The Republic of Benin is a narrow, north to south a long stretched country in West Africa, that lies between the Equator and the Tropic of Cancer. It consists of a thin wedge of territory extending northward for about 675 kilometers from the Gulf of Guinea in the Atlantic Ocean, on which it has a 117 kilometers seacoast, to the Niger River, which forms part of Benin’s northern border with Niger. Togo bounds it to the west, Burkina Faso and Niger to the north, Nigeria to the east, and the Bight of Benin to the south. With an area of 112,622 square kilometers, Benin is one of the smaller countries in West Africa: eight times smaller than Nigeria. Benin consists of five natural regions. The coastal region is low, flat, and sandy, backed by tidal marshes and lagoons. It is composed of, in effect, a long sandbar on which grow clumps of coconut palms; the lagoons are narrower in the western part of the country, where many have become marshes because of silting, and wider in the east, and some are interconnected. The Benin plateaus, four in number, are to be found in the environs of Abomey, Kétou, Aplahoué (or Parahoué), and Zagnanado. The plateaus consist of clays on a crystalline base.
Based on Worldometer elaboration of the latest United Nations data, as of February 7, 2023, Benin, formerly known as Dahomey has a population of 12.9 million people. Porto-Novo, a port on an inlet of the Gulf of Guinea is the nation’s capital city, largest city, and economic capital Cotonou. Spoken languages are French (official), Fon, and Yoruba. About 42 African ethnic groups live in this country, including the Yoruba in the southeast; the Fon in the area around Abomey in the South Central and the Mina, Xueda, the Dendi in the north-central area; the Bariba and the Fula in the northeast; the Betammaribe and the Somba in the Atakora Mountains; and Aja on the coast.
The historical kingdom of Benin was established in the forested region of West Africa in the 1200s C.E. According to history, the Edo people of southern Nigeria founded Benin. They no longer wanted to be ruled by their kings, known as the Ogisos. They asked a prince from Ife, an important West African kingdom, to take control. The first oba, or king, in Benin, was Eweka. He was the son of the prince from Ife. The kingdom reached its greatest power and size under Oba Ewuare the Great. He expanded the kingdom and improved the capital, present-day Benin City; the city was defined by massive walls. The height of power for Benin’s monarchs began during this period. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the most powerful state in this area was the kingdom of Allada (Ardra), but in the 18th and 19th centuries, its place was taken by the Dahomey kingdom.
Benin began to lose power during the 1800s, as royal family members fought for power and control of the throne. Civil wars broke out, dealing a significant blow to both Benin’s administration as well as its economy. In its weakened state, Benin struggled to resist foreign interference in its trading network, particularly by the British and the French. By the middle of the 19th 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. In 1958, France granted autonomy to the Republic of Dahomey, and full independence on 1 August 1960 which is celebrated each year as Independence Day, a national holiday. The president who led the country to independence was Hubert Maga
- Capital City:
total: 112,622 sq km
land: 110,622 sq km
water: 2,000 sq km
- Land boundaries:
Total: 2,123 km
- border countries (4):
Burkina Faso 386 km,
Niger 277 km,
Nigeria 809 km,
Togo 651 km
Coastline: 121 km
- Total: 2244 km
Tropical; hot, humid in south; semiarid in north
Mostly flat to undulating plain; some hills and low mountains
Mean elevation: 273 m
Elevation extremes: lowest point: Atlantic Ocean 0 m
Highest point: Mont Sokbaro 658 m
- Natural resources:
Small offshore oil deposits, limestone, marble, timber
- Land use:
Agricultural land: 31.3%
Arable land 22.9%; permanent crops 3.5%; permanent pasture 4.9%
Other: 28.7% (2011 est.)
- Irrigated land:
230 sq km (2012)
- Population – distribution:
The population is primarily located in the south, with the highest concentration of people residing in and around the cities on the Atlantic coast; most of the north remains sparsely populated with higher concentrations of residents in the west
- Natural hazards:
Hot, dry, dusty harmattan wind may affect the north from December to March
People and Society
Benin has a youthful age structure – almost 65% of the population is under the age of 25 – which is bolstered by high fertility and population growth rates. Benin’s total fertility has been falling over time but remains high, declining from almost 7 children per woman in 1990 to 4.8 in 2016. Benin’s low contraceptive use and high unmet need for contraception contribute to the sustained high fertility rate. Although the majority of Beninese women use skilled healthcare personnel for antenatal care and delivery, the high rate of maternal mortality indicates the need for more access to high-quality obstetric care.
Poverty, unemployment, increased living costs, and dwindling resources increasingly drive the Beninese to migrate. An estimated 4.4 million, more than 40%, of Beninese live abroad. Virtually all Beninese emigrants move to West African countries, particularly Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire. Of the less than 1% of Beninese emigrants who settle in Europe, the vast majority live in France, Benin’s former colonial ruler.
With about 40% of the population living below the poverty line, many desperate parents resort to sending their children to work in wealthy households as domestic servants (a common practice known as Vidomegon), in mines, quarries, or agriculture domestically or in Nigeria and other neighboring countries, often under brutal conditions. Unlike in other West African countries, where rural people move to the coast, farmers from Benin’s densely populated southern and northwestern regions move to the historically sparsely populated central region to pursue agriculture. Immigrants from West African countries came to Benin in increasing numbers between 1992 and 2002 because of its political stability and porous borders.
