Republic of Benin

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République du Bénin (French)
Orílẹ̀-èdè Olómìnira ilẹ̀ Benin (Yoruba)
Republic of Benin
Flag of Benin Coat of arms of Benin
Motto"Fraternité, Justice, Travail" (French)
"Fraternity, Justice, Labour"
AnthemL'Aube Nouvelle (French)
The Dawn of a New Day

Location of Benin
6°28′N 2°36′E / 6.467, 2.6
Largest city Cotonou
Official languages French
Vernacular Fon, Yoruba
Demonym Beninese; Beninois
Government Unitary presidential republic
 -  President Patrice Talon
 -  Vice President Mariam Chabi Talata
 -  from France August 1, 1960 
 -  Total 112,622 km² (101st)
43,484 sq mi 
 -  Water (%) 0.02%
 -  2022 estimate 13,754,688[1] (74th)
 -  Density 94.8/km² 
245.5/sq mi
GDP (PPP) 2019 estimate
 -  Total $59.469 billion[2] (137th)
 -  Per capita $4,300[2] (163rd)
GDP (nominal) 2023 estimate
 -  Total $19.236 billion[2] (141st)
 -  Per capita $1,390[2] (163rd)
Gini (2018) 37.9 [3] 
Currency West African CFA franc (XOF)
Time zone WAT (UTC+1)
 -  Summer (DST) not observed (UTC+1)
Internet TLD .bj
Calling code +229
1 Cotonou is the seat of government.
2 Estimates for this country explicitly take into account the effects of excess mortality due to AIDS; this can result in lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality and death rates, lower population and growth rates, and changes in the distribution of population by age and sex than would otherwise be expected.

The Republic of Benin is a sliver of a country in West Africa, the shape of which has been compared to a raised arm and fist or to a flaming torch. It has a small coastline to the south on the Bight of Benin. (A bight is a bay formed by a coastal bend.) The Bight of Benin is an extension of the Gulf of Guinea, which is an arm of the Atlantic Ocean. The nation takes its name from the bight, which refers in turn to the ancient African kingdom, the Benin Empire, that dominated much of southern Nigeria until the arrival of the colonizing powers. That kingdom did not actually incorporate any of modern-day Benin.

The history of the tribes and peoples who inhabited this gateway to the continent comprises a strong legacy of having participated in and profited from the African slave trade. In recent years, modern Benin has atoned acutely and painfully for that past.


Benin (usually pronounced "beh-NIHN" in English) inhabits a part of the continent called the Dahomey Gap, which is a somewhat dry area between the rain forests of Central Africa and of those farther west. Though relatively low in rainfall, the climate in Benin is hot and humid. The country's elevation varies little from the coast to the northern reaches though there are areas in the middle and north known as hills and highlands. The even smaller country of Togo lies to the west. The much larger nation of Nigeria is its eastern neighbor. Rivers run either north or south, with those in the north flowing into the Niger River, which forms most of the border with the country of the same name. Southern rivers stay within the national borders and drain to the Atlantic. There is also a border with Burkina Faso in the northwest. Benin's size is roughly similar to that of Pennsylvania. Its population is about 7.5 million.

The core of the nation's economic, political, and cultural life is the coastal area. The capital is Porto-Novo (Portuguese for New Port), which is pressed into the southeastern corner of the country, but Cotonou, 40 miles to the west, is the largest city and true center for all Benin's social and economic life. The farther one travels from the coast, the less that French, the official language, is heard. And the farther north one goes, the less prevalent is Christianity in favor of Islam and animist religions.



Map of the Kingdom of Dahomey, 1793.

Prior to 1600, present-day Benin comprised a variety of areas with different political systems and ethnicities. These included city-states along the coast (primarily of the Aja ethnic group, and also including Yoruba and Gbe peoples) and tribal regions inland (composed of Bariba, Mahi, Gedevi, and Kabye peoples). The Oyo Empire, located primarily to the east of Benin, was a military force in the region, conducting raids and exacting tribute from the coastal kingdoms and tribal regions.[4] The situation changed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as the Kingdom of Dahomey, consisting mostly of Fon people, was founded on the Abomey plateau and began taking over areas along the coast.[5] By 1727, King Agaja of the Kingdom of Dahomey had conquered the coastal cities of Allada and Whydah. Dahomey had become a tributary of the Oyo Empire, and rivaled but did not directly attack the Oyo-allied city-state of Porto-Novo. The rise of Dahomey, its rivalry with Porto-Novo, and tribal politics in the northern region persisted into the colonial and post-colonial periods.

