The republic of Benin is a peaceful and stable country in West Africa in a tropical zone between the equator and the Tropic of Cancer. For many years, the country has had a close bond with the Netherlands.
Benin is bordered by Togo to the west, by Niger to the northwest, by Burkina Faso to the northwest, by Nigeria to the east, and by the Benin Bay (part of the Gulf of Guinea, which is part of the Atlantic Ocean) to the south. This country was called Dahomey until 1975. Covering 112,622 square kilometres, Benin is nearly three times bigger than the Netherlands. From north to south, the country measures 700 kilometres; from west to east, it stretches 125 kilometres along the coast to 325 kilometres in the north. Benin had 10,050,000 inhabitants in 2012.
Originally, the territory of present-day Benin was occupied by a large number of kingdoms, of which the mighty and prosperous kingdom of Dahomey is the best known. In the 17th century, this kingdom occupied a considerable part of West Africa. The slave trade, mostly conducted with the Portuguese and Dutch, represented an important source of income. The coast of this kingdom therefore became known as the Slave Coast. In the coastal city of Ouidah, an old Portuguese fort – now a museum – still reminds us of this period.
In the 18th century, the kingdom fell apart and the French managed to seize control of a large portion of the area. In 1899, the country was incorporated into French West Africa. In 1960, Dahomey won its independence. The name Benin dates back to 1975, when the country was renamed People's Republic of Benin as the government acceded to Marxism-Leninism a few years after a military coup d'état in 1972. Following an economic crisis in the late 80s, democracy was restored in the country.
Every four years, parliamentary elections are held for the Assemblée Nationale (National Assembly). Presidential elections are held every five years.
Along the Bight of Benin in the south is a low sandy coast behind which is a narrow and woody coastal plain. The south originally consisted of tropical jungle. Along the rivers and in the far south east, pristine tropical jungle still exists. Further inland, there are lagoons and marshland.
The two biggest cities in the country, Porto Novo and Cotonou, are situated on the biggest lagoon, Lake Nokoué. The capital is Porto Novo (population 225,000) on the northern bank of the lagoon. Benin's economic centre and largest city Cotonou, with over 665,000 residents, is located on the southern bank. Most governmental departments are based in Cotonou. The city has a sea port as well as the only international airport in the country.
The wet savanna region lies to the north of the more densely populated south. Further northwards, the landscape becomes sparser. In the far north, a fertile plain extends up to the Niger River, which forms the boundary with the Republic of Niger.
In the south of Benin, the climate is subequatorial with high humidity. There, the temperatures vary between 20°C and 35°C. Furthermore, the area has two wet and two dry seasons. The dry seasons are from November to March and from mid July to mid September. The wet seasons last from April to mid July and from mid September to October.
In the savannah-like centre of the country and the area north of Benin, the climate is tropical with temperatures around 30°C to 35°C and peaks up to 45°C. Here, the dry season lasts from November to April and the rainy season from June to September.
Benin has around forty ethnic groups, nearly all with their own language, the most common being the Fon and Yoruba peoples. The official language of the country is French, which is mainly spoken in the large cities in the south.
Local religions represent a majority of religious beliefs held in Benin, although a considerable part of the population is either Christian (43%) or Muslim (23%). Traditional customs and traditions – such as voodoo – are often incorporated into local forms of Christianity and Islam.
According to the United Nations Development programme, 39% of the population of Benin is below the poverty line. The economy is underdeveloped and primarily reliant on agriculture, cotton cultivation, and regional trade. While production in the country is increasing at a 5% annual rate, population growth is outpacing it.
To strengthen the economy, Benin is looking for foreign investors. New food processing techniques and agricultural products are areas of significant investment. The government is introducing a policy of privatisation.
In recent years, tourism has also been increasing. January, February, March, August, September, and December are the best times in which to visit Benin, as the temperatures are most pleasant and there is the least rainfall during these months.