- Ethnic groups:
Fon and related 38.4%, Adja, and related 15.1%, Yoruba and related 12%, Bariba and related 9.6%, Fulani and related 8.6%, Ottamari and related 6.1%, Yoa-Lokpa and related 4.3%, Dendi and related 2.9%, other 0.9%, foreigner 1.9% (2013 est.)
French (official), Fon, and Yoruba (most common vernaculars in the south), tribal languages (at least six major ones in the north)
Muslim 27.7%, Roman Catholic 25.5%, Protestant 13.5% (Celestial 6.7%, Methodist 3.4%, other Protestant 3.4%), Vodoun 11.6%, other Christian 9.5%, other traditional religions 2.6%, other 2.6%, none 5.8% (2013 est.)
Ethnicity, Language, and Religion
The largest ethnic group in Benin is Fon/Dahomey which constitutes 39% of the total population. Established in 1600 by the Fon, a group that came about through the intermarriage between the Adja and local Gedevi, the Dahomey ethnic group is the majority in West Africa. Coming from Nigeria and well-settled along the eastern boundary of Benin is the Yoruba ethnic group. They are more than 18% of the population. The majority of the Yoruba people in Benin are descendants of the Ife tribe, and the Yoruba people are predominantly of the Muslim religion.
The Adja ethnic group is mostly farmers and lives in the southern part of Benin. They make up 15% of the general country’s population. This group of people migrated to Benin between the 12th and 13th centuries from River Mono. Dominating the northern side of Benin is the Bariba ethnic group which constitutes 9% of the population. They are the first inhabitants of Benin and are concentrated in the capital city, Nikki. There is no ethnic homogeneity in Benin, which was brought about by the high levels of waves of migration, commercial relations with Europe, and competition that existed among the pre-colonial Kingdoms.
French is the official language and the language of instruction, but each ethnic group has its own language, which is also spoken. Most adults living in various ethnic communities also speak the dominant language of each region. The most widely spoken languages are Fon and Gen (Mina), members of the Kwa branch of the Niger-Congo family of African languages; Bariba, a member of the Gur branch of the Niger-Congo family; Yoruba, one of a small group of languages that constitute the Yoruboid cluster of the Defoid subbranch of the Benue-Congo branch of the Niger-Congo family; and Dendi, one of the Songhai languages, which are generally assumed to constitute the primary branch of the Nilo-Saharan language family.
About 30% of the population is nominally Christian, with a majority belonging to the Roman Catholic church. Other denominations include Methodists, Baptists, Assemblies of God, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, Celestial Christians, Seventh-Day Adventists, Rosicrucians, the Unification Church, Eckankar, and the Baha’i faith. About 20% of the population is Sunni Muslim. The constitution provides for freedom of religion and this right is generally respected in practice. There is no state-sponsored religion.
Education in Benin covers nursery, primary, and secondary levels, along with technical, professional, and university education, training for the handicapped, and informal education. Benin has abolished school fees and is carrying out the recommendations of its 2007 Educational Forum. In 2018, the net primary enrollment rate was 97 percent. The gross enrollment rate in secondary education has greatly increased in the last two decades, from 21.8 percent in 2000 to 59 percent in 2016, 67.1 percent in the case of males, and 50.7 percent for females.
The education sector is managed by three ministries: the Ministry of Pre-Primary and Primary Education (MEMP), the Ministry of Secondary Education and Technical and Vocational Training (MESFTP), and the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MESRS). Strengthened by the previous GPE programs, Benin collects, analyzes, and regularly publishes school statistics, which are handled by the Directorate for Programming and Forward Planning in the MEMP.
The overall adult literacy rate is 42.4 percent (2018), significantly lower than in neighbors Togo (63.7%) and Nigeria (62%). Only 31.1% of women in Benin 15 years or older are literate, although this number increases to 51.9% for the 15-24 year-olds (69.8% for men). Drawing on the country’s development objectives laid out in the “Vision Bénin Alafia 2025” and approved by the Government in June 2018, the new Education Sector Plan (ESP) for 2018-2030 highlights the government’s vision that:
“In 2030, Benin’s education system ensures that all learners, without distinction, have access to the skills, entrepreneurial spirit and innovation that will make them full-blown/fulfilled, competent and competitive citizens able to ensure economic growth, sustainable development and national cohesion”.
Primary education is a mandatory element in Benin’s education system. Fees for primary education are compulsory, which led to a strong increase in enrolment. Notably, female enrolment is now almost on par with male enrolment. Gross enrolment rates of girls surpassed 100 percent in 2008 and are now close to 120 percent. Note that in the same period, net enrolment for all students increased from 80 to almost 100 percent, which indicates that the increase in gross enrolment is due to a net enrolment increase.
The education program of the Benin model of 6-4-3. After spending two to three years in kindergarten, it takes six years for them to complete and take the primary school certificate. This period is spent at primary school where children receive their foundation education. The following 4 years are spent at middle school where a general academic curriculum continues.
There are two separate pathways in lower secondary education. The first path is general secondary education, which lasts four years and lists the CEP as an entry requirement. Upon completion, students earn their first cycle diploma of studies – Brevet d’Etudes du Premier Cycle (BEPC). The other pathway is the technical and professional first cycle of secondary education. To gain access, students must hold the CEP and pass an entry test for technical education. Students complete this path after three years, granting successful students the certificate of professional aptitude – Certificat d’Aptitudes Professionnelles (CAP) or the certified diploma of nursing – Sciences de la Santé (SS).
