Benin -- Geography --
Official Name: Republic of Benin
Capital City: Porto-Novo
Area: 112 622 sq km
Country Population: 8 500 000 (2001)
Languages: French, local languages
Religions: 42.8% Christian (27.1% Roman Catholic, 5% Celestial Church of Christ, 3.2% Methodist, 7.5% other Christian denominations), 24.4% were Muslim
Benin, a narrow, north-south strip of land in west Africa, lies between the Equator and the Tropic of Cancer.
It is one of the smaller countries in West Africa: eight times smaller than Nigeria, its neighbor to the east. It is, however, twice as large as Togo, its neighbor to the west. A relief map of Benin shows that it has little variation in elevation (average elevation 200 m).
The country can be divided into four areas from the south to the north. The low-lying, sandy, coastal plain (highest elevation 10 m) is, at most, 10 km wide. It is marshy and dotted with lakes and lagoons communicating with the ocean. Behind the coast lies the Guinean forest-savanna mosaic covered plateaus of southern Benin (altitude between 20 m and 200 m) are split by valleys running north to south along the Couffo, Zou, and Oueme Rivers.
Then an area of flat lands dotted with rocky hills whose altitude seldom reaches 400 m extends around Nikki and Save. Finally, a range of mountains extends along the northwest border and into Togo; this is the Atacora, with the highest point, Mont Sokbaro, at 658 m.
Benin has fields of lying fallow, mangroves, and remnants of large sacred forests. In the rest of the country, the savanna is covered with thorny scrubs and dotted with huge baobab trees. Some forests line the banks of rivers. In the north and the northwest of Benin the Reserve du W du Niger and Pendjari National Park attract tourists eager to see elephants, lions, antelopes, hippos, and monkeys.
Benin's climate is hot and humid. Annual rainfall in the coastal area averages 36 cm (14 in)—not particularly high for coastal West Africa. Benin has two rainy and two dry seasons per year. The principal rainy season is from April to late July, with a shorter less intense rainy period from late September to November. The main dry season is from December to April, with a short cooler dry season from late July to early September. Temperatures and humidity are high along the tropical coast. In Cotonou, the average maximum temperature is 31 °C (89 °F); the minimum is 24 °C (75 °F).
Variations in temperature increase when moving north through a savanna and plateau toward the Sahel. A dry wind from the Sahara called the Harmattan blows from December to March. Grass dries up, the vegetation turns reddish brown, and a veil of fine dust hangs over the country, causing the skies to be overcast. It also is the season when farmers burn brush in the fields.
Benin -- History --
The Kingdom of Dahomey formed from a mixture of ethnic groups on the Abomey plain. Historians theorized that the insecurity caused by slave trading may have contributed to mass migrations of groups to modern day Abomey, including some Aja, a Gbe people who are believed to have founded the city. Those Aja living in Abomey mingled with the local Fon people, also a Gbe people, creating a new ethnic group known as "Dahomey".
The Gbe peoples are said to be descendents of a number of migrants from Wyo. 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 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 culture and traditions. Young boys were often apprenticed to older soldiers, and taught 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 (beginning in 1472 with a trade agreement with Portuguese merchants), 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 the present-day Benin Republic.
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 the 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. The president who led them to independence was Hubert Maga.
For the next twelve years, ethnic strife contributed to a period of turbulence. There were several coups and regime changes, with four figures dominating — Hubert Maga, Sourou Apithy, Justin Ahomadegbe and Emile Derlin Zinsou — the first three 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.
On May 7, 1972 Maga turned over power to Ahomadegbe. On October 26, 1972 Lt. Col. Mathieu Kerekou overthrew the ruling triumvirate, becoming president, and stating that the country will not "burden itself by copying foreign ideology, and wants neither Capitalism, Communism, nor Socialism", then on November 30 announcing that the country was officially Marxist, under the control of the Military Council of the Revolution (CNR), which nationalized the petroleum industry and banks. On November 30, 1975 he renamed the country to People's Republic of Benin.
In 1979, the CNR was dissolved, and Kerekou arranged show elections where he was the only allowed candidate. Establishing relations with the People's Republic of China, North Korea, and Libya, he put nearly all businesses and economic activities under state control, causing foreign investment in Benin to dry up. Kerekou attempted to reorganize education, pushing his own aphorisms such as "Poverty is not a fatality", resulting in a mass exodus of teachers, along with a large number of other professionals. The regime financed itself by contracting to take nuclear waste from France.
