The Republic of Benin is a sliver of a country in West Africa, the shape of which has been compared to a raised arm and fist or to a flaming torch. It has a small coastline to the south on the Bight of Benin. (A bight is a bay formed by a coastal bend.) The Bight of Benin is an extension of the Gulf of Guinea, which is an arm of the Atlantic Ocean. The nation takes its name from the bight, which refers in turn to the ancient African kingdom, the Benin Empire, that dominated much of southern Nigeria until the arrival of the colonizing powers. That kingdom did not actually incorporate any of modern-day Benin.
The history of the tribes and peoples who inhabited this gateway to the continent comprises a strong legacy of having participated in and profited from the African slave trade. In recent years, modern Benin has atoned acutely and painfully for that past.
Benin (usually pronounced "beh-NIHN" in English) inhabits a part of the continent called the Dahomey Gap, which is a somewhat dry area between the rain forests of Central Africa and of those farther west. Though relatively low in rainfall, the climate in Benin is hot and humid. The country's elevation varies little from the coast to the northern reaches though there are areas in the middle and north known as hills and highlands. The even smaller country of Togo lies to the west. The much larger nation of Nigeria is its eastern neighbor. Rivers run either north or south, with those in the north flowing into the Niger River, which forms most of the border with the country of the same name. Southern rivers stay within the national borders and drain to the Atlantic. There is also a border with Burkina Faso in the northwest. Benin's size is roughly similar to that of Pennsylvania. Its population is about 7.5 million.
The core of the nation's economic, political, and cultural life is the coastal area. The capital is Porto-Novo (Portuguese for New Port), which is pressed into the southeastern corner of the country, but Cotonou, 40 miles to the west, is the largest city and true center for all Benin's social and economic life. The farther one travels from the coast, the less that French, the official language, is heard. And the farther north one goes, the less prevalent is Christianity in favor of Islam and animist religions.
Before the country took the name Benin, it was known since the colonial period as Dahomey, after the main ethnic group near the coast, which in turn took its name from the stomach of a onetime king called Dan (meaning Snake). European traders (mainly Dutch and Portuguese), established slave trading relations with Dahomey as early as the sixteenth century. In time, the kingdom became so adept and prosperous at selling captives from among its neighbors and own people that it became known as the Slave Coast, one of a series of informal geographic terms used on the West African coastline, along with the Gold Coast, Ivory Coast, and Grain Coast.
There are stories of Dahomey Amazons from this period, female warriors who also participated in the capture and commerce of slaves. The main slaving port was Ouidah, west of Cotonou toward the Togolese border, through which as many as three million people passed in chains. Most of the human exports from the Slave Coast finished their journey in either Brazil or the Caribbean. It is said that the ancestry of most Haitians can be traced back to Dahomey. The animist practice of voodoo, a corruption in name and practice of the Dahomean religion known as "Vodun," came by boat via slaves to the New World and is still widely practiced in its homeland.
Dahomey's jealous or resentful neighbors are said to have helped the French take over the kingdom in 1892. Seven years later it became part of the colonies of French West Africa, but was still known as Dahomey. By 1960 it enjoyed full independence as the Republic of Dahomey. Along with neighboring Nigeria, France remains the country with the most influence in the nation's affairs. And while the CFA franc, which is shared with other African Francophone countries, is the local currency, it is the euro and the U.S. dollar that are the currencies of choice in Benin.
For the next 12 years, ethnic strife contributed to a period of turbulence, which resulted in several military coups and regime changes. In 1972, a coup led by Colonel Mathieu Kérékou overthrew the government and embraced Marxism-Leninism. Dahomey was renamed as Benin in 1975 to signal the shift in direction the country was taking and to utilize what was in effect a neutral name belonging to no particular ethnic group. Within months of the collapse of communist governments in Eastern Europe in 1989, Kérékou abandoned Marxism and re-established a parliamentary capitalist system in 1990. Though defeated once in elections over the years, President Kérékou is an enduring civilian figure in Beninese politics and national life. Benin is also slowly gaining a reputation for stability and adherence to democratic processes.
The economy of Benin remains underdeveloped and dependent on agriculture, which engages about half the country's population and exists mainly at the subsistence level. Much of the manufacturing is likewise devoted to agricultural implements. Tribal herdsmen tend most of the cattle that go to market. The open-air markets found in every sizable town are where most Beninese shop for everyday articles, including manufactured goods, as well as food.
Cotton, cocoa, and palm oil are the main commercial crops and exports, palm tree plantations having supplanted the natural coastal forests more than a century ago. France remains the major destination of Beninese goods, followed by Brazil. Machinery, foodstuffs, and textiles are Benin's principal imports. A significant amount of smuggling occurs along the porous border with Nigeria. Thousands of Beninese workers have migrated steadily to that country and Gabon for employment in the oil fields.
In 1999, President Kérékou convened a conference in Cotonou to apologize for his country's complicated history of involvement with the slave trade of centuries past. European businessmen as well as U.S. Congressmen and governmental representatives from other African countries attended and witnessed Benin's lament of its Slave Coast legacy, particularly the considerable profit that tribal chiefs made by selling their own people into servitude.
The long-term objective is the country's reconciliation with its descendants in the Americas. Recognition was made that Benin has suffered greatly by having lost so many of its ultimate resource, its own people, called "the absent ones." Subsequent apologies have been made by government representatives to foreign, particularly African-American, audiences.
Beninese are said to be characterized by their wry humor in the face of adversity. Though its history as a republic has seen many forced changes of government, no coup ever ended in the death of an ousted president. Another sign of the relative genialness of Benin is the fact that, unlike the situation next door in Nigeria, adherents of various religions that are otherwise often at odds tend to coexist easily.
- ↑ Central Intelligence Agency (2009). Benin. The World Factbook. Retrieved November 8, 2011.
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Benin. International Monetary Fund. Retrieved November 8, 2011.
- ↑ Distribution of family income - Gini index. The World Factbook. CIA. Retrieved November 8, 2011.