In upper secondary education, otherwise known as the second cycle, there are three separate pathways. One is the general upper secondary (second cycle) education pathway, which takes three years to complete and results in the attainment of the Baccalauréat (BAC). In addition, there is the second cycle of technical and professional secondary education, which takes three years and grants students the Technical Baccaleaurat. The third pathway is the second cycle of technical and professional secondary education with a focus on agricultural sciences. It takes four years to complete and results in the diploma of agricultural sciences – Brevet d’Etudes Agricoles Techniques (BEAT). Gross enrolment in the year 2014 was 37.6 percent for upper secondary education.
Students who wish to pursue their academic options further proceed to senior high school for another 3 years. After that, they still have to pass their baccalaureate examination which is the key to the doors of the university. If they prefer, they may go to one of 5 vocational schools spread across 12 provinces instead.
Gross enrolment in tertiary education has steadily increased over the past decades, though primarily driven by growing male participation. Female enrolment is less than half of the rate for men. In terms of education pathways, there are numerous types of diplomas that can be attained. The technical baccalaureate also allows for entry into tertiary education. Upon completion of the BAC, students may enter university to earn a “general” or a literary degree. This takes two years and grants successful students the Diploma of General University Studies (DEUG) or the Diploma of Literary University Studies (DEUL). Both degrees allow for one year of further studies to attain a License.
With the BAC, students can directly enter the License or License Professionelle programs. Attaining the License takes three years for students entering with a BAC. As stated above, students can also complete both License programs in one year if they previously earned either the DEUL or DEUG. Students with a BTS can only enroll in the License Professionelle and complete this degree in one year. DEUG, DEUL, and License cover the typical spectrum of natural and social sciences.
The University of Abomey-Calavi (previously known as the University of Dahomey and the National University of Benin, located in Cotonou, was founded in 1970. The university’s student body has been, along with workers, the main political force in the country since the early 1980s. The University of Parakou was founded in 2001. Benin has reformed its vocational training system in line with the urban demand for skilled labor. Notable among its strategies is a dual apprenticeship system, where theoretical education alternates with practical apprenticeship training.
The economy of Benin remains dependent on subsistence agriculture and is still reliant on agriculture and on formal and informal re-export and transit trade with Nigeria. Cotton accounts for 40% of Benin’s GDP and roughly 80% of official export receipts. There is also the production of textiles, palm products, cocoa beans, Maize (corn), beans, rice, peanuts, cashews, pineapples, cassava, yams, and other various tubers grown for local subsistence.
Benin’s economy rebounded strongly in 2021, growing at an estimated 7.2%. from 3.8% in 2020. The services and construction sectors were the main drivers of this growth. On the supply side, growth resulted from the good performance, on the one hand, of the primary sector (up 3.9% after 2% growth in 2020), benefiting from the positive effects of the reforms that helped to increase yields and improve governance of the agriculture sector; and, on the other, of the tertiary sector, which grew 7.2% in 2021, up from 4.9% expansion in 2020, due to an increase in port traffic, the opening of Nigeria’s borders, and better governance of Cotonou Port. On the demand side, growth stemmed from the 17% increase in investment, with a continued countercyclical fiscal policy. Inflation dropped to 1.7% in 2021 owing to the improved food supply.
While inflation averaged 1.7% during the year, inflationary pressures have increased significantly since the end of 2021. Inflation has been driven by higher food and petroleum product prices and has accelerated since the start of the conflict in Ukraine. Expansionary fiscal policies were pursued, and the fiscal deficit (grants included) widened from 4.7% of GDP in 2020 to 5.7% in 2021. Although overall revenues remained fairly resilient, response plans significantly increased government expenditure during the 2020-2021 period. Fiscal measures adopted to support the purchasing power of households will put a strain on public accounts and the deficit is expected to remain high in 2022.
In 2021, Benin adopted important legislative reforms for the empowerment of women and girls. Specifically, the government adopted laws and decrees to promote access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, strengthen the criminalization of gender-based violence, and strengthen the national entity responsible for advocacy, monitoring, and support of gender-related reforms. Gender-based crimes referred to the justice system (as a percentage of the total received) increased from 12.1 percent in 2020 to 13.7 percent in 2021. In the energy sector, reforms have focused on the establishment of an appropriate institutional and regulatory framework to increase private participation in the energy sector, particularly in renewable energy, and the adoption of the National Energy Efficiency Policy.
Growth is expected to reach 6.1% in 2022 and 6.4% in 2023. These forecasts rely on reforms in agriculture sector governance, and improvements in public financial management and the business climate. The food supply increase should allow inflation to continue to decrease to roughly 2.8% by 2023. The budget deficit is projected to narrow to 4.3% of GDP in 2022 and 3.7% in 2023, but these are still wider than the wAEMU criterion of 3% of GDP. After rising to 48.9% of GDP in 2022, public debt is projected to decrease to 46.3% in 2023, helped by robust growth and better debt structuring during this period. The current account deficit is expected to widen to 5.4% of GDP in 2022 before narrowing to 4.6% in 2023, in the latter year due to a narrowing trade balance. Foreign exchange reserves are forecast to increase to 6 months of import cover on average in 2022–23. The main risks are the resurgence of the health crisis, fluctuations in cotton and oil prices, the impacts of the Russia–Ukraine conflict, adverse weather, and deteriorating security in northern areas.
- GDP (purchasing power parity):
$25.29 billion (2017 est.)
$23.99 billion (2016 est.)
$23.06 billion (2015 est.)
note: data are in 2017 dollars
- GDP (official exchange rate):
$12.56 billion (2017 est.)
