officially Republic of Benin, French République du Bénin, formerly
(until 1975) Dahomey, or (1975–90) People’s Republic of Benin,
Country, western Africa.
Area: 43,484 sq mi (112,622 sq km). Population (2005 est.):
7,649,000. Capital: Porto-Novo (official), Cotonou (de facto). The Fon
people and related groups constitute two-fifths of the population;
minorities include the Yoruba, Fulani, and Adjara. Languages: French
(official), Fon. Currency: CFA franc. Religions: traditional religions,
Islam, Christianity. Extending about 420 mi (675 km) inland from the
Gulf of Guinea, Benin includes a hilly region in the northwest, where
the maximum elevation is 2,103 ft (641 m). There are plains in the east
and north and a marshy region in the south, where the coastline extends
about 75 mi (120 km). Benin’s longest river, the Ouémé, flows into the
Porto-Novo Lagoon and is navigable for 125 mi (200 km) of its 280-mi
(450-km) length. Benin has a developing mixed economy based largely on
agriculture and operates an offshore oil field. It is a republic with
one legislative house; the head of state and government is the
president, assisted by the prime minister. In southern Benin the Fon
established the Abomey kingdom in the early 17th century. In the 18th
century the kingdom expanded to include Allada and Ouidah, where French
forts had been established in the 17th century. By 1882 the French were
firmly reestablished in the area, and conflict between the French and
Africans ensued. In 1894 Dahomey became a French protectorate; it was
incorporated into the federation of French West Africa in 1904. It
achieved independence in 1960. Dahomey was renamed Benin in 1975. Its
chronically weak economy created problems for the country into the 21st
Official name République du Bénin (Republic of Benin)
Form of government multiparty republic with one legislative house
(National Assembly )
Head of state and government President assisted by Prime Minister1
Official language French
Official religion none
Monetary unit CFA franc (CFAF)
Population estimate (2008) 8,295,000
Total area (sq mi) 43,484
Total area (sq km) 112,622
1Office of Prime Minister vacant from May 1998.
2Porto-Novo, the official capital established under the constitution,
is the seat of the legislature, but the president and most government
ministers reside in Cotonou.
officially Republic of Benin, French République du Bénin, formerly
(until 1975) Dahomey, or (1975–90) People’s Republic of Benin,
country of western Africa. It consists of a narrow wedge of territory
extending northward for about 420 miles (675 kilometres) from the Gulf
of Guinea in the Atlantic Ocean, on which it has a 75-mile seacoast, to
the Niger River, which forms part of Benin’s northern border with Niger.
Benin is bordered to the northwest by Burkina Faso, to the east by
Nigeria, and to the west by Togo. The official capital is Porto-Novo,
but Cotonou is Benin’s largest city, its chief port, and its de facto
administrative capital. Benin was a French colony from the late 19th
century until 1960.
Prior to colonial rule, part of the territory that is now Benin
consisted of powerful, independent kingdoms, including various Bariba
kingdoms in the north and in the south the kingdoms of Porto-Novo and
Dahomey (Dan-ho-me, “on the belly of Dan;” Dan was a rival king on whose
grave Dahomey’s royal compound was built). In the late 19th century
French colonizers making inroads from the coastal region into the
interior borrowed the name of the defeated Dahomey kingdom for the
entire territory that is now Benin; the current name derives from the
Bight of Benin.
Benin consists of five natural regions. The coastal region is low,
flat, and sandy, backed by tidal marshes and lagoons. It is composed of,
in effect, a long sandbar on which grow clumps of coconut palms; the
lagoons are narrower in the western part of the country, where many have
become marshes because of silting, and wider in the east, and some are
interconnected. In the west the Grand-Popo Lagoon extends into
neighbouring Togo, while in the east the Porto-Novo Lagoon provides a
natural waterway to the port of Lagos, Nigeria, although its use is
discouraged by the political boundary. Only at Grand-Popo and at Cotonou
do the lagoons have outlets to the sea.
