Benin, republic in western Africa, formerly known as Dahomey. It has a coastline of 121-km (75-mi) on the Gulf of Guinea, an arm of the Atlantic Ocean. This wedge-shaped land extends inland, to the north, about 670 km (about 415 mi), making it one of the smaller African countries.
Benin has a tropical climate. Its economy is based primarily on agriculture, and many of the country’s farmers work at a subsistence level. Although Benin experienced considerable economic growth during the 1990s, it remains one of the poorest countries in Africa.
Many different ethnic groups live in Benin. The Fon, along with the closely related Adja, are by far the largest. French is the official language of the country, but Fon and other African languages are widely spoken.
Benin was a colony within French West Africa from 1899 until it gained independence in 1960 as Dahomey. Dahomey was the name of one of the great African kingdoms of the 1700s and 1800s. It was based in Benin.
A series of military leaders brought many changes of government between 1960 and 1972, when a Marxist regime took charge. The country was renamed The People’s Republic of Benin in 1975. Economic difficulties in the late 1980s led Benin to seek closer ties with the West, and in 1989 the government renounced Marxist ideology. A new constitution and democratic reforms were introduced in 1990. Today, the Republic of Benin is a democracy with a president elected by the people.
|II||LAND AND RESOURCES|
Benin can be roughly divided into four geographic zones, from south to north. The coastal strip in the south is a flat sandbank with no natural harbors. Immediately north of the beach is a network of shallow lagoons and swamps. Farther north, the second region is a fertile lowland called the barre country. Valleys run north to south along the region’s rivers, and most of the land is intensively cultivated. The third region is a rocky plateau in northern Benin. Most of the plateau is sparsely covered with grass and shrubs, and the soil is generally infertile. The rugged Atakora Mountains rise in the northwest.
Benin is bordered on the north by Burkina Faso and Niger, on the east by Nigeria, and on the west by Togo. It borders the Gulf of Guinea on the south.
|A||Rivers and Lakes|
The Ouémé and Kouffo rivers drain most of southern Benin, and the Mono River, which forms part of Benin’s western border with Togo, drains the southwest. The main rivers of northern Benin are the Niger, which forms part of the boundary with the republic of Niger, and its tributaries, the Sota, Mékrou, and Alibori rivers.
Benin's climate is hot and generally humid. It ranges from equatorial in the south to an increasingly arid tropical wet-and-dry climate in the north. The south receives about 1,300 mm (about 51 in) of rainfall a year, mostly from March to July and in October and November. The average monthly temperature in southern Benin ranges from 20° to 34°C (68° to 93°F). During much of the year, sea breezes temper the climate. In the north temperature variations become more marked, and humidity decreases. On average, about 890 mm (about 35 in) of rain falls yearly in northern Benin, mainly from May to September. A dry, dust-laden wind called a harmattan blows from the Sahara into northern Benin from December to March.
|C||Plants and Animals|
A dense tropical rain forest once covered much of the land close behind Benin’s coastal strip. The rain forest has largely been cleared, except near rivers, and palms now are the main trees of the region. Woodlands form a large part of central Benin, and grasslands predominate in the drier north. Among the various animals found in Benin are elephants, buffalo, antelope, panthers, monkeys, crocodiles, and wild ducks.
The Parc National de la Pendjari is a game reserve near Natitingou in northern Benin. Farther north, along the Niger River is another game reserve, the Parc National du W du Niger, which Benin shares with neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso. Visitors to these reserves can view elephants, lions, antelopes, hippos, and monkeys.
Small deposits of petroleum are found offshore near Cotonou. Other mineral resources of Benin include iron ore, phosphates, chromium, rutile, clay, marble, and limestone. The country has not yet fully exploited its mineral resources.
Deforestation rates in Benin are higher than the average for Africa, and only 20.9 percent (2005) of Benin’s land area remains forested. About 23 percent (2007) of the country is protected in national parks, but poaching continues to threaten wildlife populations. Droughts have severely affected marginal agriculture in the north.
Benin’s population (2008 estimate) is 8,294,941, and is growing at a rate of 2.6 percent per year. The main cities are Cotonou, the commercial center; Porto-Novo, the capital; and Parakou, a trade center. Two-thirds of Benin’s people live in the southern part of the country. More than half the country’s inhabitants live in rural areas.
A number of stilt villages have been built on lagoons in the south. The land is flooded in rainy season, and the houses rest on wooden poles, which keeps them above the water line. The people in these villages live by fishing .
People from 42 different ethnic groups are represented in Benin. The Fon, or Dahomeans, and the closely related Adja, together account for about three-fifths of the population. They are the main ethnic groups in southern Benin. The Bariba and Somba together make up about one-sixth of the population and are found primarily in the north. The Yoruba constitute one-tenth of the population and predominate in the southeast, near the border with Nigeria.
|A||Language and Religion|
French is the official language of Benin, but most people speak an African language. Each of the country’s ethnic groups has its own language. Fon is the most widely spoken language.