- Real GDP
$9.41 billion (2017 est.)
- GDP – real growth rate::
5.4% (2017 est.)
4% (2016 est.)
2.1% (2015 est.)
- GDP – per capita (PPP):
$2,200 (2017 est.)
$2,200 (2016 est.)
$2,100 (2015 est.)
- Gross national saving:
20% of GDP (2017 est.)
17.4% of GDP (2016 est.)
17.6% of GDP (2015 est.)
- GDP – composition, by sector of origin:
services: 51.3% (2017 est.)
- Agriculture – products:
cotton, corn, cassava (manioc, tapioca), yams, beans, palm oil, peanuts, cashews; livestock
textiles, food processing, construction materials, cement
- Population below the poverty line:
36.2% (2011 est.)
revenues: $1.372 billion
expenditures: $2.261 billion (2017 est.)
Sustainable agriculture in Benin has become increasingly challenging for many of the country’s farmers. Northern Benin, in particular, is vulnerable to floods, erratic rainfall patterns, and droughts. Many Beninese farmers have emigrated to other African countries as a result. However, efforts are being made to improve Beninese agricultural yields.
Many of Benin’s women farmers are part of an organization called the Mialebouni Association that specializes in cassava farming. In 2012, the U.S. African Development Foundation (USADF) gave Mialebouni a $150,000 capacity-building grant, followed by a $240,000 enterprise expansion grant in 2016. Mialebouni used the funds to purchase mobile processing stations designed to meet its members’ needs, reduce their hardships and increase profits. The mobile grinders and presses are transported by bicycle to provide processing services in several villages.
Rice, poultry meat, wheat, corn, soybeans, canned fruits and vegetables, tomato sauce/ketchup, vegetable oil, fruit juices, pasta, wine and other spirits, powdered milk, energy drinks, mayonnaise, and snack foods are among the best prospects for U.S. agricultural exports to Benin. Benin has been eligible for the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) since the program began in 2000, and qualified for AGOA textile and apparel benefits in January 2004.
Benin‘s traditional trade links with the European Union, in particular, France and Belgium, remain strong. Chinese foodstuffs are available in open-air markets and supermarkets. Benin’s major trade partners include Nigeria, France, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland, Argentina, Brazil, U.S., China, and the United Arab Emirates.
Major regional trading partners include Niger, Togo, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso. Due to informal trade, estimates of annual trade with these countries are extremely difficult to determine, but some sources indicate that Benin exports about fifteen thousand metric tons of corn and fifteen hundred metric tons of rice to Nigeria, six thousand metric tons of corn to Niger, fourteen hundred metric tons of corn and two thousand metric tons of rice to Togo. In years where local crops are low yields, Benin has sourced, as much as, ninety-five hundred metric tons of corn and nine hundred fifty metric tons of rice from Togo, and six thousand metric tons of rice and eight hundred metric tons of corn from Nigeria.
Banking and Finance
All banks in Benin are private sector institutions and belong to either an international or regional banking group. These banks are often reluctant to lend for medium- and long-term loans. Benin banking system is under the authority of the following regional and national bodies: The Conference of Heads of State of the Union which defines the strategic orientations of the Union’s institutions; The Council of Ministers of the West African Economic and Monetary Union which sets the legal and regulatory framework applicable to credit activity. It is currently chaired by the Minister of Economy and Finance of Benin; the WAMU Banking Commission is responsible for banks’ and financial institutions’ control. The Banking Commission has two decision-making bodies: a) Supervisory Board; b) Resolution Board. the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO); The issuing institute common to the eight countries Member of the West African Monetary Union (WAMU) in charge of centralizing; The Union’s foreign exchange reserves, managing the monetary policy of the Member of the Union, keeping; The accounts of the Treasuries of the countries of the Union, and defining; The banking law applicable to banks and financial institutions; The Ministry of Economy and Finance.
As a member of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU), Benin’s banking sector, which included 12 banks as of 2013, is governed at the community level. Three large banks, holding approximately 20 percent of the assets are Nigerian, however, banking sector penetration remains low. Concentration is high, and the 4 largest banks account for about 70 percent of assets. The performance and asset quality of commercial banks have improved in recent years, although one bank has been placed under provisional administration due to severe capital deficiencies and was eventually forced to close in 2012 and liquidated.
Benin’s financial sector remains generally shallow and dominated by commercial banks. As of 2009, financial system deposits represented 24.2 percent of GDP. The supply of credit has continued to increase over the past few years, though credit growth appears to have decelerated in 2009, with total domestic credit and credit to the non-government sector expanding by 12.3 percent and 5.7 percent respectively in 2009, compared to 24.3 percent and 12.9 percent in 2008. Bank credit to the economy increased by 11 percent in 2009 to reach an estimated 19.7 percent of GDP, in part due to a reduction in regulatory reserve requirements from 15 percent to 9 percent.
Benin produced mostly industrial minerals, which included cement, clay, limestone, marble, sand, and gravel. Cassiterite, colored gemstones (aquamarine and tourmaline), gold, and tantalum ore have been produced in small quantities by artisanal miners. Although metals and various industrial minerals were produced in Benin in 2014, cement was the only commodity for which production data were available. Cement production in 2014 was approximately 1.40 million metric tons (Mt), which was essentially unchanged from the 1.42 Mt produced in 2013.