Some younger people were apprenticed to older soldiers and taught the kingdom's military customs until they were old enough to join the army.[6] Dahomey instituted an elite female soldier corps variously called Ahosi (the king's wives), Mino ("our mothers" in Fongbe), or the "Dahomean Amazons". This emphasis on military preparation and achievement earned Dahomey the nickname of "Black Sparta," from European observers and nineteenth-century explorers.[7]

The Portuguese Empire was the longest European presence in Benin, beginning in 1680 and ending in 1961 when the last forces left Ajudá.
Dahomey Amazons with the King at their head, going to war, 1793.

The kings of Dahomey sold their war captives into transatlantic slavery or killed them ritually in a ceremony known as the Annual Customs. By about 1750, the King of Dahomey was earning an estimated £250,000 per year by selling African captives to European slave-traders.[8] The area was named the "Slave Coast" because of its flourishing slave trade. Court protocols which demanded that a portion of war captives from the kingdom's battles be decapitated, decreased the number of enslaved people exported from the area. The number went from 102,000 people per decade in the 1780s to 24,000 per decade by the 1860s.[9] The decline was partly due to the Slave Trade Act 1807 banning the trans-Atlantic slave trade by Britain in 1808, followed by other countries.[8] This decline continued until 1885 when the last slave ship departed the modern Benin Republic for Brazil, which had yet to abolish slavery.


A French depiction of the conquest of Dahomey in 1893

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Dahomey had "begun to weaken and lose its status as the regional power." The French took over the area in 1892. In 1899, the French included the land called French Dahomey within the larger French West Africa colonial region.

France sought to benefit from Dahomey and the region "appeared to lack the necessary agricultural or mineral resources for large-scale capitalist development". As a result, France treated Dahomey as a sort of preserve in case future discoveries revealed resources worth developing.[9]

The French government outlawed the capture and sale of slaves. Previous slaveowners sought to redefine their control over slaves as control over land, tenants, and lineage members. This provoked a struggle among Dahomeans, "concentrated in the period from 1895 to 1920, for the redistribution of control over land and labor. Villages sought to redefine boundaries of lands and fishing preserves. Religious disputes scarcely veiled the factional struggles over control of land and commerce which underlay them. Factions struggled for the leadership of great families."[9]

In 1958, France granted autonomy to the Republic of Dahomey, and full independence on August 1, 1960 which is celebrated each year as Independence Day, a national holiday. The president who led the country to independence was Hubert Maga.[10]


Map of Benin

After 1960, there were coups and regime changes, with the figures of Hubert Maga, Sourou Apithy, Justin Ahomadégbé, and Émile Derlin Zinsou dominating; the first 3 each represented a different area and ethnicity of the country. These 3 agreed to form a Presidential Council after violence marred the 1970 elections.

On 7 May 1972, Maga ceded power to Ahomadégbé. On 26 October 1972, Lt. Col. Mathieu Kérékou overthrew the ruling triumvirate, becoming president and stating that the country would not "burden itself by copying foreign ideology, and wants neither Capitalism, Communism, nor Socialism". On 30 November 1974, he announced that the country was officially Marxist, under control of the Military Council of the Revolution (CMR), which nationalized the petroleum industry and banks. On 30 November 1975, he renamed the country the People's Republic of Benin.[11] The regime of the People's Republic of Benin underwent changes over the course of its existence: a nationalist period (1972–1974); a socialist phase (1974–1982); and a phase involving an opening to Western countries and economic liberalism (1982–1990).

In 1974, under the influence of young revolutionaries – the "Ligueurs" - the government embarked on a socialist program: nationalization of strategic sectors of the economy, reform of the education system, establishment of agricultural cooperatives and new local government structures, and a campaign to eradicate "feudal forces" including tribalism. The regime banned opposition activities. Mathieu Kérékou was elected president by the National Revolutionary Assembly in 1980, and re-elected in 1984. Establishing relations with China, North Korea, and Libya, he put "nearly all" businesses and economic activities under state control, causing foreign investment in Benin to dry up.[12] Kérékou attempted to reorganize education, pushing his own aphorisms such as "Poverty is not a fatality."[12] The regime financed itself by contracting to take nuclear waste, first from the Soviet Union and later from France.[12]

In the 1980s, Benin experienced higher economic growth rates, until the closure of the Nigerian border with Benin led to a drop in customs and tax revenues. In 1989, riots broke out when the regime did not have enough money to pay its army. The banking system collapsed. Eventually, Kérékou renounced Marxism, and a convention forced Kérékou to release political prisoners and arrange elections.[12] Marxism–Leninism was abolished as the country's form of government.

