragmatic leader. Most Beninese regard him as "The Chameleon" who repeatedly changed policies in order to ensure political survival. The nickname originated from his motto: "the branch will not break in the arms of the chameleon." Kérékou's leadership abilities were developed during his tenure as a military officer where he rose from the rank of lieutenant to brigadier general. In 1972, before staging his coup, Kérékou distinguished himself by successfully ending an army mutiny and winning strong support within the upper echelons of the army. He was then credited for rehabilitating a fragmented and demoralized military and became its undisputed leader.
During his first 17 years as president, Kérékou survived many attempted coups including one in January 1977 led by "Colonel" Bob Denard and a group of armed Europeans and Africans. His administration was ruthless and dictatorial. One coup plotter, Michel Ailpe, was allegedly shot trying to escape after Kérékou caught him having an affair with his wife.
Having renounced his Leninist tendencies before the 1991 multiparty elections, Kérékou now defines "revolutionary" according to psychological and theological frameworks. While Kérékou's major support base is northern Benin, he must also maintain the consensus of many politicians representing different ethnic and regional interests.