Republic of Bénin

POPULATION: 10.60 million (2014)

AREA: 43,483 sq. mi. (112,620 sq. km)

LANGUAGES: French (official); Fon, Yoruba, Adja, Banba


PRINCIPAL RELIGIONS: traditional 70%, Christian 15%, Muslim 15%

CITIES: Porto Novo (capital), 330,000 (1999 est.); Cotonou, Abomey, Ouidah, Parakou, Natitingu

ANNUAL RAINFALL: Varies from 58 in. (1,500 mm) in the southeast to 30 in. (770 mm) in the extreme north

ECONOMY: GDP $8.747 billion (2014)


  • Agricultural: palm oil, cotton, coffee, cocoa, cassava, yams, corn, livestock, peanuts, timber
  • Manufacturing: vegetable oil processing, cement, textiles, palm products
  • Mining: offshore oil deposits, limestone, marble, iron ore

GOVERNMENT: Independence from France, 1960. President elected by universal suffrage. Governing bodies: Assemblée Nationale elected by universal suffrage.


  • 1972–1991 Major (later Lieutenant General) Mathieu Kérékou
  • 1991–1996 President Nicéphore Soglo
  • 1996– President Mathieu Kérékou

ARMED FORCES: 4,800 (1998 est.)

EDUCATION: Compulsory for ages 6–12; literacy rate 37%

Republic of Bénin

The Republic of Bénin is located in West Africa along the Gulf of Guinea. It is bordered by NIGERIA on the east, TOGO on the west, and by BURKINA FASO and NIGER on the north. Bénin’s present-day borders were shaped by the kingdom of Dahomey, which extended through the region in the mid-1800s, and by European countries trying to establish empires in Africa.


Although Bénin lies entirely within the tropics, it has considerable variety in both its geography and climate. Southern Bénin was once covered with rainforests, but most of the land has been cleared for agriculture. The destruction of rainforests has led to a decrease in precipitation during the two rainy seasons the south experiences each year. Forests cover central Bénin, savanna dominates in the northeast, and the Atakora Mountains rise in the northwest. Northern Bénin has only one rainy season per year, which makes the region less suitable for raising crops. Most of Bénin’s population is concentrated in the south, where the land is better suited to farming. Both Bénin’s capital, Porto Novo, and its largest city, Cotonou, are located in this region.


Bénin’s economy is based on agriculture, informal trade (smuggling), and foreign aid. Due to a lack of infrastructure—such as roads, railroads, and power generation—industry and trade have developed slowly in the country.

More than half of the people in Bénin make a living in agriculture, which accounts for about one third of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). However, most of the soil is of poor quality. Despite this disadvantage and a doubling of the population between 1962 and 1995, Bénin has been able to produce enough food to feed itself. It also exports food to Nigeria. Rice, corn, peanuts, and cotton are some of Bénin’s main crops. Palm oil and palm kernel oil are also major agricultural exports.

Bénin has a long history of people smuggling goods across its border with Nigeria. The goods move in both directions. Most of the cocoa crop that Bénin exports is smuggled in from Nigeria. Illegal drugs from South America also enter Bénin before being shipped to Europe. Regular trade with countries outside of Africa accounts for more than one third of GDP. Trade with African countries is much smaller because of internal problems such as lack of transport, customs barriers, and officials who charge “tariffs” that they keep for themselves. These help drive up the cost of transporting goods.

Industrial development in Bénin, based on international financing, has not had much success. Bénin has reduced the amount of oil it imports by producing oil using offshore resources. A large percent of Bénin’s electricity is generated in GHANA.

Foreign countries and international institutions provide more than $250 million of economic assistance to Bénin per year. Much of this aid has been misspent on projects such as trying to introduce plow agriculture in the south. A great deal of the funds also goes to pay government salaries, which take up a large portion of the national budget.


The history of Bénin involves the history of several African kingdoms. Although Benin was the name of an ancient kingdom in what is now Nigeria, that kingdom is not related to present-day Bénin. This state is a twentieth-century invention, created by French colonial officials who combined areas that had few ties.

