Known as "Django" to close family and friends, Mathieu Kérékou was born on 2 September 1933 in Koufra, Natitingou, in the Atakora province of northern Benin. His father was a soldier from the Bariba ethnic group; he was prepared for a military career in a country where military service was seen as a way to increase opportunities for a better life. Kérékou attended primary and secondary schools for children of soldiers at Kati in Mali and St. Louis in Senegal and then went to officers school at Frejus, France. Kérékou served with the French army until 1961, after which he joined the national army upon Dahomey's independence.
Kérékou began his political career as a military aid to President Hubert Maga (1961–63). Initially, he did not take an active role in the political administration of the government, preferring to manage military affairs. In 1980, he converted to Islam and took the name Ahmed. Unofficial sources allege that he subsequently converted to Christianity and became a born-again Christian. Kérékou maintains residences in Cotonou and northern Benin.