The Government of Benin owns all mineral deposits in the country and grants exclusive rights for exploration, development, and mining. The Government had identified the energy, infrastructure, and mining sectors, among others, as its development priorities and had been revising its mining laws to attract foreign investment. Towards this end, the Mining Code was under review to simplify procedures for awarding mining permits, to increase the duration of mining permits, and to establish special categories for artisanal and semi-industrial mining.
A textile factory at Parakout was revitalized with financing from the West African Development Bank. Benin’s industrial electricity needs are met by hydroelectric power from Akosombo dam in Ghana and the Nangbeto dam on the Mono River in Togo. The Société Beninoise d’Electricité et d’Eau (SBEE) controls most electrical production within Benin (which is minimal), and the Communauté Electrique du Benin (CEB) imports the electricity from Ghana through Togo.
Manufacturing plants and secondary industries include several palm-oil-processing plants in Ahozon, Avrankou, Bohicon, Cotonou, Gbada, and Pobé; cement plants at Onigbolo and Pobé; several cotton-ginning facilities in the north; a textile mill at Parakou; a sugar refining complex at Savé; a soft-drink plant; a brewery; and two shrimp-processing plants.
Electricity is generated thermally by plants located at Bohicon, Parakou, Cotonou, and Porto-Novo. About half of Benin’s demand for electricity is met by importing power from Ghana’s Volta River Project at Akosombo. In 1988 operations commenced at the hydroelectric installation of the Mono River Dam, a joint venture between Benin and Togo on their common southern boundary.
- Electricity access:
population without electricity: 7,300,000
electrification – total population: 29%
electrification – urban areas: 57%
electrification – rural areas: 9% (2013)
- Electricity – production:
311.6 million kWh (2015 est.)
- Electricity – consumption:
1.121 billion kWh (2015 est.)
- Electricity – exports:
12.88 billion kWh (2015 est.)
- Electricity – imports:
1.078 billion kWh (2015 est.)
- Electricity – installed generating capacity:
213,000 kW (2015 est.)
- Electricity – from fossil fuels:
97.2% of total installed capacity (2015 est.)
- Electricity – from nuclear fuels:
0% of total installed capacity (2015 est.)
- Telephones – fixed lines:
total subscriptions: 124,883
subscriptions per 100 inhabitants: 1 (July 2016 est.)
- Telephones – mobile cellular:
subscriptions per 100 inhabitants: 86 (2017)
- Internet country code:
- Internet users:
percent of the population: 12.0% (July 2016 est.)
Benin is endowed with a fantastic natural environment. As a tropical region, the land is blessed with wildlife and rainforests, alongside with national reserves like Parc de la Pandjeri and Parc W. Its long coastline already attracts tourists, and various ongoing projects have been designed to draw more tourists in. Traveling to Benin can be interesting for visitors.
Apart from its bouquets of minimal beaches and lagoons, it boasts of waterfalls, hills and lush grassland spread across. You will also get to explore the Ouidah Slave Route, Royal Palaces of Abomey and its rich history, as you come across large palatial ruins and temples of Dahomey. The southern part of Benin experiences two seasons of rain in the year, starting from April to the middle of July, and from mid-September to October end. November to February is the best time to visit this amazing country when the temperature is moderate and the weather becomes dry with minimal humidity.
Place of Attractions
Royal Palaces of Abomey: Built between the 17th and 19th centuries by the Fon people, this UNESCO World Heritage site holds some of the last remains of West Africa’s turbulent past. The earthen structure makes up the ancient town in which the King of Dahomey (ancient Benin) resided.
Situated on an ancient palatial site, the Abomey Historical Museum provides insight into the fallen kingdom of Dahomey. With exhibitions covering the rise and fall of the elite and excavated artifacts like a throne made from human skulls, the Abomey Historical Museum is the perfect place to gain a better understanding of the Benin that once was.
The Route d’Esclaves or the Slave Route is a 2.5-mile (four-kilometer) stretch of heritage road that is the last piece of African soil slaves from Benin touched before they were shipped to the Caribbean and Americas.
the Temple of the Sacred Python is one of the most interesting temples in Ouidah. The serpent deity Dangbe is revered in many cultures in Benin and thus the serpent is believed to be a sacred and in need of reverence and protection.
One of the largest lake towns in the West African region, the village of Ganvie is an interesting place to visit. Home to nearly 30,000 people who all live in houses on stilts, the Ganvie Lake Village is quite a sight to behold. Only 11 miles (18 km) northwest of the center of Cotonou, Ganvie is a beautiful place to spend the day.
For tourists interested in shopping, there is only one place to go in Benin, the Grand Marche du Dantopka in Cotonou. Apart from the vast expanse of stalls and its seemingly endless supply of local jewelry, crafts, and knock-off CDs and clothing, the Grand Marche du Dantopka is simply an experience in itself.
Benin, a pre-colonial kingdom in what is now southwestern Nigeria, is believed to have been established before the eleventh century. It was founded by Edo-speaking peoples but became more ethnically diverse when invaders from the grasslands of Sudan settled and intermarried with local women. Based on oral tradition, Benin is said to have begun as family clusters of hunters, gatherers, and agriculturalists who eventually created villages. By 1300, Benin was heavily involved in trade and the arts, using such mediums as copper, bronze, and brass. The Benin bronzes eventually became some of the most famous art pieces produced in Africa.
