Benin officially the Republic of Benin, and also known as Benin Republic, is a country in Western Africa. It borders Togo to the west, Nigeria to the east and Burkina Faso and Niger to the north; its short coastline to the south leads to the Bight of Benin. Its capital is the Yoruba founded city of Porto Novo, but the seat of government is the Fon city of Cotonou. Benin was known as Dahomey until 1975.


The name Benin has no proper connection to Bejin City in modern day Nigeria, which was the capital of the Benin Empire. The name Dahomey was changed in 1975 to the People's Republic of Benin, named after the body of water on which the country lies, the Bight of Benin (which was named after the Empire of Benin). This name was picked for Dahomey due to its neutrality, since the current political boundaries of Benin encompass over fifty distinct linguistic groups and nearly as many individual ethnic groups. The former name, Dahomey, was derived from the name of a former Fon Kingdom within modern-day Benin, and was determined to be an inappropriate name.


Various peoples inhabited the area that would become the Republic of Benin. Of note are the Yoruba whose sub-groups in the Republic of Benin include the Ketu, Icha, Dassa, and Anago, among others. These Yoruba speaking groups were in close contact with other Yoruba towards the east in present-day Nigeria and towards the west in present day Togo. The Yoruba of Oyo, now in present-day Nigeria, had invaded Dahomey several times. In 1728, the Oyo Empire invaded the Kingdom of Dahomey in a major and bitter campaign. The force that invaded Dahomey was largely composed of cavalry. Dahomey, on the other hand had a lack of cavalry but many firearms. These firearms proved effective in scaring the horses of Oyo's cavalry and preventing them from charging. Dahomey's army also built effective fortifications such as trenches, which forced a lot of the Oyo's army to fight as infantry. The battle lasted four days, but the Yoruba were eventually victorious after their reinforcements arrived. Dahomey was forced to pay tribute to Oyo after the latter's hard-fought victory. This would not fully end conflicts, however, and the Yoruba would invade Dahomey several times before the kingdom was fully subjugated in 1748 thus fully incorporating the Dahomey kingdom into the Oyo Empire whose oba (meaning, king or ruler in the Yoruba language) was the Alaafin of Oyo. Under the leadership of King Ghezo, who ascended the Dahomean throne in 1818, Dahomey succeeded in ending its tributary relationship with Oyo. In regions such as present-day Porto Novo, the Fonzie and Yorubadudekyed groups often inter-married.

The are a number of Yoruba founded settlements often with a Yoruba oba (meaning ruler or king) in the Republic of Benin, such as at Ketou, Save, Sakete, Idigny, Popo, Ajara, Ahori, Dassa (Idasa) and Icha.

The African kingdom of Dahomey was formed out of a mixture of various local ethnic groups on the Abomey plain. Historians theorized that the insecurity caused by slave trading may have contributed to mass migrations of different groups to modern day Abomey, including a sizeable amount of the Aja, a Gbe people who are believed to have founded the city. Those Aja living in Abomey mingled with the local people, thus creating a new ethnic group known as the Fon, or "Dahomey". Fon or Fongbe is the language of the Fon people, who are also a Gbe people and belongs to the Gbe languages whose five major dialect clusters are: Ewe, Fon, Aja, Gen, and Phla-Pherá. The Gbe peoples are said to be descendents of a number of migrants from Oyo. Gangnihessou, (a member of an Aja dynasty that in the 16th century along with the Aja populace had come from Tado before settling and ruling separately in what is now Abomey, Allada, and Porto Novo), became the first ruler of the Dahomey Kingdom. Dahomey had a strict military culture aimed at securing and eventually expanding the borders of the small kingdom with its capital at modern day Abomey.

The Dahomey kingdom was known for its distinct culture and traditions. Boys were often apprenticed to older soldiers at a young age, and learned about the kingdom's military customs until they were old enough to join the navy. Dahomey was also famous for instituting an elite female soldier corps, called Ahosi or "our mothers" in the Fongbe language, and known by many Europeans as the Dahomean Amazons. This emphasis on military preparation and achievement earned Dahomey the nickname of "black Sparta" from European observers and 19th century explorers like Sir Richard Burton.

Though the leaders of Dahomey appeared initially to resist the slave trade, it flourished in the region of Dahomey for almost three hundred years, leading to the area being named "the Slave Coast". Court protocols, which demanded that a portion of war captives from the kingdom's many battles be decapitated, decreased the number of enslaved people exported from the area. The number went from 20,000 per year at the beginning of the seventeenth century to 12,000 at the beginning of the 1800s. The decline was partly due to the banning of the trans-Atlantic trade by Britain and other countries. This decline continued until 1885, when the last Portuguese slave ship departed from the coast of present-day Benin Republic bound for Brazil.