Behind the coastal region extends the barre country—the word being a
French adaptation of the Portuguese word barro (“clay”). A fertile
plateau, the barre region contains the Lama Marsh, a vast swampy area
stretching from Abomey to Allada. The landscape is generally flat,
although occasional hills occur, rising to about 1,300 feet (400
The Benin plateaus, four in number, are to be found in the environs
of Abomey, Kétou, Aplahoué (or Parahoué), and Zagnanado. The plateaus
consist of clays on a crystalline base. The Abomey, Aplahoué, and
Zagnanado plateaus are from 300 to 750 feet high, and the Kétou plateau
is up to 500 feet in height.
The Atakora Mountains, in the northwest of the country, form a
continuation of the Togo Mountains to the south. Running southwest to
northeast and reaching an altitude of 2,103 feet (641 metres) at their
highest point, they consist of a highly metamorphosed quartzite
The Niger plains, in the northeast of Benin, slope down to the Niger
River valley. They consist of clayey sandstones.
Apart from the Niger River, which, with its tributaries the Mékrou,
Alibori, and Sota, drains the northeastern part of the country, the
three principal rivers in Benin are the Mono, the Couffo, and the Ouémé.
The Mono, which rises in Togo, forms the frontier between Togo and Benin
near the coast. The Couffo, near which stands Abomey, flows southward
from the Benin plateaus to drain into the coastal lagoons at Ahémé. The
Ouémé rises in the Atakora Mountains and flows southward for 280 miles;
near its mouth it divides into two branches, one draining to the east
into Porto-Novo Lagoon and the other to the west into Nokoué Lake. The
Atakora Mountains form a divide between the Volta and Niger basins.
Two climatic zones may be distinguished—a southern and a northern.
The southern zone has an equatorial type of climate with four
seasons—two wet and two dry. The principal rainy season occurs between
mid-March and mid-July; the shorter dry season lasts to mid-September;
the shorter rainy season lasts to mid-November; and the principal dry
season lasts until the rains begin again in March. The amount of rain
increases toward the east. Grand-Popo receives only about 32 inches (800
millimetres) a year, whereas Cotonou and Porto-Novo both receive
approximately 50 inches. Temperatures are fairly constant, varying
between about 72° and 93° F (22° and 34° C), and the relative humidity
is often uncomfortably high.
In the northern climatic zone, there are only two seasons, one dry
and one rainy. The rainy season lasts from May to September, with most
of the rainfall occurring in August. Rainfall amounts to about 53 inches
a year in the Atakora Mountains and in central Benin; farther north it
diminishes to about 38 inches. In the dry season the harmattan, a hot,
dry wind, blows from the northeast from December to March. Temperatures
average about 80° F (27° C), but the temperature range varies
considerably from day to night. In March, the hottest month, diurnal
temperatures may rise to 110° F (43° C).
Plant and animal life
The original rain forest, which covered most of the southern part of
the country, has now largely been cleared, except near the rivers. In
its place, many oil palms and rônier palms have been planted and food
crops are cultivated. North of Abomey the vegetation is an intermixture
of forest and savanna (grassy parkland), giving way farther north to
savanna. Apart from the oil and rônier palms, trees include coconut
palms, kapok, mahogany, and ebony.
In the extreme north is the “W” National Park (1,938 square miles),
which extends into Burkina Faso and Niger. Its varied animal life
includes elephants, leopards, lions, antelope, monkeys, wild pigs,
crocodiles, and buffalo. There are many species of snakes, including
pythons and puff adders. Birds include guinea fowl, wild duck, and
partridge, as well as many tropical species. The Pendjari National Park
(1,062 square miles) borders on Burkina Faso.
The southern provinces make up one-fourth of the total area but are
inhabited by more than two-thirds of the total population. Many of these
people are clustered near the port of Cotonou, which is the focus of the
commercial and political life of the country, and Porto-Novo, the
official capital. The cultivation of subsistence crops, such as corn
(maize), cassava, and yams, is intensive on the outskirts of the towns.
The barre region and the Benin plateaus are planted with oil palms,
which form the cash crop, as well as with subsistence crops. To the
north, the aspect of the countryside changes as savanna vegetation
increases and the population diminishes; some areas are uninhabited,
except by Fulani nomads. Villages, instead of being encountered
frequently as in the south, become scattered. Parakou is an important
northern market town, dating from colonial times.