Benin’s early society started as hierarchical, with an Ogiso (King of the Sky) as the head assisted by seven powerful nobles (uzama). These kings established the city of Ubini, later Benin City, in 1180 A.D. Around 1300 the people of Benin rebelled against the Ogiso and invested power in a new ruler, Oranmiyan, who took over only long enough to have a child, Eweka I. Oranmiyan created a new dynasty, calling himself the first Oba (king) of Benin. The Obas would rule Benin for the next six centuries. Eweka I, the second Oba, however, reorganized the army and took power from the uzama, giving it instead to his supporters. Thus, the new nobility answered only to him.
The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries marked the high point of Benin’s economic and political power. The kings initiated military campaigns that extended the kingdom on all sides. They also began to trade with Europeans, especially the Portuguese who reached Benin City in 1485. Benin exchanged palm oil, ivory, cloth, pepper, and slaves for metals, salt, cloth, guns, and powder. Although Benin’s earlier power rested with its domination of interior trade routes, commerce with the Europeans required expansion to the ocean since Benin City, the capital, was 50 miles inland. This problem, however, was solved with the creation of a fort and port on the coast. Benin was desperate to keep trade with the Portuguese who supplied the guns that gave it military superiority over its neighbors, especially after its attempt to manufacture guns locally failed. Recognizing his leverage, King Manuel I of Portugal threatened to end the gun trade unless Benin’s rulers adopted Christianity. The attempt failed but the Portuguese continued to supply guns because the slave trade proved too lucrative for either nation to end.
Benin, however, began a slow decline in the 1700s as neighboring nations gained access to Portuguese or other European firearms. The kingdom was also weakened by internal disputes over royal succession which often led to civil wars. By the 1890s, Benin was unable to resist British conquest. In 1897 it was incorporated into Great Britain’s Niger Coast Protectorate after a British force conquered and burned Benin City and in the process destroyed much of Benin’s treasured art while sending remaining pieces to London. The British allowed the Oba of Benin to continue as a ceremonial ruler but all effective power from that point was in the hands of British colonial administrators. The current Oba of Benin serves as a ceremonial ruler in Nigeria.
The Yoruba kingdom
Children of Yoruba’, or simply the Yoruba) are an ethnic group of southwestern and north-central Nigeria, as well as southern and central Benin. As of the 7th century BCE, the African peoples who lived in Yorubaland were not initially known as the Yoruba, although they shared a common ethnicity and language group. By the 8th century, a powerful Yoruba kingdom already existed in Ile-Ife, one of the earliest in Africa. The historical Yoruba develop in situ, out of earlier Mesolithic Volta-Niger populations, by the 1st millennium BCE. Oral history recorded under the Oyo Empire derives the Yoruba as an ethnic group from the population of the older kingdom of Ile-Ife. The Yoruba were the dominant cultural force in southern Nigeria as far back as the 11th century.
The Yoruba are among the most urbanized people in Africa. For centuries before the arrival of the British colonial administration, most Yoruba already lived in well-structured urban centers organized around powerful city-states (Ìlú) centered around the residence of the Oba. In ancient times, most of these cities were fortresses, with high walls and gates. Yoruba cities have always been among the most populous in Africa. Archaeological findings indicate that Òyó-Ilé or Katunga, capital of the Yoruba empire of Oyo (fl. between the 11th and 19th centuries CE), had a population of over 100,000 people (the largest single population of any African settlement at that time in history). For a long time also, Ibadan, one of the major Yoruba cities, was the largest city in the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa. Today, Lagos (Yoruba: Èkó), another major Yoruba city, with a population of over twenty million, remains the largest on the African continent.
Archaeologically, the settlement of Ile-Ife showed features of urbanism in the 12th– 14th-century era. In the period around 1300 CE the artists at Ile-Ife developed a refined and naturalistic sculptural tradition in terracotta, stone, and copper alloy – copper, brass, and bronze many of which appear to have been created under the patronage of King Obalufon II, the man who today is identified as the Yoruba patron deity of brass casting, weaving, and regalia. The dynasty of kings at Ile-Ife, which is regarded by the Yoruba as the place of origin of human civilization, remains intact to this day. The urban phase of Ile-Ife before the rise of Oyo, c. 1100–1600, a significant peak of political centralization in the 12th century) is commonly described as the “golden age” of Ile-Ife. The oba or ruler of Ile-Ife is referred to as the Ooni of Ife.
The Oyo Empire
The origins of the Oyo Empire lie with Oranyan (also known as Oranmiyan), the last prince of the Yoruba Kingdom of Ile-Ife (Ife). Oranyan made an agreement with his brother to launch a punitive raid on their northern neighbors for insulting their father Oduduwa, the first Ooni of Ife. On the way to the battle, the brothers quarreled and the army split up. Oranyan’s force was too small to make a successful attack, so he wandered the southern shore until reaching Bussa. There the local chief entertained him and provided a large snake with a magic charm attached to its throat.
The chief instructed Oranyan to follow the snake until it stopped somewhere for seven days and disappeared into the ground. Oranyan followed the advice and founded Oyo where the serpent stopped. The site is remembered as Ajaka. Oranyan made Oyo his new kingdom and became the first “oba” (meaning ‘king’ or ‘ruler’ in the Yoruba language) with the title of “Alaafin of Oyo” (Alaafin) means ‘owner of the palace’ in Yoruba. He left all his treasures in Ife and allowed another king to rule there.
