Adrien Houngbédji was born in Aplahoué (Benin) in 1942. He earned a Doctorate in Law from the University of Paris in 1967 and graduated the same year from the French National School of Magistrate, first in his class. In August 1968 he joined the bar in Cotonou where he ran a prominent law office. After agreeing to represent an opponent of the regime of Mathieu Kérékou, he was arrested in February 1975. On March 5 1975, Houngbédji escaped from prison and fled into exile; shortly afterward he was sentenced to death. He went to Paris, then to Dakar, Senegal, where he taught law, before going to Libreville, Gabon, where he again practiced law.
In Gabon he was close to President Omar Bongo, and Bongo encouraged Houngbédji to return to Benin in December 1989 after an amnesty was issued by the Kérékou regime, providing him with a plane and sending a Gabonese Minister of State to accompany him. Houngbédji participated in the February 1990 National Conference that led the country towards a multi-party democracy. He was favored by Kérékou to become prime minister at the National Conference, but Nicéphore Soglo found more favor with the delegates, and Houngbédji withdrew from the contest prior to the vote, in which Soglo was elected. Although considered by many to have been an ally of the Kérékou regime at the time of the National Conference, Houngbédji has written that he was actually an "enlightened adversary" of the regime. In March 1990 he founded the Democratic Renewal Party, and in early 1991 he was elected to the National Assembly of Benin. He ran in the March 1991 presidential election, taking fifth place with 4.54% of the vote. He was elected President of the National Assembly in 1991, serving until 1995.
In the March 1995 parliamentary election, the PRD, along with other parties opposed to President Nicéphore Soglo, won a majority of seats in the National Assembly, and Houngbédji was re-elected to the Assembly. He took third place, with 19.71% of the vote, in the first round of the March 1996 presidential election, and he supported Kérékou in the second round of the election. Houngbédji was then appointed Prime Minister (a position which was recreated on this occasion) by Kérékou in April 1996, serving in that position for two years. On May 8 1998, Houngbédji resigned, along with the three other PRD ministers in the government; the position of prime minister was eliminated in the next government, named on May 14. After this, Houngbédji and the PRD were part of the opposition in the March 1999 parliamentary election, and the opposition succeeded in winning a majority of seats; Houngbédji was re-elected to the National Assembly and was elected President of the National Assembly for a second time on April 29, defeating Kérékou's favored candidate Bruno Amoussou with 45 votes against Amoussou's 38 votes. He remained in the post until 2003. He was also elected co-president of the Africa Caribbean Pacific - European Union (ACP-EU) Joint Parliamentary Assembly in 2001.
In the March 2001 presidential election, he took third place and 12.62% of the vote; along with former President Soglo, who finished second, he refused to participate in a second round because of alleged fraud. Fourth-place candidate Bruno Amoussou therefore faced Kérékou in the second round, and Amoussou lost by a large margin.
On February 13 2003, Houngbédji was elected as mayor of Benin's administrative capital, Porto Novo, by the city's council; he took office on the same day. He resigned as Mayor of Porto Novo in June 2003, however. Houngbédji was re-elected to the National Assembly in the March 2003 parliamentary election, and in April 2003 he left the opposition to join the presidential majority.
Houngbédji ran for president again in the March 2006 presidential election, and on this occasion an article in the constitution excluding Kérékou and Soglo from the race made Houngbédji a favorite. In the first round, held on March 5, he came in second, with about 24% of the vote according to official results, behind Yayi Boni with about 35%; therefore a run-off between Houngbédji and Boni was held on March 19. Houngbédji lost this round, with Yayi Boni receiving almost 75% of the vote.
Houngbédji was re-elected to the National Assembly in the March 2007 parliamentary election.
A member of the "Académie des Sciences d’Outre Mer", Houngbédji wrote a book in October, 2005 presenting his political vision of Benin and Africa titled "Il n’y a de richesse que d’hommes" (publisher: éditions l'Archipel).