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« Adieu Nigeria! | Main | Three Stories of Iranian Mysticism »

January 19, 2006

Ozodi Osuji Weekly Lectures on African Countries #3 of 54: Benin

by Ozodi Thomas Osuji (Seatle, Washington) --- 3. BENIN
Formal Name: Republic of Benin.

Terms for Citizens: Béninoise (or Bininese).

Capital: Porto-Novo. Population: 225,000.

Independence Achieved: August 1, 1960, from France.

Major Cities: Cotonou, Porto-Novo.


Benin is estimated to be 43,483 square miles. Benin, once called Dahomey, is located in West Africa and is bounded by Nigeria, Togo and Niger. Benin is bisected by Oueme River, which empties into the Gulf of Guinea. The coastal region is swampy and immediately after it is rainforest, giving way to savannah. In the north, the land rises to 200-500 feet. In the far north a low mountain range crosses Benin and its neighbor, Togo. The land is tropical with two seasons, wet and dry. Rainfall is heavy in the coastal regions and tapers off inland.


The population of Benin is estimated at 6,736, 000.

Ethnic Groups: The major ethnic groups are the Fon, Adja, Aizo, Bariba, Somba, Yoruba and Fulani.

Languages: Each of the ethnic groups speaks its own language. French is the official language.

Religion: Christian south, Muslim North and varieties of indigenous beliefs.

Education: Access to primary education is readily available. Literacy is estimated at 37%.

Economy: Benin is primarily a subsistence agricultural economy. Benin is heavily reliant on trade with Nigeria and when in the 1980s Nigeria closed its borders with Benin to reduce smuggling, Benin practically went bankrupt. The Benin government currently attempts to attract western capital to help develop the country. GDP estimate: $7.3 billion; Per Capita GDP: $1200.

Monetary Unit: CFA Franc BCEAO (XOF).

History and Government:

Benin or as it was called Dahomey was ruled by France. Upon independence from France, Benin inherited French type government structure. However, its democracy is weak and the president has a lot of powers. In the 1970s, President Mathieu Kerekou attempted to turn Benin into a socialist country but failed, and Benin turned towards the West for economic aid. Benin is divided into 12 Departments/counties---Alibori, Atakora, Atlantique, Borgou, Collines, Donga, Kouffo, Littoral, Mono, Oueme, Plateau, Zou.


Benin was colonized by France in 1872. Prior to that, the area was inhabited by a conglomeration of many groups, the most powerful of which was Dahomey.
The origin of the Kingdom of Dahomey is not well understood, but what is known is that by the sixteenth century it had a powerful army and, unfortunately, used that army to capture slaves from its neighbors and sold them to the Americas.
The coast of what is now called Benin was called the Slave Coast. In 1704, France built a slave Port at Ouidah and in 1752 Portugal built another at Porto Novo. Dahomey was a slave state until France put a stop to that heinous practice when France incorporated it into its orbit of influence.
In 1894, the French named the area the Colony of Dahomey and its dependencies. It granted the territory some sort of autonomy, which it retained until 1904 when the territory became part of French West Africa. France replaced the trading in slaves with trading in palm oil and cotton. Palm oil and cotton remain critical products of Benin today.
Benin was part of the French empire until 1960 when she was given her independence from France on August 1, 1960. As is the case in many African countries that were put together by colonial powers, the various ethnic groups could not get along with each other. It would seem that the country was disintegrating, falling apart. Many governments were formed only to fall. The first military coup took place in 1963 and thereafter many coups and counter coups took place until 1972 when Mathew Kerekou took over.
In 1972, Mathew Kerekou, a major in the army, intervened in a military coup and took over the governing of the country. He changed the name of the country from Dahomey to Benin. In 1975, Mr. Kerekou embraced Marxist-Leninist political and economic ideology and proclaimed Benin a Marxist state.
From there on the economy of Benin went downhill. For one thing, Western powers that hitherto bought Benin’s produce were capitalist and did not kowtow to any third world country’s attempt to separate from it. Benin is an exporter of Palm oil and Cotton and the West was its primary market. The West simply refused to buy Benin’s products and strangulated the economy.
In 1979, Mr. Kerekou resigned from the army and ruled Benin as a civilian president. He began to make some changes to the economy, liberalizing aspects of it. Nevertheless, Benin remains one of the poorest countries in the world with an income per capita of $1200. Benin’s economy relies heavily on the smuggling trade that goes on between it and its neighbor, Nigeria.
In the late 1980s, there was a wind of change blowing through Africa. African countries were increasingly embracing democracy. Mr. Kerekou called for a constitutional conference at which a constitution was written for Benin in 1990. The conference, among other things, abolished Marxism-Leninism as the official state ideology, embraced multi-party system, abolished the prevailing ruling single party structures, released all political prisoners, stipulated respect for human rights and adopted a national flag.
A presidential election was held in 1991. Mr. Kerekou was not elected president and, for the first time in Benin, an African dictator peacefully handed power to a different person.

The new constitution called for an 83 seat National Assembly, for which elections are held every four years.
The constitution called for a President to be elected for five years and stipulated two term limit for the president. The president is empowered to appoint a council of ministers. The constitution set age 70 as the limit at which an individual may compete for the presidency.
The constitution established a constitutional court with the powers of judicial review and a supreme court as the last appellate court in the country.

Benin, like many African countries, is bedeviled by the problem of ethnicity and politicians tend to be voted for by the members from their ethnic groups. (There are about 40 ethnic groups in Benin, the largest being the Fon, 49% of Benin’s population, followed by the Adja, Yoruba, Somba and Bariba).

In April of 1996, Mr. Kerekou returned to power, elected this time, sort of (there were allegations of electoral irregularities). He is both the chief of state and the head of government. His term ends in March of 2006 when another differential presidential election is scheduled.

Benin appears to tolerate the existence of many political parties, some of whom are African Movement for Democracy and Progress or MADEP, Alliance of the Social Democratic Party or PSD, Coalition of Democratic Forces, Democratic Renewal Party or PRD and many others.

The Legislative branch of government is unicameral and witnesses spirited election campaigns by the various political parties for its control. The result of the March 2003 election gave parties in alliance with the president 52 members in the National Assembly and opposition parties’ 31 members, meaning that the president tends to have the support of the legislative branch of government behind his policies.

To the president’s credit, he has not suppressed opposition movements. Indeed, Benin seems to have a thieving freedom of Press and interest group politics activities. There are several independent news papers, radio stations and a National Television outfit. On the whole, there seems freedom of press and basic human rights.
What remains to be seen is how the 2006 presidential election would be conducted, whether the now reclusive, claiming Born Again Christian, Mathew Kerekou, would hand over government to a freely elected successor, retire and not meddle in subsequent Benin politics. If that happens, Benin would have made successful transition from a third world dictatorship to a thriving democracy. So far, the history and politics of post independence Benin is largely the documentation of the activities of one man, Matthew Kerekou.

AIS: African Countries, Benin
Ozodi Osuji

Posted by Administrator at January 19, 2006 12:02 AM


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