Benin (12/01)

For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.


Official Name:
Republic of Benin

Area: 116,622 sq. km. (43,483 sq. mi.).
Cities: Capital--Porto-Novo (pop. 295,000). Political and economic capital--Cotonou (pop. 1 million).
Terrain: Mostly flat plains of 200 meters average elevation, but the Atacora mountains extend along the northwest border, with the highest point being Mont Sokbaro 658 meters.
Climate: Tropical, average temperatures between 24 and 31 degrees Celsius. Humid in south; semiarid in north

Nationality: Noun and adjective--Beninese (singular and plural).
Population (2001 est.): 6,590,782.
Annual growth rate (2001 est.): 2.97%.
Ethnic groups: African 99% (42 ethnic groups, most important being Fon, Adja, Yoruba, and Bariba), Europeans 5,500.
Religions: Indigenous beliefs (voodoo) 50%, Christian 30%, Muslim 20%.
Languages: French (official), Fon and Yoruba in the south; Nagot, Bariba and Dendi in the north.
Education: Literacy--Total population 37.5%; men 52.2%, women 23.6%.
Health (2001 est.): Infant mortality rate--89.68/1,000. Life expectancy--49.94 yrs.
Work force: The labor market is characterized by an increased reliance on informal employment, family helpers, and the use of apprentices. Training and job opportunities are not well matched.

Type: Republic under multiparty democratic rule.
Independence: August 1, 1960.
Constitution: December 10, 1990.
Branches: Executive--President elected by popular vote for 5-year term and presidential appointed Cabinet. Legislative--Unicameral, 83-seat National Assembly directly elected by popular vote for 4-year terms. Judicial--Constitutional Court: seven members nominated by National Assembly and then appointed by the President; Supreme Court: 13 members, six elected by National Assembly, the Constitutional Court (except for its President) ex-officio, and the President of the Supreme Court ex-officio.
Subdivisions: Twelve departments: Alibori, Atakora, Atlantique, Borgou, Collines, Couffo, Donga, Littoral, Mono, Oueme, Plateau, and Zou.
Political parties (partial listing of major parties): La Renaissance du B�nin (RB), Party of Democratic Renewal (PRD), Social-Democrat Party (PSD), African Movement for Development and Progress (MADEP), Party of Democratic Renewal-Rainbow (PRD-Arc-en-ciel), Alliance Etoile, Action Front for Democratic Renewal (FARD-ALAFIA), African Congress for Renewal (CAR-DUNYA), Impulse for Progress and Democracy (IPD), Alliance for Democracy and Progress (ADP), National Union for Democracy and Progress (UNDP), New Generation for the Republic (NGR), Our Common Cause (NCC), Ensemble National Rally for Democracy (RND), Rally for Progress and Renewal (RPR), Movement for the People Alternative (MAP), National Rally for Unity and Democracy (RUND), Congress of African Democrat (CAD), Movement for Citizens's Commitment and Awakening (MERCI), Democratic Union for Economic and Social Development (UDES), Rally for Democracy and Progress (RDP), Communist Party of Benin (PCB).

Flag: Benin flag

GDP: $2.26 billion.
Real GDP growth rate: 5%.
Per capita GDP: 411.
Inflation rate: 4%.
Natural resources: Small offshore oil deposits, unexploited deposits of high quality marble limestone, and timber.
Agricultural: Products--corn, sorghum, cassava, tapioca, yams, beans, rice, cotton, palm oil, cocoa, peanuts, poultry, and livestock. Arable land--13% . Permanent crops 4%, permanent pastures 4%, forests and woodland 31%.
Business and industry: Textiles, cigarettes, food and beverages, construction materials, petroleum.
Trade: Exports--$396 million: cotton, crude oil, palm products, cocoa. Imports--$807 million: foodstuffs, tobacco, petroleum products, energy, and capital goods. Major trade partners--Brazil, Libya, Indonesia, Italy, France, China, U.K., Ivory Coast.
Official exchange rate (Nov. 2001): 747 cfa=U.S.$1.