In 1980 Kerekou converted to Islam and changed his first name to Ahmed, then changed his name back after claiming to be a born-again Christian.
In 1989, riots broke out after the regime did not have money to pay its army. The banking system collapsed. Eventually Kerekou renounced Marxism. A convention forced the Kerekou to release political prisoners and arrange elections.
The name of the country was changed to the Republic of Benin on March 1, 1990, once the newly formed country's constitution was complete, after the abolition of marxism-leninism in the nation in 1989.
In 1991 Kerekou was defeated by Nicephore Soglo, and became the first black African president to step down after an election. Kerekou returned to power after winning the 1996 vote. In 2001, a closely fought election resulted in Kerekou winning another term, after which his opponents claimed election irregularities.
Kerekou and former president Soglo did not run in the 2006 elections, as both were barred by the constitution's restrictions on age and total terms of candidates. Kerekou is widely praised for making no effort to change the constitution so that he could remain in office or run again, unlike many 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 Houngbedji. The runoff election was held on March 19, and was won by Boni, who assumed office on April 6. The success of the fair multi-party elections in Benin won praise internationally. Benin is considered by a few to be a model democracy in Africa, but with such a short track record that only time will tell.
Benin -- Economy --
The economy of Benin remains underdeveloped and dependent on subsistence agriculture, cotton production, and regional trade. Cotton accounts for 40% of GDP and roughly 80% of official export receipts. Growth in real output has averaged around 5% in the past seven years, but rapid population growth has offset much of this increase. Inflation has subsided over the past several years. Benin uses CFA franc, which is pegged to euro.
In order to raise growth still further, Benin 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. Projects to improve the business climate by reforms to the land tenure system, the commercial justice system, and the financial sector were included in Benin's US$307 million Millennium Challenge Account grant signed in February 2006.
The Paris Club and bilateral creditors have eased the external debt situation, with Benin benefiting from a G8 debt reduction announced in July 2005, while pressing for more rapid structural reforms. An insufficient electrical supply continues to adversely affect Benin's economic growth though the government recently has taken steps to increase domestic power production.
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.
Benin is a member of the Organization for the Harmonization of Business Law in Africa (OHADA).
Cotonou harbors the country's only seaport and international airport. A new port is currently under construction between Cotonou and Porto Novo. Benin is connected by 2 lane asphalted roads to its neighboring countries (Togo, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Nigeria). Mobile telephone service is available across the country through various operators. ADSL connections are available in some areas. Benin is connected to Internet by way of satellite connections (since 1998) and a single submarine cable SAT-3/WASC (since 2001), keeping the price of data extremely high. Relief is expected with initiation of the Africa Coast to Europe cable in 2011.
Benin -- Culture --
Beninese literature had a strong oral tradition long before French became the dominant language. Felix Couchoro wrote the first Beninese novel, L'Esclave in 1929.
Post-independence, the country was home to a vibrant and innovative music scene, where native folk music combined with Ghanaian highlife, French cabaret, American rock, funk and soul, and Congolese rumba.
Singer Angelique Kidjo and actor Djimon Hounsou were both born in Cotonou, Benin. Composer Wally Badarou is also of beninese descent.
Five percent of Benin's population belongs to the Celestial Church of Christ, an African Initiated Church. In the 2002 census, 42.8% of the population of Benin were Christian (27.1% Roman Catholic, 5% Celestial Church of Christ, 3.2% Methodist, 7.5% other Christian denominations), 24.4% were Muslim, 17.3% practices Vodun, 6% other traditional local religious groups, 1.9% other religious groups, and 6.5% 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.
Benin -- Political system, law and government --
Benin's politics take place in a framework of a presidential representative democratic republic, where the President of
Benin is both head of state and head of government, within 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 political system is derived from the 1990 Constitution of Benin and the subsequent transition to democracy in 1991.
In its 2007 Worldwide Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Benin 53rd out of 169 countries.
Benin scored highly in the 2008 Ibrahim Index of African Governance, which comprehensively measures the state of governance across the continent. Benin was ranked 13th out of 48 sub-Saharan African countries, and scored particularly well in the categories of Safety & Security and Participation & Human Rights.