The country's name was officially changed to the Republic of Benin on March 1, 1990, after the newly formed government's constitution was completed.[13]

On February 20, 2022, President Patrice Talon inaugurated an exhibition with 26 pieces of sacred art returned to Benin by France, 129 years after they were looted by colonial forces.[14]


The economy of Benin remains underdeveloped and dependent on agriculture, which engages about half the country's population and exists mainly at the subsistence level. Much of the manufacturing is likewise devoted to agricultural implements. Tribal herdsmen tend most of the cattle that go to market. The open-air markets found in every sizable town are where most Beninese shop for everyday articles, including manufactured goods, as well as food.

Cotton, cocoa, and palm oil are the main commercial crops and exports, palm tree plantations having supplanted the natural coastal forests more than a century ago. France remains the major destination of Beninese goods, followed by Brazil. Machinery, foodstuffs, and textiles are Benin's principal imports. A significant amount of smuggling occurs along the porous border with Nigeria. Thousands of Beninese workers have migrated steadily to that country and Gabon for employment in the oil fields.

National Apology

In 1999, President Kérékou issued a national apology for the substantial role that Africans had played in the Atlantic slave trade.[15] He convened a conference in Cotonou to apologize for his country's complicated history of involvement with the slave trade of centuries past. European businessmen as well as U.S. Congressmen and governmental representatives from other African countries attended and witnessed Benin's lament of its Slave Coast legacy, particularly the considerable profit that tribal chiefs made by selling their own people into servitude.

The long-term objective is the country's reconciliation with its descendants in the Americas. Recognition was made that Benin has suffered greatly by having lost so many of its ultimate resource, its own people, called "the absent ones." Subsequent apologies have been made by government representatives to foreign, particularly African-American, audiences.


  1. CIA, Benin World Factbook. Retrieved September 27, 2023.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 World Economic Outlook Database, April 2023 International Monetary Fund. Retrieved September 27, 2023.
  3. GINI index World Bank. Retrieved September 27, 2023
  4. Dena G. Bay, Wives of the Leopard: Gender, Politics, and Culture in the Kingdom of Dahomey (University of Virginia Press, 1998, ISBN 978-0813917924).
  5. I.A. Akinjogbin, Dahomey and Its Neighbors: 1708–1818 (Cambridge University Press, 1967).
  6. Robert W. Harms, The Diligent: A Voyage Through the Worlds of the Slave Trade (Basic Books, 2002, ISBN 978-0465028726).
  7. Stanley B. Alpern, Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey (Hurst & Co Ltd, 2001, ISBN 978-1850653622).
  8. 8.0 8.1 African Slave Owners BBC. Retrieved September 26, 2023.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Patrick Manning, Slavery, Colonialism and Economic Growth in Dahomey, 1640–1960 (Cambridge University Press, 1982, ISBN 978-0521235440).
  10. Ana Lucia Araujo, Public Memory of Slavery: Victims and Perpetrators in the South Atlantic (Cambria Press, 2010, ISBN 1604977140).
  11. Mathurin C. Houngnikpo and Samuel Decalotitle, Historical Dictionary of Benin (Scarecrow Press, 2012, ISBN 978-0810871717).
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 Martha Kneib, Benin (Cavendish Square, 2001, ISBN 978-0761423287).
  13. Benin Flags of the World. Retrieved September 27, 2023.
  14. Le Bénin expose les vingt-six œuvres restituées par la France : « Regardez la puissance de ces objets ! » Le Monde (February 21, 2022). Retrieved September 27, 2023.
  15. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Ending the Slavery Blame-Game The New York Times (April 23, 2010). Retrieved September 27, 2023.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Akinjogbin, I.A. Dahomey and Its Neighbors: 1708–1818. Cambridge University Press, 1967. ASIN B000M4PHY8
  • Alpern, Stanley B. Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey. C. Hurst & Co. Publishers, 1998. ISBN 978-1850653622
  • Araujo, Ana Lucia. Public Memory of Slavery: Victims and Perpetrators in the South Atlantic. Cambria Press, 2010. ISBN 1604977140
  • Bay, Dena G. Wives of the Leopard: Gender, Politics, and Culture in the Kingdom of Dahomey. University of Virginia Press, 1998. ISBN 978-0813917924
  • Houngnikpo, Mathurin C., and Samuel Decalotitle. Historical Dictionary of Benin. Scarecrow Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0810871717
  • Kneib, Martha. Benin. ‎ Cavendish Square, 2001. ISBN 978-0761423287
  • Manning, Patrick. Slavery, Colonialism and Economic Growth in Dahomey, 1640–1960. London: Cambridge University Press, 1982. ISBN 978-0521235440

External links

All links retrieved September 27, 2023.


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