The towns exhibit traditional African, colonial European, and modern
influences. Traditional African (or precolonial) mud houses, markets,
shrines, and statues are found in small towns as well as in Abomey,
Porto-Novo, and, to a lesser degree, Cotonou, and the Somba region in
the northwest has traditional thatched-roof, turreted houses. Colonial
European styles dominate in most towns, especially in Cotonou. Colonial
buildings, some dating from the 18th century, include train stations,
official buildings, and private homes, as well as such structures as the
former Portuguese fort at Ouidah that was used in the slave trade.
Modern architecture is found in private homes, port facilities, and
Stanislas Spero Adotevi
Despite attempts at greater national unity and integration since
1960, differences among Benin’s ethnic groups survive to a marked
The Fon, who make up nearly 40 percent of the population, live in
various parts of the country and especially in Cotonou. The Yoruba, who
are related to the Nigerian Yoruba, live mainly in southeastern Benin
and constitute about one-eighth of Benin’s population. In the vicinity
of Porto-Novo the Goun (Gun) and the Yoruba (known in Pobé and Kétou as
Nago, or Nagot) are so intermixed as to be hardly distinguishable. Among
other southern groups are various Adja peoples, including the Aizo, the
Holi, and the Mina.
The Bariba, the fourth-largest ethnic group, comprise several
subgroups and make up about one-twelfth of Benin’s population. They
inhabit the northeast, especially towns such as Nikki and Kandi that
were once Bariba kingdoms. The Somba (Ditamari) are found in Natitingou
and in villages in the northwest. Other northern groups include the
Dendi, the Djougou, the Pila (Pilapila), and the nomadic Fulani (Peul).
Several thousand French, Lebanese, and other nationals reside in Benin,
primarily in Cotonou and Porto-Novo.
French is the official language and the language of instruction, but
each ethnic group has its own language, which the educated also speak.
Most adults living in the various ethnic communities also speak the
dominant language of each region. The most widely spoken languages are
Fon, Ge (Mina), Bariba, Yoruba, and Dendi.
Although Christian missions have been active in the coastal region
since the 16th century, only one-fifth of the total population is
Christian; of the Christians, about four-fifths are Roman Catholic.
Islām has adherents in the north and southeast; about one-sixth of the
total population is Muslim. Most of the population adheres to
traditional religions. In the south, animist religions, which include
fetishes (objects regarded with awe as the embodiment of a powerful
spirit) for which Benin is renowned, retain their traditional strength.
Benin’s rate of population growth is high for western Africa,
resulting primarily from a birth rate that is higher than the regional
average and a death rate that is lower. Moreover, nearly one-half of the
population is less than 15 years of age, assuring the country’s
continued high growth rate. Life expectancy for males is about 49 years
and for females about 52 years. Only about one-fifth of the population
is urban, concentrated mostly in Cotonou, the only city with a
population of more than 400,000.
Since independence, Benin’s regular and developmental budgets
have been dependent on external support, primarily from France and
international organizations. This support has rendered a little less
painful the formidable economic stagnation and low standard of living of
the overwhelming majority of the population.
The regime that came to power in a 1972 coup attempted from 1975 to
restructure the economy more or less along socialist principles and to
disengage from dependence on France. Most sectors of the economy were
nationalized or otherwise turned over to government control, and
economic relations were established with the Soviet Union and other
socialist countries, as well as with Benin’s neighbours. By the early
1980s it was clear that—though the economy was restructured and, at
least on paper, more efficient and diversified and France’s contribution
to Benin’s economy diminished—corruption persisted and that the overall
economic situation had not improved. “Liberalization” of the economy in
the mid-1980s also failed to produce positive results. Accompanying
changes in the constitution and regime in the early 1990s, the remnants
and slogans of Marxism were wiped out, and privatization of the economy
The few stretches of tropical forest that remain in Benin, mostly in
the southwest and central areas, contain mahogany, iroko, teak, samba,
and other tropical hardwoods. The rivers and lagoons are rich in fish.
Mineral deposits include iron ore both in the Atakora Mountains and
northeast of Kandi, limestone deposits at Onigbolo, chromium ore and a
little gold in the northwest near Natitingou, marble at Dadjo, an
important deposit of pottery clay at Sakété, and ilmenite (a mineral
source of titanium) near the coast. Offshore oil was discovered in 1968
in the Sémé field near Cotonou and has been exploited since 1982.