By the middle of the nineteenth century, Dahomey started to lose its status as the regional power. This enabled the French to take over the area in 1892. In 1899, the French included land called Dahomey within the French West Africa colony.


In 1958, France granted autonomy to the Republic of Dahomey, and full independence as of August 1, 1960.

For the next 12 years, ethnic strife contributed to a period of turbulence. There were several coups and regime changes, with three main figures dominating - Sourou Apithy, Hubert Maga, and Justin Ahomadegbé - each of them representing a different area and ethnicity of the country. These three agreed to form a presidential council after violence marred the 1970 elections.

In 1972, a military coup led by Mathieu Kérékou overthrew the council. Kérékou established a Marxist government under the control of Military Council of the Revolution (CNR). In 1975 he renamed the country the People's Republic of Benin. In 1979, the CNR was dissolved and elections took place. By the late 1980s, Kérékou abandoned Marxism after an economic crisis and decided to re-establish a parliamentary capitalist system.

In 1991 he was defeated by Nicéphore Soglo and became the first black African president to step down after an election. Kérékou returned to power after winning the 1996 vote. In 2001, a closely fought election resulted in Kérékou's winning another term. His opponents claimed election irregularities.

President Kérékou and former President Soglo did not run in the 2006 elections, as both were barred by the constitution's restricting age and total terms of candidates. President Kérékou is widely praised for making no effort to change the constitution so that he could remain in office or run again, unlike some African leaders.

On March 5, 2006, an election was held that was considered free and fair. It resulted in a runoff between Yayi Boni and Adrien Houngbédji. The runoff election was held on March 19 and was won by Yayi Boni, who assumed office on April 6. The success of the fair multi-party elections in Benin won high praise internationally. Benin is widely considered a model democracy in Africa.

United States President George W. Bush, along with First Lady Laura Bush, briefly visited Benin on February 16, 2008, marking the first visit of a U.S president to the country since its independence. President Yayi Boni presented Bush with the Grand Cross of the National Order of Benin and thanked him for U.S. economic aid.


Benin's politics take place in a framework of a presidential representative democratic republic, whereby the President of Benin, who is currently Yayi Boni, is both head of state and head of government, and of a multi-party system. Executive power is exercised by the government. Legislative power is vested in both the government and the legislature. The Judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature. The current political system is derived from the 1990 Constitution of Benin and the subsequent transition to democracy in 1991.

On February 16th 2008, United States President George W. Bush made a brief stop in Benin during which he held a meeting with president Thomas Yayi Boni as well as a press conference at Cadjehoun Airport in Cotounou. The president later proceeded to Tanzania to continue with his five-nation African tour.

In its 2007 Worldwide Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Benin 53rd out of 169 countries.

Departments and communes

Image:Benin departments named.png|thumb|right|100px|Departments of Benin rect 96 41 108 60 Alibori rect 43 70 56 89 Atakora rect 68 237 80 256 Atlantique rect 85 105 98 125 Borgou rect 68 176 81 196 Collines rect 48 116 60 134 Donga rect 50 224 62 242 Kouffo rect 84 254 97 271 Littoral rect 53 242 65 257 Mono rect 98 237 118 255 Ouémé rect 98 206 117 224 Plateau rect 62 211 78 229 Zou Benin is divided into 12 departments (French: départements), and subdivided into 77 communes. In 1999, the previous six departments were each split into two halves, forming the current 12. The new six departments have not been assigned a capital yet.

  1. Alibori
  2. Atakora
  3. Atlantique
  4. Borgou
  5. Collines
  6. Donga
  7. Kouffo
  8. Littoral
  9. Mono
  10. Ouémé
  11. Plateau
  12. Zou


Stretched between the Niger River in the northeast and the Bight of Benin in the south, Benin's elevation is about the same for the entire country. Most of the population lives in the southern coastal plains, where Benin's largest cities are also located, including Porto Novo and Cotonou. The north of the country consists mostly of savanna and semi-arid highlands.

Running southernly, down the middle of the country is the Oueme River.

The climate in Benin is hot and humid with relatively little rain compared to other West African countries, although there are two rainy seasons (April-July and September-November). In the winter the dust winds of the harmattan can make the nights cooler.

