By Virgile Ahissou

Porto Novo - Thousands lined the streets into Benin's capital on Thursday, celebrating a peaceful and democratic transfer of power as Yayi Boni was sworn in as president.

Many in the crowd estimated at 20 000 wore green or cowrie shells - Boni's campaign colour and symbol - or outfits emblazoned with his portrait as they gathered outside the parliament building in the capital, Porto Novo.

Inside parliament, Boni, a 58-year-old economist, swore "before God, the spirits of the ancestors, the nation and the people of Benin" to respect the constitution and carry out his duties loyally during his five-year term.

Seven African heads of state, including Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo and current African Union chairperson Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo, attended the ceremony, presided over by Conceptia Ouinsou, the chief of Benin's Supreme Court.

The inauguration marked a new period in Benin's politics, one without two major figures.

Mathieu Kerekou, 73, who had ruled this impoverished country for nearly two decades, was barred from running in the March election because the constitution excludes candidates older than 70.

Kerekou's longtime rival Nicephore Soglo, 72, also was excluded.

Kerekou first took power in a 1972 coup, then ruled - except for one term - in the early 1990s, when he lost to Soglo.

"It's a celebration because there's been a change in leadership," said Boniface Houssou, an artist who joined the crowd at parliament on Thursday. "I am very happy."

Rene Valery Mongbe, a member of parliament, said he was "very proud to belong to a people who have given such a beautiful lesson in democracy to the entire world".

The United Nations ranks Benin near the bottom of its quality-of-life index - 161st out of 177 nations. Only 40 percent of Benin's adults are literate and only about half of school-aged children are in school. - Sapa-AP