Agriculture and fishing
About 70 percent of the working population depends on agriculture.
Since the mid-1980s Benin has produced yams, cassava, corn (maize),
millet, beans, and rice to achieve self-sufficiency in staple foods.
Among cash crops, the formerly predominant palm product output declined
considerably in the 1980s, but cotton output rose. The output of karité,
peanuts (groundnuts), cacao beans, and coffee also has increased.
Livestock include cattle, sheep and goats, pigs, horses, and poultry.
Substantial quantities of fish are caught annually in the lagoons and
rivers, while coastal fishing produces a smaller, but growing, amount.
Most of the fish is exported to Nigeria or Togo. Shrimp and deep-sea
fishing are developing, using modern vessels.
Manufacturing plants and secondary industries include several
palm-oil-processing plants in Ahozon, Avrankou, Bohicon, Cotonou, Gbada,
and Pobé; cement plants at Onigbolo and Pobé; several cotton-ginning
facilities in the north; a textile mill at Parakou; a sugar refining
complex at Savé; a soft-drink plant; a brewery; and two
Electricity is generated thermally by plants located at Bohicon,
Parakou, Cotonou, and Porto-Novo. About half of Benin’s demand for
electricity is met by importing power from Ghana’s Volta River Project
at Akosombo. In 1988 operations commenced at the hydroelectric
installation of the Mono River Dam, a joint venture between Benin and
Togo on their common southern boundary.
Liquidation of Benin’s three state-owned banks took place in the
late 1980s and early 1990s as part of economic privatization, and four
private banks opened, including the Bank of Africa-Benin. Citizens of
Benin began to transfer their savings from foreign banks. With the
advent of privatization, foreign aid and assistance grew, particularly
funding for developmental projects from the United States and the
Commission of the European Community, the latter of which also agreed to
help pay the wages of civil servants. France continues to provide
financial assistance. The currency of Benin is the CFA (Communauté
Financière Africaine), which is fully guaranteed by and pegged to the
Benin’s export earnings rely on agricultural products, such as
cotton, palm oil, cocoa, and coffee, exported to such countries as
Portugal, Italy, France, Thailand, Taiwan, and the United States.
Informal trade (smuggling) across the border with Nigeria has also
affected Benin’s negative trade balance. One of Benin’s main, albeit
underexploited, trade assets is the deepwater port at Cotonou, which
serves as a sea outlet for the Republic of Niger and as a secondary port
for Nigeria and thus holds a potential to earn lucrative customs duties.
Benin has traditionally imported various manufactured products,
machinery, chemicals, beverages, and tobacco, as well as cereals.
There are two paved, mostly two-lane, road networks. One runs
parallel to the coast of the Gulf of Guinea from the Togolese border,
through Cotonou and near Porto-Novo, to the Nigerian border. The other
road runs north from Cotonou, near Abomey and Dassa, to Parakou in the
north. Roads from Parakou to Niger’s border and from near Abomey to
Burkina Faso’s border are unpaved and are barely passable in the rainy
There is a railroad from Cotonou to Parakou. Another railroad,
parallel to the coast, does not extend to either the Togolese or the
Interconnected coastal lagoons are navigable by small craft known as
pirogues. The Ouémé, Couffo, and Mono rivers are navigable by small
boats for several dozen miles. The country’s only port is at Cotonou. An
international airport in Cotonou links Benin with other countries of
Africa and with Europe. There is also limited domestic airline service.
Stanislas Spero Adotevi
Administration and social conditions
Benin has experienced much political instability and unrest. It
suffered through 12 years of unstable government, including several
coups d’état, beginning three years after independence. The regime of
President Mathieu Kérékou, who came to power in a 1972 coup, enjoyed
almost two decades of fragile but unprecedented stability. The Marxist
rhetoric introduced in 1974 culminated in repressive military rule in
the late 1970s, but this had largely ceased by the early 1980s. During
this period, however, the Benin People’s Revolutionary Party (PRPB) was
the only legal political party. A National Revolutionary Assembly,
elected by citizens, chose the president, who was also head of state.