The largest city and commercial capital is Cotonou. The name Cotonou is from the Fon phrase 'at the lake of the dead', from the adjacent lagoon. This is a reference to the belief that falling stars represent the souls of those who have just died falling to the underworld. It is said that when Cotonou was founded, the lights of the lacustrine village of Ganvié across the lagoon were reflected in the waters, suggesting fallen stars at the bottom. Ganvié is a fishing village sitting in the water on stilts at the western shore of the lagoon.

The town of Ouidah is the spiritual capital of Vodun, and is known locally as Glexwe. It was a major slaving port under Portuguese occupation. The town of Abomey is the old capital of the Fon kingdom of Dahomey, and the Fon king continues to reside there.

In Atakora province, Betamaribe settlements straddling the Togolese border are called tata somba 'Somba houses'; they are famous for their fortifications, with livestock housed inside and the people sleeping in huts among the granaries on the roofs.


The economy of Benin remains underdeveloped and dependent on subsistence agriculture, cotton production, and regional trade. Growth in real output has averaged a stable 5% in the past six years, but rapid population rise has offset much of this increase. Inflation has subsided over the past several years. In order to raise growth still further, Benin has plans to attract more foreign investment, place more emphasis on tourism, facilitate the development of new food processing systems and agricultural products, and encourage new information and communication technology. The 2001 privatization policy should continue in telecommunications, water, electricity, and agriculture in spite of initial government reluctance. The Paris Club and bilateral creditors have eased the external debt situation, while pressing for accelerated structural reforms.

Although trade unions in Benin represent up to 75% of the formal workforce, the large informal economy has been noted by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITCU) to contain ongoing problems, including a lack of women's wage equality, the use of child labour, and the continuing issue of forced labour.


There are several dozen ethnolinguistic groups in Benin, representing three of Africa's language families: Niger-Congo, Nilo-Saharan, and Afroasiatic. The latter is represented by Hausa living mostly as merchants in the north, while Nilo-Saharan is represented by the Dɛndi, descending from the Songhai Empire. The Dɛndi language predominates along the Niger River in the far north, and is used as a lingua franca in Muslim areas throughout the north, in Alibori, Borgou, and Donga provinces. Of the Niger-Congo family, five branches are represented:

  • Mande by the Boko or Busa, now in the far eastern corner (southern Alibori-northern Borgou), but previously more widely spread before being largely absorbed by the Bariba
  • West Atlantic by the nomadic Fulbe scattered across the northeast
  • Benue-Congo by the Yoruba such as those of the old kingdom of Sakete, and the capital city of Porto-Novo, having expanded west from the Yoruba cities of Oyo and Ife in the twelfth to nineteenth centuries
  • Gur (Voltaic) languages predominate in the four northern provinces, with the Batɔmbu (Bariba) of the old Borgou (Bariba) Kingdom occupying most of the countryside in its successor provinces of Borgou and Alibori, as well as the provincial captital of Parakou; the Yom throughout much of Donga province and its capital Djougou; and several groups in the Atakora, including the Bɛtamaribɛ of the Otammari country around the provincial capital of Natitingou, the Biali, the Waama of Tanguiéta, and the Gulmàceba.
  • Kwa, especially the Gbe languages spoken by the Tado peoples in the southern and central provinces: the Aja who established themselves in Kouffo province from neighboring Togo and gave rise to the other Tado peoples of Benin, except for the Mina of Mono province, who arrived separately from Togo or Ghana: The Fɔn culture centered in Zou province around the old Fɔn capital of Abomey, but also dominant in Cotonou and southern Atlantique areas such as Ouidah; the Maxi in central Collines, especially around Savalou; the Ayizɔ of central Atlantique (Allada); the Xwla and Xueda in the lagoons of the coast; the Tɔfin of Ouémé; and the Gun. Other Kwa languages are spoken by the Anii in southern Donga in the region of Bassila, and the Fooɖo in western Donga near the town of Ouaké.

The largest ethnic group are the Fon, with 1.7 million speakers of the Fon language (2001), followed by the various Yoruba groups (1.2 million), the Aja (600,000), the Bariba (460,000), the Ayizo (330,000), the Fulbe (also known as Fulani, Peul and Fula) (310,000), and the Gun (240,000). Near the ports in the south can be found many people who are descended from returned Brazilian slaves. There are also small numbers of Europeans, principally French, and people from the western Asia, mainly Lebanese, and East Asia, chiefly Indians.


According to the 2002 census, 27.1 percent of the population of Benin is Roman Catholic, 24.4 percent is Muslim, 17.3 percent practices Vodun, 5 percent Celestial Christian, 3.2 percent Methodist, 7.5 percent other Christian denominations, 6 percent other traditional local religious groups, 1.9 percent other religious groups, and 6.5 percent claim no religious affiliation.