At a time, Oyo-ile was at war with the Bariba of Borgu who wanted to subjugate the new City still under construction. Orangun Ajagunla of Ila, Oranmiyan’s elder brother stormed in with his men to assist. Not long after the war was won, Oranmiyan welcomed a son Ajuwon Ajaka, much later Arabambi was born by the woman from Tapa (Nupe), It is believed that the name “Sango” was given by his maternal grandfather or He adopted it from the local name for the God of Thunder, Either way, the royal family was devoted to The Spirits of Thunder(Jakuta) and War(Ogun).
Oranyan, the first oba (king) of Oyo, was succeeded by Oba Ajaka, Alaafin of Oyo. Ajaka was deposed because he lacked Yoruba military virtue and allowed his sub-chiefs too much independence. Leadership was then conferred upon Ajaka’s brother, Shango, who was later defined as the deity of thunder and lightning. Ajaka was restored after Sango’s death. Ajaka returned to the throne thoroughly more warlike and oppressive. His successor, Kori, managed to conquer the rest of what later historians would refer to as metropolitan Oyo.
The Kingdom of Benin
The Kingdom of Benin, also known as the Benin Kingdom, was a pre-colonial kingdom in what is now southern Nigeria. Its capital was Edo, now known as Benin City in Edo state. It should not be confused with the modern-day Republic of Benin, formerly the Republic of Dahomey. The original name of the Benin Kingdom, at its creation sometime in the first millennium CE, was Igodomigodo, as its inhabitants called it. Their ruler was called Ogiso. Nearly 36 known Ogiso are accounted for as rulers of this initial incarnation of the state.
The original people and founders of the Benin Kingdom, the Edo people, were initially ruled by the Ogiso (Kings of the Sky) who called their land Igodomigodo. The first Ogiso (Ogiso Igodo), wielded much influence and gained popularity as a good ruler. He died after a long reign and was succeeded by Ere, his eldest son. In the 12th century, a great palace intrigue erupted and crown prince Ekaladerhan, the only son of the last Ogiso was sentenced to death as a result of the first Queen (who was barren) deliberately changing an Oracle message to the Ogiso.
According to Edo’s oral tradition, during the reign of the last Ogiso, his son and heir apparent, Ekaladerhan, was sentenced to death because one of the Queens deliberately changed an oracle message to the Ogiso. In carrying out the order of the palace, the palace messengers set him free recognizing his innocence. On the death of the last Ogiso, a group of Benin Chiefs led by Chief Oliha mounted a search for their banished Prince Ekaladerhan who the Ife people will now call Oduduwa to Ile-Ife, pleaded for Oduduwa return(The Ooni) but were granted one of his sons as King in Igodomigodo (later known as Benin City).
At its height, Benin dominated trade along the entire coastline from the Western Niger Delta, through Lagos to modern-day Ghana. It was for this reason that this coastline was named the Bight of Benin. The present-day Republic of Benin, formerly Dahomey, decided to choose the name of this bight as the name of its country. Benin ruled over the tribes of the Niger Delta including the Western Igbo, Ijaw, Itshekiri, and Urhobo amongst others. It also held sway over the Eastern Yoruba tribes of Ondo, Ekiti, Mahin/Ugbo, and Ijebu. It also established the first colony of Lagos hundreds of years before the British took over in 1851.
The Kingdom of Dahomey
The Kingdom of Dahomey was established around 1600 by the Fon people who had recently settled in the area (or were possibly a result of intermarriage between the Aja people and the local Gedevi). The foundational king for Dahomey is often considered to be Houegbadja (c. 1645–1685), who built the Royal Palaces of Abomey and began raiding and taking over towns outside of the Abomey plateau.
King Agaja(1708–1740), Houegbadja’s grandson, came to the throne in 1708 and began significant expansion of the Kingdom of Dahomey. This expansion was made possible by the superior military force of King Agaja’s Dahomey. In contrast to surrounding regions, Dahomey employed a professional standing army numbering around ten thousand. What Dahomey lacked in numbers, they made up for in discipline and superior arms. In 1724, Agaja conquered Allada, the origin of the royal family according to oral tradition, and in 1727 he conquered Whydah. This increased size of the kingdom, particularly along the Atlantic coast, and increased power made Dahomey a regional power.
Tegbesu, also spelled as Tegbessou, was King of Dahomey, in present-day Benin, from 1740 until 1774. Tegbesu was not the oldest son of King Agaja (1718–1740) but was selected following his father’s death after winning a succession struggle with a brother. King Agaja had significantly expanded the Kingdom of Dahomey during his reign, notably conquering Whydah in 1727, but it had become a tributary of the Oyo empire and did not directly attack the Oyo allied city-state of Porto-Novo. This increased the size of the kingdom and increased both domestic dissent and regional opposition. Tegbessou ruled over Dahomey at a point where it needed to increase its legitimacy over those who it had recently conquered. As a result, Tegbesu is often credited with a number of administrative changes in the kingdom in order to establish its legitimacy of the kingdom. The slave trade increased significantly during Tegbessou’s reign and began to provide the largest part of the income for the king.
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 army. Dahomey was also famous for instituting an elite female soldier corps, called Ahosi, i.e. the king’s wives, or Mino, “our mothers” in the Fon language Fongbe, and known by many Europeans as the Dahomean Amazons.
The End of the Kingdoms
The kings of Dahomey sold their war captives into transatlantic slavery. They also had a practice of killing war captives 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. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Dahomey had begun to weaken and lose its status as a regional power. This enabled the French to take over the area in 1892. In 1899, the French included the land called French Dahomey within the larger French West Africa colonial region.
similarly, the larger kingdom, the Oyo Empire under its oba, known as the Alaafin of Oyo, was active in the African slave trade during the 18th century. The Yoruba often demanded slaves as a form of tribute to subject populations, who in turn sometimes made war on other peoples to capture the required slaves. Part of the slaves sold by the Oyo Empire entered the Atlantic slave trade.