Benin, a narrow, north-south strip of land in West Africa, lies between the Equator and the Tropic of Cancer. Benin's latitude ranges from 6030N to 12030N and its longitude from 10E to 3040E. Benin is bounded by Togo 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, roughly the size of Pennsylvania, Benin extends from the Niger River in the north to the Atlantic Ocean in the south, a distance of 700 km. (about 500 mi.). Although the coastline measures 121 km. (about 80 mi.), the country measures about 325 km. (about 215 mi.) at its widest point. 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 meters).

The country can be divided into four main areas from the south to the north. The low-lying, sandy, coastal plain (highest elevation 10 meters) is, at most, 10 km. wide. It is marshy and dotted with lakes and lagoons communicating with the ocean. The plateaus of southern Benin (altitude comprised between 20 meters and 200 meters) are split by valleys running north to south along the Couffo, Zou, and Oueme Rivers. An area of flat lands dotted with rocky hills whose altitude seldom reaches 400 meters 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 meters. Two types of landscape predominate in the south. 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. 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 310C (890F); the minimum is 240C (750F). 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 is also the season when farmers burn brush in the fields.

The majority of Benin's 6.59 million people live in the south. The population is young, with a life expectancy of 50 years. About 42 African ethnic groups live in this country; these various groups settled in Benin at different times and also migrated within the country. Ethnic groups include the Yoruba in the southeast (migrated from Nigeria in the 12th century); the Dendi in the north-central area (they came from Mali in the 16th century); the Bariba and the Fulbe (Peul) in the northeast; the Betammaribe and the Somba in the Atacora Range; the Fon in the area around Abomey in the South Central and the Mina, Xueda, and Aja (who came from Togo) on the coast.

French is the official language but is spoken more in urban than in rural areas. The literacy rate is 52.2% adult males and 23.6% adult females, and slowly growing. Recent migrations have brought other African Nationals to Benin: Nigerians, Togolese, Malians, etc. The foreign community also includes many Lebanese and Indians involved in trade and commerce. The personnel of the many European Embassies and Foreign Aid Missions and of nongovernmental organizations and various missionary groups account for a large number of the 5,500 European population.

Several religions are practiced in Benin. Animism is widespread (50%), and its practices vary from one ethnic group to the other. Arab merchants introduced Islam in the north and among the Yoruba. European missionaries brought Christianity to the south and central areas of Benin. Moslems account for 20% of the population and Christians for 30%. Many nominal Moslems and Christians continue to practice animistic traditions. It is believed that voodoo originated in Benin and was introduced to Brazil and the Caribbean Islands by slaves taken from this particular area of the Slave Coast.

Benin was the seat of one of the great medieval African kingdoms called Dahomey. During the 13th century, the indigenous Edo people were run by a group of local chieftains, but by the 15th century a single ruler known as the 'oba' had asserted control. Under the dynasty established by Ewuare the Great, the most famous of the obas, Benin's territory expanded to cover a region between the Niger River delta and what is now the Nigerian city of Lagos. The obas brought great prosperity and a highly organized state to Benin. They also established good relations and an extensive slave trade with the Portuguese and Dutch who arrived from the 15th century onwards.

The decline of the obas began in the 18th century when a series of internal power struggles began which lasted into the 19th century, paving the way for the French takeover and colonization of the country in 1872. In 1904, the territory was incorporated into French West Africa as Dahomey. On December 4, 1958, it became the R�publique du Dahomey, self-governing within the French community, and on August 1, 1960, the Republic of Benin gained full independence from France.

Post-Independence Politics
Between 1960 and 1972, a succession of military coups brought about many changes of government. The last of these brought to power Major Mathieu K�r�kou as the head of a regime professing strict Marxist-Leninist principles. The Revolutionary Party of the People of Benin (PRPB) remained in complete power until the beginning of the 1990s. K�r�kou, encouraged by France and other democratic powers, convened a National Conference that introduced a new democratic constitution and held presidential and legislative elections. K�r�kou's principal opponent at the presidential poll, and the ultimate victor, was Prime Minister Nic�phore Soglo. Supporters of Soglo also secured a majority in the National Assembly.