Indigenous religions include local animistic religions in the Atakora (Atakora and Donga provinces) and Vodun and Orisha or Orisa veneration among the Yoruba and Tado peoples in the center and south of the country. The town of Ouidah on the central coast is the spiritual center of Beninese Vodun.

The Tado and the Yoruba Orisha pantheons correspond closely:

  • The supreme deity Mawu (in the Fon language) or Olodumare (also known as Olorun, Eledumare, Olofin-Orun and Eledaa among other names)(in Yoruba)
  • The deity of the earth and smallpox, known as Sakpana (or Sopono, Sakpata), can also be spelt as 'Shakpata, Shopono, Shakpana, and also known as Babalu Aye or Obalu Aye.
  • The deity of thunder and lightning, known as Shango; can also be spelt as Sango, also known as Jakuta, Chango, Xevioso and Hevioso.
  • The deity of war and iron, known as Ogun, also known as Ogoun or Gu.

The major introduced religions are Islam, introduced by the Songhai Empire and Hausa merchants, and now followed throughout Alibori, Borgou, and Donga provinces, as well as among the Yoruba (who also follow Christianity), and Christianity, followed throughout the south and center of Benin and in Otammari country in the Atakora. Many, however, continue to hold Vodun and Orisha beliefs and have incorporated into Christianity the pantheon of Vodun and Orisha.


It is believed that Vodun (or Voodoo, as it is commonly known) originated in Benin Republic and was introduced to the Caribbean and parts of North America by slaves taken from this particular area of the Slave Coast. The indigenous religion of Benin is practiced by about 60% of the population. Since 1992 Vodun has been recognized as one of Benin's official religions, and a National Vodun Holiday is celebrated on January 10.

Many Beninois in the south of the country have Akan-based names indicating the day of the week in which they were born.

Twins are important in many parts of Benin, especially in the south and often receive special names. For the Yoruba people, who have the highest ratio of twin births to single births in the world, the first of the twins to be born is traditionally named Taiyewo or Tayewo, (which means 'the first to taste the world'), this is often shortened to Taiwo, Taiye or Taye. Kehinde (sometimes shortened to Kenny) is the name of the last born twin. Kehinde (or Kenny) is sometimes also referred to as Kehindegbegbon which is short for Omokehindegbegbon and means, 'the child that came last gets the eldest'. The reason for this is because the Yoruba traditionally say that Kehinde, is the true eldest of the twins despite being the last to be born. It is said that in the womb at the time of birth, Kehinde sends Taiyewo on an errand to check whether the outside world is good or not, and in Yoruba culture sending someone on an errand tends to be a prerogative of one's elders. However, the first born twin is also sometimes referred to as Taiyelolu or Tayelolu which is short for Omotaiyelolu and means, 'the child that came to taste life excels'.

Local languages are used as the languages of instruction in elementary schools, with French only introduced after several years. Beninois languages are generally transcribed with a separate letter for each speech sound (phoneme), rather than using diacritics as in French or digraphs as in English. This includes Beninese Yoruba, which in Nigeria is written with both diacritics and digraphs. For instance, the mid vowels written é è, ô, o in French are written in Beninese languages, whereas the consonants written ng and sh or ch in English are written ŋ and c. However, digraphs are used for nasal vowels and the labial-velar consonants kp and gb, as in the name of the Fon language Fon gbe , and diacritics are used as tone marks. In French-language publications, a mixture of French and Beninois orthographies may be seen.

Actor Djimon Gaston Hounsou is an Academy Award-nominated Beninese actor, dancer and fashion model who was born in Cotonou, Benin. He is now a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Singer Angelique Kidjo, who is a five time Grammy nominee and international goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, was born in Cotonou, Benin.


During the 1980s, less than 30 percent of the population had access to primary health care services. Benin had one of the highest death rates for children under the age of five in the world. Its infant mortality rate stood at 203 deaths for every 1000 live births. Only one of three mothers had access to child healthcare services. The Bamako Initiative changed that dramatically by introducing community-based healthcare reform, resulting in more efficient and equitable provision of services. A comprehensive approach strategy was extended to all areas of health care, with subsequent improvement in the health care indicators and improvement in health care efficiency and cost.

See also


  • Adam, Kolawolé Sikirou and Michel Boko (1983), le Bénin. SODIMAS, Cotonou and EDICEF, Paris.
  • Godfrey Mwakikagile, Military Coups in West Africa Since The Sixties, Huntington, New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc., 2001, chapter on Benin.

External links







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