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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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 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.
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.