Many believe the decline of the Oyo empire started as early as 1754 with the dynastic intrigues and palace coups sponsored by the Oyo Prime Minister Bashorun Gaha. Gaha, in his quest for absolute power, conspired with the Oyo Mesi and probably to some extent the Ogboni to force four successive Alaafins to commit ritual suicide after they had been presented with the symbolic parrot’s egg.
By the time Captain Hugh Clapperton visited Oyo-Ile in 1825 during the reign of Alaafin Majotu, the empire was already in a state of decline. Clapperton’s party recorded passing numerous Oyo villages burned by the Fulani (Ilorin) while Majotu had also sought the help of the English king and the Oba of Benin in putting down the Ilorin rebellion. Clapperton also noticed a shortage of horses, even though the Oyo were renowned as a great cavalry force; this might have something to do with the fact that most of the empire’s soldiers and hence cavalry were stationed at Ilorin under the command of Afonja and later on Alimi’s successors.
Scramble for Africa
The Portuguese—the first Europeans to establish trading posts on the West African coast—founded the trading post of Porto-Novo on what is now the Benin coast. They were followed by English, Dutch, Spanish, and French traders as the slave trade developed. The French established posts at Ouidah and Savé in the middle of the 17th century, and the English and Portuguese also built forts nearby in the early 18th century.
In 1857, the French established themselves in Grand Popo. In 1868, the French made a treaty with the king of Abomey by which they were permitted to establish a trading post at Cotonou. The British meanwhile established themselves in Lagos, which they annexed in 1861 in order to eliminate the slave trade. Anglo-French rivalry in Porto-Novo, in which successive local kings took different sides, eventually ended with a French protectorate there (1882) and British posts at various points farther west, which were abandoned by the Anglo-French agreements of 1888–89. But Abomey remained outside French control, and its levies on European trade became increasingly irksome. The war between Abomey and Porto-Novo broke out in 1889 over France’s rights of sovereignty to Cotonou, and Béhanzin, who succeeded to the throne of Abomey in that year, attacked the French posts there. His forces included some 2,000 Amazons.
A protectorate was briefly established over the kingdom of Porto-Novo in 1863–65 and was definitively reestablished in 1882. Treaties purporting to secure a session of the port of Cotonou, between Ouidah and Porto-Novo, were also negotiated with the Dahomean authorities in 1868 and 1878, though Cotonou was not actually occupied until 1890. King Behanzin, who had succeeded to the Dahomean throne in 1889, resisted the French claim to Cotonou, provoking the French invasion and conquest of Dahomey in 1892–94. Behanzin was then deposed and exiled, and the kingdom of Dahomey became a French protectorate.
The British established what was to become their colony of Nigeria to the east, and in 1894 both the British and French negotiated treaties of protection with the kingdom of Dahomey. The Anglo-French convention of 1898, however, settled the boundary between the French and British spheres, conceding Dahomey to the former. The boundary with the German colony of Togo to the west was settled by the Franco-German conventions of 1885 and 1899. The present frontiers of Benin were established in 1909 when the boundaries with the neighboring French colonies of Upper Volta and Niger were delimited. The colony was at first called Benin (from the Bight of Benin, not the precolonial kingdom of Benin, which is in Nigeria), but in 1894 it was renamed Dahomey, after the recently incorporated kingdom.
In 1946, under the new French constitution, it was given a deputy and two senators in the French parliament and an elected Territorial Assembly with substantial control of the budget. Under the reforms of 1956–57, the powers of the Territorial Assembly were extended, and a Council of Government elected by the Assembly was given executive control of most territorial matters. Universal adult suffrage and a single electorate were established at the same time. In September 1958, the territory accepted the French constitution proposed by General de Gaulle’s government and opted for the status of an autonomous republic within the French Community, as provided by the new constitution.
On 4 December 1958, the Territorial Assembly became a national constituent assembly and the Republic of Dahomey was proclaimed a member of the French Community. On 14 February 1959, a constitution was adopted; the first Legislative Assembly was elected on 3 April. Hubert Maga, chairman of the Dahomeyan Democratic Rally, was named prime minister on 18 May 1959. On 1 August 1960, Dahomey proclaimed its complete independence, and on 25 November a new constitution, calling for a strong unitary state, was adopted. Other constitutions were adopted in 1963, 1965, 1968, and 1990.
The country’s name was officially changed to the Republic of Benin on 1 March 1990, after the newly formed government’s constitution was completed. In a 1991 election, Kérékou lost to Nicéphore Soglo. Kérékou returned to power after winning the 1996 vote. In 2001, a closely fought election resulted in Kérékou winning another term, after which his opponents claimed election irregularities. In 1999, Kérékou issued a national apology for the substantial role that Africans had played in the Atlantic slave trade.
In the March 2016 presidential elections, in which Boni Yayi was barred by the constitution from running for a third term, businessman Patrice Talon won the second round with 65.37% of the vote, defeating investment banker and former Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou. Talon was sworn in on 6 April 2016. Speaking on the same day that the Constitutional Court confirmed the results, Talon said that he would “first and foremost tackle constitutional reform”, discussing his plan to limit presidents to a single term of five years in order to combat “complacency”. He also said that he planned to slash the size of the government from 28 to 16 members.