Precolonial Bénin

Before the 1800s the peoples of north Bénin were closely connected to the other lands of West Africa. South Bénin was ruled by a series of kingdoms controlled by the Fon and the Adja, who were related to peoples from Togo and Ghana. The most powerful of these kingdoms was that of Dahomey, which occupied southern Bénin as well as parts of present-day Togo and Nigeria. Dahomey built its power and wealth from trading slaves captured in raids on northern lands. The kingdom also produced palm oil and sold it to the French. Thus when the transatlantic SLAVE TRADE ended in 1851, Dahomey had a product available to replace slaves.

Colonial Bénin

The French hoped to build an empire in Africa and attempted to acquire territory on the West African coast. King Ghezo, who ruled from 1818 to 1856, gave France control over a portion of the coast that later became the city of Cotonou. However, the French wanted more territory, and in 1890 they mounted an attack on Dahomey with the help of the southern kingdom of Gun. The attack failed, but the French were successful two years later, and Dahomey became part of the federation of FRENCH WEST AFRICA.

The French established an administration partially based on institutions from the kingdom of Dahomey. Colonial authorities relied on powerful local individuals to carry out policies in the villages and countryside. Overseeing this colonial structure were district officers who had the power to raise and collect taxes, recruit labor by force, and draft individuals into the military. However, French rule in Dahomey was quite unstable, and the colony produced little revenue.

In the early 1900s, Dahomey experienced a series of brief uprisings among several local peoples. Calls for independence grew louder after World War II. In 1960 France finally granted independence to Dahomey. Fifteen years later, Dahomey changed its name to Bénin.

Postcolonial Bénin

Between 1960 and 1972 Bénin had 12 separate governments, 5 of which were overthrown in coups. During this time, French “technical advisers” actually controlled the workings of government, and France paid Bénin’s national debt. In 1972 military leader Mathieu Kérékou seized power and embarked on a communist program of economic and social development. He took over large private plantations and turned them into cooperative farms and nationalized many businesses. The state also replaced local leaders who were not easily controlled by the central government.

In the early 1980s, Bénin suffered an economic crisis. Over the next several years, its state-owned banks began to fail and the salaries of government employees were paid irregularly. In 1989 the government cut its spending, and President Kérékou abandoned his communist political program and accepted a democratic constitution for Bénin.

In 1991 Nicéphore Soglo was elected president in free elections. Three years later, Bénin suffered an economic crisis when its currency was reduced in value by 50 percent, but the situation became more stable within a couple of years. In 1996 Kérékou defeated Soglo and returned as the country’s president.


Bénin’s government is a democracy headed by a president elected by the people. The president nominates cabinet ministers and the governors of Bénin’s six provinces. Bénin’s parliament has the power to make laws and decisions about the budget. In some ways, modern Bénin still operates like the colonial government. Local authorities have a great deal of influence, and the central government relies on them to carry out policies. The laws of the state often have limited control over the workings of the local government, and the opportunities for corruption at the local level are great. Bénin does have a powerful constitutional court that requires that the government accounts for its actions. This has helped ensure that laws passed by the government follow the country’s constitution.


The colonial government classified the people of Bénin by language, although that was only one of many ways by which they identify themselves. Some groups identify themselves through ancestry, and some through associations with other peoples. In reality the history of the people in the region has led to a pattern of settlement that is very mixed.

The largest single Béninese group is the Fon, whose language Fongbe is the dominant tongue in southern Bénin. Before the colonial period, Fon society was based on slave raiding, and many slaves became Fon when they were brought into Fon households. The Fon did not absorb members of every group they ruled over, however. The Ayizo, who had to send people to serve in the Fon army and who speak a dialect of Fongbe, resisted alliances or identification with the Fon. Bénin is home to several other former slave raiding peoples, such as the Wasangari and the YORUBA.

Gur speakers of the north, called Berba, identify themselves through a common initiation ritual. The Baseda and other groups living near the border with Togo belong to a cultural association based on mutual defense.

The Béninese people belong to several different religious groups. Although one third of the people practice either Christianity or Islam, the majority follow traditional African beliefs. Many practice VODUN, or voodoo, a religion that originated in Bénin and that involves the worship of many gods. (See also Colonialism in Africa, Ethnic Groups and Identity, History of Africa, Land Ownership, Slavery, Witchcraft and Sorcery.)