Benin was the first African country to make a post-Cold War
transition away from Marxism-Leninism. Kérékou himself abandoned in
December 1989 the Marxist-Leninist ideology that he had promulgated in
the mid-1970s. In December 1990 a new constitution was approved,
guaranteeing human rights, freedom to organize political parties, the
right to private property, and universal franchise. While multiparty
elections, a National Assembly, and a presidency were provided for, the
country’s poor economy and history of fractured political alliances lent
an element of uncertainty to the political future. Benin has a
transitional constitutional court, a high court of justice, and a
The public education system has followed the French pattern since
colonial times. A six-year primary school cycle (for children ages 6–11)
is followed by six years of secondary education (ages 12–17). In the
mid-1970s major reforms were introduced both to conform to the
then-prevalent Marxist-Leninist ideology and to shed French influence.
The reforms failed as teachers, parents, and university-bound students
objected to the lowering of standards, and the reforms were largely
abandoned by the late 1980s. School enrollment levels for boys in the
late 1980s were at least double those for girls. In the early 1990s the
National University of Benin, founded in 1970, enrolled approximately
9,000 students. The university’s student body has been, along with
workers, the main political force in the country since the early 1980s.
Health and welfare
Benin has a national health-care system that maintains hospitals in
Cotonou, Porto-Novo, Parakou, Abomey, Ouidah, and Natitingou, in
addition to medical dispensaries, maternity centres, and other small,
specialized health-care facilities in these and smaller towns. Financial
aid from international organizations provides resources to compensate
for a shortage of medical personnel and medications. Malaria, guinea
worm, and river blindness are widespread.
French colonial rule and subsequent close ties with France have left
a deep impact on all aspects of cultural life, especially among the
educated segments of the population and in the southern cities. Each
ethnic group also has its own centuries-old tradition, which itself
often mixes with the French influence. These cultural traditions are
clustered in two distinct regions, the largely Muslim north and the
largely animist and Christian south.
In Cotonou one finds many kinds of commercial enterprises, often with
a French flavour, such as restaurants, cafés, and discotheques.
Diplomats of foreign governments and many of Benin’s elite live in newer
residential sections. There are several movie theatres and several
hotels that provide entertainment. Most other towns have modern sections
on a smaller scale.
In other sections of the towns, however, tradition dominates cultural
life. Extended families live in family compounds in distinct
neighbourhoods, where they practice religious rites and celebrate
festivals with music and dance. Markets where foodstuffs, clothing, and
traditional medicines and arts are sold are important centres of daily
Artistic traditions in Benin are very old and are represented in
practically every village. Plastic art is the most prominent, as carved
wooden masks representing images and spirits of the departed are made
and used in traditional ceremonies. Other artistic items are bronze
statuettes, pottery, appliquéd tapestries recounting the history of
kings of precolonial Dahomey, and fire engraving on wooden bowls, which
often have religious meaning. Probably the best-known art objects are
the Yoruba wooden masks called guelede from the region of Porto-Novo.
Street musicians are found in various neighbourhoods, and modern dance
ensembles perform at clubs.
An artisan village is attached to the Historical Museum of Abomey
(formerly the Royal Palace). There is an excellent ethnographic museum
in Porto-Novo, a historical museum in Ouidah, and the Open-Air Museum of
Ethnography and Natural Sciences in Parakou. The National Library is in
Porto-Novo. Art galleries are the Cultural and Artistic Centre and the
French Cultural Centre, both in Cotonou, and the CAZAM in Porto-Novo.
Cultural centres sponsored by the French and American governments
maintain libraries and organize lectures, concerts, and other cultural
The national sport played by several teams is football (soccer).
There is a modern sport stadium in Cotonou.
Press and broadcasting
Radio programs are broadcast from Cotonou in French, English, and a
number of local languages. There is also a limited television service. A
daily newspaper, La Nation, is published in Cotonou and is controlled by
the government; there are also two other dailies and several weekly or
biweekly publications. Newspapers published in Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire
(in French) and newspapers and magazines from elsewhere may be found in
bookstores and newsstands.
As a political unit, Benin was created by the French colonial
conquest at the end of the 19th century. In the precolonial period, the
territory comprised a multiplicity of independent states, differing in
language and culture. The south was occupied mainly by Ewe-speaking
peoples, who traced their traditional origins to the town of Tado (in
modern Togo). During the 16th and 17th centuries, the most powerful
state in this area was the kingdom of Allada (Ardra), but in the 18th
and 19th centuries its place was taken by Dahomey. In the north, the
largest group was the Bariba, the most important state being the kingdom
of Nikki, which formed part of a confederacy including other Bariba
states located in what is today Nigeria. The Somba, in the northwest,
did not form a kingdom.