About 52 percent of the population professes traditional religious beliefs, chiefly Vodun, a belief in spirits. Arab merchants introduced Islam to the region, and today it is the religion of some 20 percent of the people, most of whom live in the north. Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism, is the religion of about 25 percent, the great majority of whom live in the south. European missionaries brought Christianity to Benin.
Legislation adopted in 1978 made education compulsory in Benin from age 6 to 12. As a result about 109 percent of eligible children were enrolled in primary school by the year 2000, and the literacy rate had increased to 43 percent in 2005. However, only 28 percent of those eligible were enrolled in secondary schools. The country’s two institutions of higher learning are the National University of Benin (founded in 1970) in Cotonou and the University of Parakou (2001).
|C||Cultural Institutions and Communications|
The National Library of Benin is located in Porto-Novo, and the National Museum is in Cotonou. A vodou museum, the Musée d'Histoire de Ouidah, is located in the town of Ouidah, near the coast. Abomey, north of Porto Novo, was the capital of the kingdom of Dahomey until the French defeat of the kingdom in 1892. The kings built palaces there of mud brick and decorated them with brightly painted low reliefs. Today, the royal palace complex serves as a museum with relics from the kings. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The state-owned radio and television service operates from Cotonou. In 2003 the government opened the way for private, commercial radio and television stations. Benin has a number of daily newspapers, most of them based in Cotonou.
In 2006 Benin had a gross domestic product (GDP) of $4.8 billion, or $545.10 a person. GDP is a measure of the total value of goods and services produced in the country. By this measure Benin is one of the poorest countries in Africa.
Benin’s economy is dependent upon agriculture and remains underdeveloped. Many private enterprises were nationalized in the 1970s, but worsening economic conditions forced the government to sell most of them in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The economy picked up in the 1990s as economic reforms were instituted, but the improvements mainly benefited the southern part of Benin and increased the economic disparity between the south and the north. Benin is a member of the Economic Community of West African States, an organization designed to promote economic cooperation and development.
In Benin 64 percent of the workforce is engaged in agriculture, forestry, or fishing. The largest share are subsistence farmers. The principal food crops are beans, cassava, corn, millet, sorghum, and yams. Cash crops, produced mainly in the south, include cotton, palm kernels, peanuts, and sugarcane. The herding of cattle, sheep, and goats predominates in the grasslands of the north.
|B||Forestry and Fishing|
Commercial forestry and fishing are largely undeveloped in Benin. Almost all of the wood cut in the country is used for fuel. Similarly, most of the fish caught in inland rivers and in lagoons is eaten locally. Small amounts of shrimp are landed on a commercial basis.
|C||Mining and Manufacturing|
Mining plays a minor role in Benin’s economy. The production of petroleum stopped in the late 1990s, but companies from other countries had begun oil exploration in Benin in the early 2000s. Some limestone is also produced for use in cement manufacturing, and gold is exploited and used by artisans. Most other mineral resources are undeveloped.
Manufacturing is generally small in scale. The chief manufacturing activities involve the processing of primary products, such as cotton and oil palms. Industry includes palm oil processing operations, textile mills, a cement plant, and a sugar-refining complex.
Small thermal electric power plants provide energy along the coast, but most of Benin’s electricity is supplied by Ghana’s Akosombo Dam. Benin produced 69 million kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2003.
Benin has 19,000 km (11,806 mi) of roads; the principal arteries run parallel to the coast in the south and from Cotonou to Parakou. The coastal road links Benin and its capital with Lagos, Nigeria, to the east, and Lome, Togo, to the west. The main line of the country’s approximately 579-km (approximately 360-mi) rail system runs from Cotonou to Parakou, and Benin also has rail connections along the coast to Togo and Nigeria. Cotonou is Benin’s chief seaport and contains the nation’s main international airport.
|F||Currency and Banking|
Benin is a member of the West African Monetary Union, headquartered in Dakar, Senegal, and the country’s monetary unit is the CFA franc, which is subdivided into 100 centimes. An exchange rate of 1 French franc equal to 50 CFA francs remained in force from 1948 until 1994, when the CFA franc was devalued by 50 percent. The principal banks of Benin are in Cotonou.
Benin’s annual imports generally cost much more than its exports earn. In 2002 the country’s imports were valued at $727 million and its exports at only $304 million. Benin’s main exports are cotton and palm products; its chief imports are textiles, clothing, and machinery. Benin’s principal trading partners for exports are Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Thailand; chief partners for imports are France, Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, China, and the United States.
From 1977 through 1989, Benin was governed by an elected legislature, the National Revolutionary Assembly. This unicameral (single-chamber) body elected a president, who ruled as head of the National Executive Council. The People’s Revolutionary Party of Benin, a Marxist-Leninist group, was the sole political party. The government abandoned Marxism-Leninism as the official ideology in 1989.
