The official language of Benin is French. However, indigenous languages such as Fon and Yoruba are commonly spoken. The largest religious group in Benin is Roman Catholicism, followed closely by Islam, Vodun and Protestantism. Benin is a member of the United Nations, the African Union, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the South Atlantic Peace and Cooperation Zone, La Francophonie, the Community of Sahel-Saharan States, the African Petroleum Producers Association and the Niger Basin Authority.
From the 17th to the 19th century, the main political entities in the area were the Kingdom of Dahomey along with the city-state of Porto-Novo and a large area with many different tribes to the north. This region was referred to as the Slave Coast from as early as the 17th century due to the large number of slaves shipped to the New World during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. After slavery was abolished, France took over the country and renamed it French Dahomey. In 1960, Dahomey gained full independence from France, and had a tumultuous period with many different democratic governments, military coups and military governments.
A Marxist–Leninist state called the People's Republic of Benin existed between 1975 and 1990. In 1991, it was replaced by the current multi-party Republic of Benin.
During the colonial period and at independence, the country was known as Dahomey. On 30 November 1975 it was renamed to Benin, after the body of water on which the country lies—the Bight of Benin—which, in turn, had been named after the Benin Empire (nowadays Nigeria). The country of Benin has no connection to Benin City in modern Nigeria, nor to the Benin bronzes. The form "Benin" is the result of a Portuguese corruption of the city of Ubinu (now Benin City).
The new name, Benin, was chosen for its neutrality. Dahomey was the name of the former Kingdom of Dahomey, which covered only most of the southern third of the present country and therefore did not represent Porto-Novo (a rival state in the south), the northwestern sector Atakora, nor the kingdom of Borgu, which covered the northeastern third.
The current country of Benin combines three areas which had different political and ethnic systems prior to French colonial control. Before 1700, there were a few important city states along the coast (primarily of the Aja ethnic group, but also including Yoruba and Gbe peoples) and a mass of tribal regions inland (composed of Bariba, Mahi, Gedevi, and Kabye peoples). The Oyo Empire, located primarily to the east of modern Benin, was the most significant large-scale military force in the region and it would regularly conduct raids and exact tribute from the coastal kingdoms and the tribal regions. The situation changed in the 1600s and early 1700s as the Kingdom of Dahomey, which was of Fon ethnicity, was founded on the Abomey plateau and began taking over areas along the coast. By 1727, king Agaja of the Kingdom of Dahomey had conquered the coastal cities of Allada and Whydah, but it had become a tributary of the Oyo empire and did not directly attack the Oyo allied city-state of Porto-Novo. The rise of the kingdom of Dahomey, the rivalry between the kingdom and the city of Porto-Novo, and the continued tribal politics of the northern region, persisted into the colonial and post-colonial periods.
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. This emphasis on military preparation and achievement earned Dahomey the nickname of "black Sparta" from European observers and 19th century explorers like Sir Richard Burton.
The kings of Dahomey sold their war captives into transatlantic slavery; otherwise the captives would have been killed 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 Africans to the European slave-traders. Though the leaders of Dahomey appeared initially to resist the slave trade, it flourished in the region of Dahomey for almost three hundred years, beginning in 1472 with a trade agreement with Portuguese merchants, leading to the area's being named "the Slave Coast". Court protocols, which demanded that a portion of war captives from the kingdom's many battles be decapitated, decreased the number of enslaved people exported from the area. The number went from 102,000 people per decade in the 1780s to 24,000 per decade by the 1860s.
The decline was partly due to the banning of the trans-Atlantic slave trade by Britain and other countries. This decline continued until 1885, when the last slave ship departed from the coast of the present-day Benin Republic bound for Brazil, that had yet to abolish slavery.
The capital's name Porto-Novo is of Portuguese origin, meaning "New Port". It was originally developed as a port for the slave trade.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, Dahomey had begun to lose its status as the 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. In 1958, France granted autonomy to the Republic of Dahomey, and full independence on 1 August 1960. The president who led them to independence was Hubert Maga.
