Benin,republic in western Africa, on the Gulf of Guinea. Known in full as the Republic of Benin, it extends inland about 670 km (about 415 mi) from its 121-km (75-mi) long gulf coast. Benin is bordered on the north by Burkina Faso and Niger, on the east by Nigeria, and on the west by Togo. Formerly part of French West Africa, it gained independence in 1960 as Dahomey; it was named Benin in 1975. It has an area of 112,622 sq km (about 43,483 sq mi). Porto-Novo is the capital and Cotonou is the largest city.
Land and Resources
The coast of Benin is a sandy barrier beach with no natural harbors. Immediately north of the beach is a network of shallow lagoons, and farther north is a fertile lowland called the barre country, most of which is intensively cultivated. In northern Benin the land rises to include the edge of a nearly 500-m (1600-ft) high plateau of ancient rocks and mostly infertile soils and, in the northwest, the rugged Atakora Mountains.
Rivers and Lakes
The Ouémé and Couffo rivers drain most of southern Benin, and the Mono River, which forms part of the border with Togo, drains the southwest. The main rivers of northern Benin are the Niger, which forms part of the boundary with the republic of Niger, and its tributaries, the Sota, Mékrou, and Alibori rivers.
Benin's climate ranges in type from equatorial in the south to an increasingly arid tropical wet-and-dry climate in the north. The south receives about 1300 mm (about 51 in) of rainfall a year, mostly during March to July and October to November; the average monthly temperature ranges from 20° to 34° C (68° to 93° F). Temperatures also are high in the north, and the annual rainfall of about 890 mm (about 35 in) occurs mainly from May to September.
Plants and Animals
A dense tropical rain forest once covered much of the land close behind Benin's coastal strip. The rain forest has largely been cleared, except near rivers, and palms now are the main trees of the region. Woodlands form a large part of central Benin, and grasslands predominate in the drier north. Among the various animals found in Benin are elephants, buffalo, antelope, panthers, monkeys, crocodiles, and wild ducks.
An offshore petroleum field is located near Cotonou. Other mineral resources of Benin include iron ore, phosphates, chromium, rutile, clay, marble, and limestone.
Benin's population (1995 estimate) is about 5,399,000, and is growing at a rate of about 3.3 percent per year. Overall density is about 48 persons per sq km (about 124 per sq mi), but is much higher in the south, where two-thirds of the inhabitants live. About 42 percent live in urban areas. The main cities are Cotonou (population, 1989 estimate, 350,000); Porto-Novo (1985, 163,260), the capital; Parakou (1982, 65,945); Abomey (54,418); and Natitingou (1979 estimate, 50,800). Some 42 ethnic groups are represented in Benin. The Fon, or Dahomeans, and the closely related Adja, who together account for about 59 percent of the population, are the main ethnic groups in the south; the Bariba and Somba (together about 15 percent) are the largest in the north; and the Yoruba (about 9 percent) predominate in the southeast.
Language and Religion
French is the official language of Benin, but most people speak an African language. About 65 percent of the population professes traditional religious beliefs. Islam is the religion of about 15 percent of the people, most of whom live in the north. Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism, is the religion of about 20 percent, the great majority of whom live in the south.
The literacy rate increased to about 24 percent in the early 1990s following the adoption of legislation in 1975 making education free and compulsory. Still, only 61 percent of eligible children are enrolled in primary school. In the late 1980s about 471,000 pupils attended elementary school each year, and about 97,000 students were enrolled in secondary schools. Higher education is provided for more than 8800 students at the National University of Benin (1970), in Cotonou, and at other institutions.
Cultural Institutions and Communications
The National Library of Benin is located in Porto-Novo, and the National Museum is in Cotonou. The state-owned radio and television service operates from Cotonou. In the early 1990s Benin had 415,000 radios, 23,000 television sets, and 16,000 telephones in use. The official newspaper is the government-owned La Nation, with a daily circulation of about 12,000, based in Cotonou.
From 1977 through 1989, Benin was governed by an elected legislature, the National Revolutionary Assembly. This unicameral body elected a president, who ruled as head of the National Executive Council. The People's Revolutionary Party of Benin, a Marxist-Leninist group, was the sole political party. Local administration was based on six provinces (Atacora, Atlantique, Borgou, Mono, Ouémé, Zou), each of which was governed by a prefect and a provincial revolutionary council.
A draft constitution approved by popular referendum in 1990 provided for an elected National Assembly and a popularly elected president. A second political party, the Assembly of Democratic Forces, was established. By February 1991, when the country held its first free elections in 30 years, 34 political parties had achieved official status, and 24 fielded candidates.
Benin, one of the poorest countries in Africa, has an economy dependent, as in colonial times, on agriculture. Many private enterprises were nationalized in the 1970s and are now state run. The estimated annual national budget in the early 1990s included $194 million in revenues, $286 million in current spending, and $104 million in capital expenditures. Benin is a member of the Economic Community of West African States, an organization designed to promote economic cooperation and development.
