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Benin Profile (A Brief History)

Updated: Oct 31, 2020

Benin, officially the Republic of Benin and formerly known as Dahomey, is a country in West Africa. The Benin territory consists of a narrow stretch of land extending towards the north from the Gulf of Guinea in the Atlantic Ocean and is bordered by Nigeria to the east, Togo to the west, Burkina Faso to the northwest and Niger to the northeast. Porto Novo is the official capital city; but Cotonou, the country's largest city and its economic capital, continues to serve as the administrative center. The major ethnic groups in Benin Republic include Fon, Adja, Mina, Yoruba, Bariba, Fula, Ottamari, Yoa-Lokpa, Dendi and others. The official language of Benin is French, and the national languages of the country are Fon, Yoruba, Fula and Bariba.

Early history of Benin

Prior to the 18th century not much is known about the earliest inhabitants of modern-day Benin as the inhabitants of west Africa remained historically an oral tradition society without ancient historical records. The Aja, Yoruba, and Gbe ethnic groups were the prominent city states in the territory by the early 1700’s. These city states were located along the coast and each had a distinct political system.

The Oyo Empire of the Yoruba people which grew using a cavalry as its main source of power covered parts of Benin and Western Nigeria and was the largest Yoruba state. The Empire had the largest military force in the region and would regularly raid the coastal kingdoms and tribal regions exacting tributes from them.

The narrative changed in the late 17th century and early 18th century when the Fon people founded the Kingdom of Dahomey. The Dahomey kingdom would expand its kingdom and took over cities along the coast. However still being less powerful than the Oyo Empire it would be a tributary of the Oyo Empire and the Kingdom of Dahomey did not attack the Oyo city-state of Porto Novo. There would be an intense rivalry between the kingdom and Porto Novo, which persisted even into the post-colonial period.

The Dahomey Kingdom was popular for its unique culture and traditions. It gave much priority to raising warriors and creating a formidable military force. The kingdom's emphasis on military preparation made the European explorers describe the kingdom as the Black Sparta. The young boys wear apprenticed under older soldiers to learn military tactics and the women were not left out in the kingdom's military customs and would be described by European explorers as Dahomey Amazons.

Arrival of the Europeans in Benin

The presence of Portuguese merchants in modern day Benin dates to 1472 when the European explorers traversed the west African coast in pursuit of trade for goods and slaves. Initially the Portuguese merchants would raid coastal areas and rob the locals of their possessions and people. The Kingdoms of the coastal areas became aware of such practices and set up patrols to thwart such raids but eventually they would work directly with the European merchants to exchange goods and slaves.

The kingdom of Dahomey was notorious for the transatlantic slave trade and sold their war captives to European slave traders. Slave trading with the Portuguese merchants flourished in Dahomey for almost 300 years, earning the territory the name of Slave Coast. The city of Porto Novo of the Oyo Empire would eventually be developed by the Portuguese as a port for slave trade.

Following the Slave Trade Act in 1808 and banning of all forms of transatlantic slave trade by Britain, the slave trade in Dahomey started to decline. In 1885 the last slave ship departed the Slave Coast, bringing an end to centuries of slave trading in the territory.

Colonization of Benin

Dahomey began to weaken by the mid-19th century and lost its status as a regional power. The French used this opportunity to infiltrate the region and took over control of Dahomey in 1892, establishing it as a French colony called French Dahomey. In 1889, French Dahomey was joined to the larger French West African Colony.

Under the French colonial rule Dahomey was developed, and the French would construct a port at Cotonou, built roads, and railroads. The Roman Catholic Mission that was actively working in different parts of west Africa established schools and churches in French Dahomey. By 1946 Dahomey had become a French overseas territory but also had its own Parliament with representatives in the French national assembly.

Independence of Benin

In 1958 French Dahomey was granted autonomy by France and on August 1, 1960 it would become fully independent and Herbert Maga became the first president of the Republic of Dahomey. The first 12 years after the country's independence was marred with political crisis and coups, electoral irregularities, and intra-ethnic strife. In 1975 the ruling military council would drop the Republic of Dahomey for the new name of Republic of Benin, a name reported to be given in memory of the greatness of the ancient Benin kingdom of Nigeria. Following the completion of the country's constitution in 1990 the name was officially changed to the Republic of Benin.

Currently, Benin runs a presidential representative democratic multi-party Republic. The president assumes the office of both head of state and head of government.

Economy of Benin

Benin’s economy is largely dependent on cotton production, subsistence agriculture and regional trade. Cotton is the country's main export and Benin's geographic location enables effective trading and tourism activities with neighboring countries and creates a 15 billion-dollar GDP.


Agriculture is the largest part of the economy and represents 23% of GDP and employs 41% of the workforce. Roughly have of the country relies on subsistence farming as a livelihood. Benin produces cotton, corn, cassava, yams, beans, palm oil and peanuts.


The industrial sector represents 21% of GDP and employs 20% of the workforce. Textile manufacturing, food processing, cement manufacturing, and construction materials are driving the industrial sector.


The services sector is 46% of GDP and employs 40% of the workforce. The sector is headline by a thriving banking industry and tourism industry.

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