The slave trade
The Portuguese first explored the coast of Benin in 1472 but did not
begin trading there until 1553. During the 17th century the Dutch,
English, French, and other Europeans also entered the trade. The
principal export before the mid-19th century was always slaves. The
volume of slave exports was at first small, but it increased rapidly in
the second half of the 17th century, when this area became known to
Europeans as the “Slave Coast,” and remained high until the 1840s. The
principal centre for the trade was the coastal kingdom of Ouidah
(Whydah), which was originally a tributary of Allada but had become an
independent state by the 1680s. The slaves exported were predominantly
war captives and were drawn from the entire area of modern Benin,
including northern peoples such as the Bariba as well as communities
near the coast. The Atlantic slave trade had a substantial and
deleterious impact in Benin, causing the depopulation of certain areas
as well as a general militarization of society. The prominence of slaves
from this area in the transatlantic trade is reflected in the survival
of elements of its culture in black communities of the New World,
especially in the “voodoo” religion of Haiti, which incorporates many
spirit cults and deities of the Ewe-speaking peoples.
The kingdom of Dahomey
Dahomey (also called Abomey, after its capital city) was the state
of the Fon people. It was originally a dependency of Allada, but during
the 17th century a ruler called Wegbaja declared himself king and made
Dahomey an independent state. Under King Agaja (reigned 1708?–40)
Dahomey overran the coastal area, conquering Allada in 1724 and the
commercial centre of Ouidah in 1727, thus establishing itself as the
dominant power in the area. A section of the royal family of Allada,
however, founded the new kingdom of Porto-Novo, on the coast to the
east, which successfully resisted Dahomean authority and competed with
Ouidah for control of the Atlantic trade. Dahomey itself was attacked
and defeated by the kingdom of Oyo, to the northeast (in modern
Nigeria), to which it was obliged to pay tribute from 1730 onward.
Dahomey attained the height of its power under the kings Gezo (1818–58)
and Glélé (1858–89). Gezo liberated Dahomey from its subjection to Oyo
by defeating the latter in 1823. Dahomean attempts at expansion
eastward, however, brought it up against the powerful state of Abeokuta
(also in Nigeria). Dahomean attacks upon Abeokuta in 1851 and 1864 were
Dahomey was a despotic and militaristic kingdom. Its power was based
upon a highly trained standing army, which included a female contingent
(called the “Amazons” by Europeans) drawn from the king’s wives. The
king’s authority was buttressed by an elaborate cult of the deceased
kings of the dynasty, who were honoured by the offering of human
sacrifices at yearly public ceremonies (the “annual customs”). Its
rulers succeeded in uniting the disparate communities which they
absorbed into a new national identity, so that the conquered subjects of
Dahomey came to regard themselves as Fon. During the 18th and early 19th
centuries, Dahomey was a major supplier of slaves for the transatlantic
trade, but by the mid-19th century the volume of the slave trade was in
decline. In 1852 King Gezo was forced by a British naval blockade to
accept a treaty abolishing the slave trade, although this was evaded in
practice. From the 1840s onward Gezo promoted the export of palm oil,
produced by slave labour on royal plantations, as a substitute for the
declining slave trade.
The French conquest and colonial rule
During the 17th century several of the European nations engaged in
the Atlantic slave trade maintained trading factories in the Dahomey
area, and during the 18th century the English, French, and Portuguese
all possessed fortified posts in Ouidah. The French first established a
factory in Allada in 1670 but moved from there to Ouidah in 1671.
Although this factory was abandoned in the 1690s, the French built a
fort (known as Fort Saint Louis) in Ouidah in 1704. The European forts
in Ouidah were, however, all abandoned about the end of the 18th
century, the French establishment being withdrawn in 1797.