About 60 percent of the workforce in Benin is engaged in agriculture, mainly subsistence farming. The principal food crops are corn, cassava, sorghum, yams, millet, and beans. Cash crops, produced mainly in the south, include cotton, palm kernels, peanuts, and cacao. The herding of cattle, sheep, and goats predominates in the grasslands of the north.
Forestry and Fishing
Commercial forestry and fishing are largely undeveloped in Benin. Almost all of the approximately 5.2 million cu m (approximately 184 million cu ft) of wood cut each year is used for fuel. Similarly, most of the 41,000 metric tons of fish produced annually are caught in inland rivers and in lagoons for subsistence use. Relatively small amounts of shrimp are landed on a commercial basis.
Mining and Manufacturing
Benin's chief mineral product is petroleum, although reserves are believed to be nearing exhaustion. Some limestone is also produced for use in cement manufacturing, and gold is exploited and used by artisans. Most other mineral resources are undeveloped. The chief manufacturing activity is the processing of primary products. Industry includes palm oil processing operations, textile mills, a cement plant, and a sugar-refining complex. A wire and steel manufacturing plant recently opened.
Small thermal electric power plants provide energy along the coast, but most of Benin's electricity was supplied by Ghana's Akosombo Dam until exports were curtailed in 1994 because of low water flows. Benin produces about 25 million kilowatt-hours of electricity each year.
Benin has about 6070 km (about 3772 mi) of roads; the principal arteries run parallel to the coast in the south and from Cotonou to Parakou. The main line of the country's approximately 579-km (approximately 360-mi) rail system runs from Cotonou to Parakou, and Benin also has rail connections along the coast to Togo and Nigeria. Cotonou is the nation's chief seaport.
Currency and Banking
Benin is a member of the West African Monetary Union, headquartered in Dakar, Senegal, and the country's monetary unit is the CFA franc (284.6 CFA francs equal U.S.$1; 1993), which is subdivided into 100 centimes. An exchange rate of 1 French franc equal to 50 CFA francs remained in force from 1948 until 1994, when the CFA franc was devalued by 50 percent. The principal banks of Benin are in Cotonou.
Benin's annual imports generally cost much more than its exports earn. In the early 1990s the country's yearly imports were valued at $428 million and its exports at only $263 million. Benin's main exports are crude petroleum, cotton, palm products, and cacao; its chief imports are textiles, clothing, and machinery. Benin's principal trading partners for exports are Germany, France, and Spain; chief partners for imports are France and the Netherlands.
Some time before 1600 it is thought that the Adja people migrated from the town of Tado on the Mono River (in Togo), settling at Allada, where they mixed with the Fon and founded a kingdom. In the early 17th century a dynastic dispute resulted in the establishment of two rival states at Abomey and Porto-Novo. The first of these grew into the Kingdom of Dahomey, which dominated the area until the 19th century.
In 1851 France signed a treaty of friendship and trade with the ruler of Porto-Novo, who was a vassal of Dahomey's King Glélé. In 1861 British forces won the town of Lagos (now in Nigeria) from Dahomey. By two treaties signed in 1868 and 1878, the Cotonou area, lying between Ouidah and Porto-Novo, was ceded to France. Glélé's successor, Béhanzin, tried to regain the land, which was essential to continued participation in the slave trade, but was routed by the French in 1892; his lands were declared a French protectorate. After a brief period in which he led guerrilla bands against the French, Béhanzin was captured in January 1894 and exiled to Martinique.
In 1899 Dahomey was incorporated into French West Africa, with its exact boundaries defined through accords with Great Britain and Germany, colonizers of the neighboring areas to the east and west, respectively. At the end of World War I (1914-1918), the eastern part of the German colony of Togo was put under French mandate. Dahomey, as part of French West Africa, adhered to the cause of the Free French during World War II (1939-1945), and in 1946 it became one of the French overseas territories; from 1958 to 1960 it was an autonomous republic of the French Community. Independence was proclaimed on August 1, 1960, and the following month Dahomey was admitted to the United Nations.
Benin's political history since independence has been checkered. The first president, Hubert Maga, was ousted in 1963 by the army commander, and a series of four coups followed in the next six years. In 1970 a three-member presidential commission took power and suspended the constitution. The members, including former president Maga, were to serve as president successively. Maga held office first, succeeded in 1972 by Justin Ahomadegbe. Later that year, however, Major Mathieu (later Ahmed) Kérékou seized power, ending the commission form of government. In November 1975 the country was renamed Benin. A new constitution, making the country a one-party state, was promulgated in 1977. Three former presidents, detained since the coup of 1972, were released in 1981.
Elected president by the National Revolutionary Assembly in 1980 and reelected in 1984, Kérékou survived a military coup attempt four years later. In late 1989 he abandoned Marxism-Leninism, and a transitional government established in 1990 paved the way for the establishment of multiparty democracy. Prime Minister Nicéphore Soglo defeated Kérékou in the presidential election of March 1991.