For the next twelve years after 1960, ethnic strife contributed to a period of turbulence. There were several coups and regime changes, with the figures of Hubert Maga, Sourou Apithy, Justin Ahomadegbé, and Emile Derlin Zinsou dominating; the first three each represented a different area and ethnicity of the country. These three agreed to form a Presidential Council after violence marred the 1970 elections.
On 7 May 1972, Maga ceded power to Ahomadegbe. On 26 October 1972, Lt. Col. Mathieu Kérékou overthrew the ruling triumvirate, becoming president and stating that the country would not "burden itself by copying foreign ideology, and wants neither Capitalism, Communism, nor Socialism". On 30 November 1974 however, he announced that the country was officially Marxist, under control of the Military Council of the Revolution (CNR), which nationalized the petroleum industry and banks. On 30 November 1975, he renamed the country to the People's Republic of Benin.
The CNR was dissolved in 1979, and Kérékou arranged show elections where he was the only allowed candidate. Establishing relations with China, North Korea, and Libya, he put nearly all businesses and economic activities under state control, causing foreign investment in Benin to dry up. Kérékou attempted to reorganize education, pushing his own aphorisms such as "Poverty is not a fatality", resulting in a mass exodus of teachers, along with a large number of other professionals. The regime financed itself by contracting to take nuclear waste first from the Soviet Union and later from France.
In 1980, Kérékou converted to Islam and changed his first name to Ahmed, then changed his name back after claiming to be a born-again Christian.
In 1989, riots broke out after the regime did not have money to pay its army. The banking system collapsed. Eventually Kérékou renounced Marxism and a convention forced Kérékou to release political prisoners and arrange elections. Marxism-Leninism was also abolished as the nation's form of government.
The country's name was officially changed to the Republic of Benin on 1 March 1990, after the newly formed government's constitution was complete.
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 Africans had played in the Atlantic slave trade.
Kérékou and former president Soglo did not run in the 2006 elections, as both were barred by the constitution's restrictions on age and total terms of candidates.
On 5 March 2006, an election was held that was considered free and fair. It resulted in a runoff between Yayi Boni and Adrien Houngbédji. The runoff election was held on 19 March and was won by Boni, who assumed office on 6 April. The success of the fair multi-party elections in Benin won praise internationally. Boni was reelected in 2011, taking 53.18% of the vote in the first round—enough to avoid a runoff election, becoming the first president to win an election without a runoff since the restoration of democracy in 1991.
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.
Benin's politics take place in a framework of a presidential representative democratic republic, where the President of Benin is both head of state and head of government, within a multi-party system. Executive power is exercised by the government. Legislative power is vested in both the government and the legislature. The judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature. The political system is derived from the 1990 Constitution of Benin and the subsequent transition to democracy in 1991.
Benin scored highly in the 2013 Ibrahim Index of African Governance, which comprehensively measures the state of governance across the continent. Benin was ranked 18th out of 52 African countries, and scored best in the categories of Safety & Rule of Law and Participation & Human Rights.
In its 2007 Worldwide Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Benin 53rd out of 169 countries.
Benin has been rated equal-88th out of 159 countries in a 2005 analysis of police, business and political corruption.
Benin is divided into twelve departments (French: départements) which, in turn, are subdivided into 77 communes. In 1999, the previous six departments were each split into two halves, forming the current twelve. The six new departments were assigned official capitals in 2008.
The majority of Benin's population lives in the south. The population is young, with a life expectancy of 62 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 (who came from Mali in the 16th century); the Bariba and the Fula (French: Peul or Peulh; Fula: Fulɓe) 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.
Recent migrations have brought other African nationals to Benin that include Nigerians, Togolese, and Malians. 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 part of the 5500 European population. A small part of the European population consists of Beninese citizens of French ancestry, whose ancestors ruled Benin and left after independence.