In 1842 the French fort at Ouidah was reoccupied as a base for the
new trade in palm oil, and in 1851 the French government negotiated a
commercial treaty with King Gezo of Dahomey. Subsequently fears of
preemption by British colonial expansion led to the extension of formal
French rule in the area. A protectorate was briefly established over the
kingdom of Porto-Novo in 1863–65 and was definitively reestablished in
1882. Treaties purporting to secure cession of the port of Cotonou,
between Ouidah and Porto-Novo, were also negotiated with the Dahomean
authorities in 1868 and 1878, though Cotonou was not actually occupied
until 1890. King Behanzin, who had succeeded to the Dahomean throne in
1889, resisted the French claim to Cotonou, provoking the French
invasion and conquest of Dahomey in 1892–94. Behanzin was then deposed
and exiled, and the kingdom of Dahomey became a French protectorate.
French ambitions to extend their control into the interior, north of
Dahomey, were threatened by the rival expansionism of the British, who
were established in what was to become their colony of Nigeria to the
east, and in 1894 both the British and French negotiated treaties of
protection with the kingdom of Nikki. The Anglo-French convention of
1898, however, settled the boundary between the French and British
spheres, conceding Nikki to the former. The boundary with the German
colony of Togo to the west was settled by the Franco-German conventions
of 1885 and 1899. The present frontiers of Benin were established in
1909, when the boundaries with the neighbouring French colonies of Upper
Volta and Niger were delimited. The colony was at first called Benin
(from the Bight of Benin, not the precolonial kingdom of Benin, which is
in Nigeria), but in 1894 it was renamed Dahomey, after the recently
incorporated kingdom. From 1904 Dahomey formed part of the federation of
French West Africa, under the governor-general in Senegal. Descendants
of Portuguese settlers, freed slaves returning from Portuguese colonies
in the Americas (called Brésiliens, or Brazilians), and missionaries
were instrumental in spreading Christianity and Western education in the
south but not in the Muslim north; by the 1950s Dahomey was known as the
“Latin Quarter” of French West Africa.
Decolonization and independence
In 1946 Dahomey became an overseas territory of France. It was
created an autonomous republic within the French Community in 1959 and
achieved complete independence on August 1, 1960. During the period of
decolonization, the nationalist movement in Dahomey became fragmented,
with the emergence of three regionally based political parties—led by
Sourou-Migan Apithy (president in 1964–65), Justin Ahomadégbé (1972),
and Hubert Maga (1960–63 and 1970–72), drawing their principal support
respectively from Porto-Novo, Abomey, and the north. After independence
in 1960, these political problems were exacerbated by economic
difficulties, reflected in student and trade union unrest. The ensuing
instability resulted in six successful military coups d’état between
1963 and 1972 and periods of army rule in 1965–68 and 1969–70. In a last
military coup, on October 26, 1972, power was seized by Major (later
General) Mathieu Kérékou. From 1974 Kérékou pursued a Marxist-Leninist
policy, based on nationalizations and state planning of the economy. The
country was renamed the People’s Republic of Benin in 1975.
The late 1980s and early 1990s were a turbulent period for Benin. In
1989 Kérékou proclaimed that Marxism-Leninism would no longer be the
state ideology, and there followed a period of transition in the
direction of greater democratization, including the promulgation of a
new constitution in 1990 and the liberalization of the economy. The
first multiparty elections were held in 1991, and Kérékou was defeated
by Nicéphore Soglo, a former cabinet member.
Soglo’s administration worked hard to improve the country’s economy,
implementing fiscal policies that garnered international respect, and
Benin started to make economic gains. Unfortunately, the feeling among
many Beninese was that economic progress came at too great a cost to the
country—the disregard for democratization and the social well-being of
its citizens—and Soglo’s support slipped. In the 1996 presidential
election, Soglo was defeated by Kérékou, as he was again in 2001 when
the two leaders ran against each other.
During Kérékou’s tenure the economy continued to be a concern among
the Beninese. Workers went on strike several times in the late 1990s and
early 2000s to protest issues—some resulting from economic reform
measures—such as low wages and the change to merit-based salary
increases and promotions. Corruption was also an issue Kérékou had to
address, with two unrelated investigations in 2003 and 2004 implicating
many police, judiciary, and finance ministry officials.
At the beginning of the 21st century, Benin’s economy was still
underdeveloped and its political transformation was incomplete, despite
much progress having been made since the late 1980s.