Benin was thus the first African country to successfully effect the transition from dictatorship to a pluralistic political system. In the second round of National Assembly elections held in March 1995, Soglo's political vehicle, the Parti de la Renaissance du Benin, was the largest single party but lacked an overall majority. The success of a party formed by supporters of ex-president K�r�kou, who had officially retired from active politics, encouraged him to stand successfully at both the 1996 and 2001 presidential elections.

During the 2001 elections, however, alleged irregularities and dubious practices led to a boycott of the run-off poll by the main opposition candidates. The four top-ranking contenders following the first round presidential elections were Mathieu Kerekou (incumbent) 45.4%, Nicephore Soglo (former president) 27.1%, Adrien Houngbedji (National Assembly Speaker) 12.6%, and Bruno Amoussou (Minister of State) 8.6%. The second round balloting, originally scheduled for March 18, 2001, was postponed for days because both Soglo and Houngbedji withdrew, alleging electoral fraud. This left Kerekou to run against his own Minister of State, Amoussou, in what was termed a "friendly match".

Principal Cabinet Members
President--Mathieu Kerekou
Minister of Civil Service, Labor, and Administrative Reform--Ousmane Batoko
Minister of Commerce--Lazare Sehoueto
Minister of Culture and Communications--Gaston Zossou
Minister of Education and Scientific Research--Dorothe Cossi Sossa
Minister of Energy, Mining, and Water Resources--Kamarou Fassassi
Minister of Environment, Housing, and Urban Affairs--Luc Marie-Constant Gnacadja
Minister of Finance and Economy--Abdoulaye Bio Tchane
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation--Antoine Kolawole Idji
Minister of Health--Celine Seignon Kandissounon
Minister of Industry--Dominique Codjo Sohounhloue
Minister of Interior, Security, and Territorial Administration--Daniel Tawema
Minister of Justice, Legislative Affairs, and Human Rights--Joseph H. Gnonlonfoun
Minister of National Defense--Pierre Osho
Minister of Public Works and Transportation--Joseph Sourou Attin
Minister of Relations with Institutions--Sylvain Adekpedjou Akindes
Minister of Rural Development--Theophile Nata
Minister of Small- to Medium-Sized Business--Jean Bio Chabi Orou
Minister of Social Welfare and Women's Affairs--Claire Ayemonna Houngan
Minister of State for Coordination of Government Actions, Economic Development, and Job Creation--Bruno Amoussou
Minister of Trade, Artisanry, and Tourism--Amos Elegbe
Minister of Youth, Sports, and Recreation--Valentin Aditi Houde

Ambassador to the United States--Segbe Cyrille Oguin
Permanent Representative to the United Nations--Joel W. Adechi

Benin maintains an embassy in the United States at 2737 Cathedral Avenue, Washington, DC 20008, tel. 202-232-6656. The Permanent Representative of the Republic of Benin to the United Nations is located at 4 East 73rd Street, New York, NY 10021 tel. 212-249-6014, fax 212-734-4735.

Benin's economy is chiefly based on agriculture. Cotton accounts for 40% of GDP and roughly 80% of official export receipts. There is also production of textiles, palm products, and cocoa. Corn, beans, rice, peanuts, cashews, pineapples, cassava, yams, and other various tubers are grown for local subsistence. Benin began producing a modest quantity of offshore oil in October 1982. Production ceased in recent years but exploration of new sites is ongoing. A modest fishing fleet provides fish and shrimp for local subsistence and export to Europe. Formerly government-owned commercial activities are now privatized. A French brewer acquired the former state-run brewery. Smaller businesses are privately owned by Beninese citizens, but some firms are foreign owned, primarily French and Lebanese. The private commercial and agricultural sectors remain the principal contributors to growth.