A new constitution approved by popular referendum in 1990 provided for a democratic, multiparty system with an elected National Assembly and a popularly elected president. The 83 members of the unicameral National Assembly serve four-year terms, and the president, who is both head of state and government, serves a five-year term. Since the introduction of multiparty politics in 1990, dozens of political parties have formed. Benin is divided into six provinces (Atacora, Atlantique, Borgou, Mono, Ouémé, Zou) for administrative purposes.
Some time before 1600 it is thought that the Adja people migrated from the town of Tado on the Mono River (in Togo). They settled about 32 km (20 mi) from the coast and founded the village of Allada, where they mixed with the Fon and founded a kingdom. Allada became the capital of the kingdom, which reached the height of its power in the 16th and 17th centuries.
|A||The Kingdom of Dahomey|
In the early 17th century a dispute over the succession to the throne led two rival princes to leave Allada with bands of followers and found their own kingdoms. One kingdom became known as Porto-Novo, because of a trading post established there by the Portuguese. The other prince moved inland and at Abomey founded the kingdom of Dahomey. This kingdom dominated the area until the 19th century.
By the late 17th century the Fon people were raiding and conquering small tribes to their north to have slaves to exchange for manufactures from Europe. The slaves were exported at coastal ports to plantations in the Americas. In the late 1720s Agaja, king of Dahomey, conquered the four southern kingdoms. His conquests brought him into conflict with the Yoruba people to the east, from which the defeated rulers sought assistance. After the Yoruba captured Abomey in 1738, Dahomey maintained its independence only by agreeing to pay an annual tribute. Dahomey then turned to expansion northward.
The abolition of the slave trade in the 1830s and after dealt a blow to Dahomey’s prosperity, but King Glélé, with the aid of European traders, found a remunerative substitute in the oil palm. A French firm started the oil palm industry in Dahomey, and the king signed a treaty of friendship and trade with France in 1851.
Rivalry between France and Britain on the African coast was heightened in 1861, after British forces won the town of Lagos (now in Nigeria) from Dahomey. France had already established a trading post at Grand-Popo in 1857. By two treaties signed in 1868 and 1878, the Cotonou area, lying between Ouidah and Porto-Novo, was ceded to France. Glélé’s successor, Béhanzin, tried to regain the land, which was essential to continued participation in the slave trade, but was routed by the French in 1892. The Dahomey kingdom was then declared a French protectorate. After a brief period in which he led guerrilla bands against the French, Béhanzin was captured in January 1894 and exiled to Martinique.
In 1899 Dahomey was incorporated into French West Africa, with its exact boundaries defined through accords with Britain and Germany, colonizers of the neighboring areas to the east and west, respectively. At the end of World War I (1914-1918), the eastern part of the German colony of Togo was put under French mandate. Dahomey, as part of French West Africa, adhered to the cause of the Free French during World War II (1939-1945), and in 1946 it became one of the French overseas territories; from 1958 to 1960 it was an autonomous republic of the French Community. Independence was proclaimed on August 1, 1960, and the following month Dahomey was admitted to the United Nations (UN).
The country’s political history since independence has been checkered. The first president, Hubert Maga, was ousted in 1963 by the army commander, and a series of four coups followed in the next six years. In 1970 a three-member presidential commission took power and suspended the constitution. The members, including former president Maga, were to serve as president successively. Maga held office first, succeeded in 1972 by Justin Ahomadegbe.
Later in 1972 army major Mathieu Kérékou led a military coup, ending the commission form of government. He established a military government with himself as president. In 1974 Kérékou proclaimed his commitment to introducing revolutionary socialism and establishing what he called a Marxist-Leninist state. Many banks, industries, and other enterprises were soon nationalized. Ties with Communist countries, notably China, were greatly expanded. In November 1975 the country’s name was changed from Dahomey to Benin. A new constitution, making the People’s Revolutionary Party of Benin the sole political party, was promulgated in 1977. Three former presidents, detained since the coup of 1972, were released in 1981.
Elected president by the National Revolutionary Assembly in 1980 and reelected in 1984, Kérékou survived a military coup attempt four years later. Faced with economic problems and internal dissent, he abandoned Marxism-Leninism as the official ideology in late 1989. A new constitution, adopted in 1990, paved the way for the establishment of a multiparty democracy in Benin. The next year, in the country’s first free elections in 30 years, Kérékou was defeated by Prime Minister Nicéphore Soglo. Soglo attacked Benin’s struggling economy by instituting austerity measures and promoting free-market economics. Relations with Western countries also improved. While the nation’s economy improved slowly, Soglo’s personal popularity sagged. In March 1996 elections Soglo was defeated by Kérékou.
Kérékou, who renounced his autocratic, Marxist-Leninist past, further liberalized Benin’s economy and secured economic assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a specialized agency of the United Nations (UN). He was reelected in March 2001. Legislative elections in 2003 gave Kérékou a clear majority in the National Assembly.