Economic Development
Since the transition to a democratic government in 1990, Benin has undergone a remarkable economic recovery. A large injection of external investment from both private and public sources has alleviated the economic difficulties of the early 1990s caused by global recession and persistently low commodity prices (although the latter continues to affect the economy). The manufacturing sector is confined to some light industry, which is mainly involved in processing primary products and the production of consumer goods. A planned joint hydroelectric project with neighboring Togo is intended to reduce Benin's dependence on imported energy mostly from Ghana, which currently accounts for a significant proportion of the country's imports. The service sector has grown quickly, stimulated by economic liberalization and fiscal reform. Membership of the CFA Franc Zone offers reasonable currency stability as well as access to French economic support. Benin sells its products mainly to France and, in smaller quantities, to the Netherlands, Korea, Japan, and India. France is Benin's leading source for imports. Benin is also a member of the West African economic community ECOWAS.

Despite its rapid growth, the economy of Benin still remains underdeveloped and dependent on subsistence agriculture, cotton production, and regional trade. Growth in real output averaged a sound 5% since 1996, but a rapid population rise offset much of this growth on a per capita basis. Inflation has subsided over the past several years. Commercial and transport activities, which make up a large part of GDP, are vulnerable to developments in Nigeria, particularly fuel shortages.

Abroad, Benin has recently strengthened ties with France, the former colonial power, as well as the USA and the main international lending institutions. Benin has also adopted a mediating role in the political crises in Liberia, Guinea-Bissau, and Togo and provided a contribution to the UN force in Haiti, all of which were indications of the country's growing confidence in the international community. Within West Africa, Benin enjoys stable relations with Nigeria, the main regional power.

The United States and Benin have had an excellent history of relations in the years since Benin embraced democracy. The U.S. Government continues to assist Benin with the improvement of living standards that are key to the ultimate success of Benin's experiment with democratic government and economic liberalization, and are consistent with U.S. values and national interest in reducing poverty and promoting growth. The bulk of the U.S. effort in support of consolidating democracy in Benin is focused on long-term human resource development through U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) programs. Efforts to pursue this national interest are spearheaded by USAID, which has effective programs focused on primary education, family health (including family planning), women's and children's health, and combating sexually transmitted diseases, especially the spread of HIV. USAID's Democracy and Governance program also emphasizes encouraging greater civil society involvement in national decisionmaking; strengthening mechanisms to promote transparency and accountability; improving the environment for decentralized private and local initiatives; and enhancing the electoral system and the national legislature. A panoply of military-to-military cooperation programs reinforces democratizing efforts. Plans are now afoot to graduate such programs into a broader regional framework.

The U.S. advances the ethos of law enforcement by working with Beninese authorities to crack down on crimes, help eradicate corruption, promote good governance, the rule of law, and greater official accountability.

The United States Public Affairs Office in Cotonou leads the U.S. -- Benin cultural, professional, and educational exchanges, with a focus on helping educate the Government of Benin and the public on the trade opportunities and advantages of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). The PAO also helps in expanding efforts to build a more responsible media.

The United States Peace Corps program in Benin provides ongoing opportunities for increased understanding between Beninese and Americans. The approximately 120 volunteers promote sustainable development through activities in health, education, and the environment, and small enterprise development. The U.S. Peace Corps program in Benin is one of the most successful in Africa, in part because of Beninese receptivity and collaboration.

Currently trade between Benin and the United States is small, but interest in American products is growing. The U.S. is interested in promoting increased trade with Benin in order to contribute to U.S. trade with Benin's neighbors, particularly Nigeria, Niger, and Burkina Faso, which receive large amounts of their own imports through the port of Cotonou. Such trade is also facilitated by Benin's membership in the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) and in the CFA franc monetary zone. The U.S. Government also works to stimulate American investment in key sectors such as energy, telecommunications, and transportation.

Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--Pamela E. Bridgewater
Deputy Chief of Mission/Economic Officer--David Brown
Director, USAID Mission--Harry Lightfoot
Director, Peace Corps--Geremie Sawadago
Public Affairs Officer--vacant
Consul/Political Officer--Elisabeth Brandon
Administrative Officer--Donald Curtis

The U.S. Embassy is located on rue Caporal Bernard Anani, 01 BP 2012, Cotonou, Benin, tel. 229-30-06-50, fax 229-30-14-39. For American citizen services and visa questions, the Embassy Consular Section fax number is 229-30-66-82.