A Brief History of Benin

People on a busy street in Benin Africa

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Benin was the seat of one of the great medieval African kingdoms called Dahomey. Europeans began arriving in the area in the 18th century, as the kingdom of Dahomey was expanding its territory. The Portuguese, the French, and the Dutch established trading posts along the coast (Porto-Novo, Ouidah, Cotonou), and traded weapons for slaves. Slave trade ended in 1848. Then, the French signed treaties with Kings of Abomey (Guézo, Toffa, Glèlè) to establish French protectorates in the main cities and ports. However, King Behanzin fought the French influence, which cost him deportation to Martinique.

Independence From France

In 1892 Dahomey became a French protectorate and part of French West Africa in 1904. Expansion continued to the North (kingdoms of Parakou, Nikki, Kandi), up to the border with former Upper Volta. On 4 December 1958, it became the République du Dahomey, self-governing within the French community, and on 1 August 1960, the Republic of Dahomey gained full independence from France. The country was renamed Benin in 1975

A History of Military Coups

Between 1960 and 1972, a succession of military coups brought about many changes of government. The last of these brought to power Major Mathieu Kérékou as the head of a regime professing strict Marxist-Leninist principles. The Parti de la Révolution Populaire Béninoise (Revolutionary Party of the People of Benin, PRPB) remained in complete power until the beginning of the 1990s.​

Kérékou Brings Democracy

Kérékou, encouraged by France and other democratic powers, convened a national conference that introduced a new democratic constitution and held presidential and legislative elections. Kérékou's principal opponent at the presidential poll and the ultimate victor was Prime Minister Nicéphore Dieudonné Soglo. Supporters of Soglo also secured a majority in the National Assembly.

Benin was thus the first African country to effect successfully 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 (PRB), was the largest single party but lacked an overall majority. The success of a party, Parti de la Révolution Populaire Béninoise (PRPB), formed by supporters of ex-president Kérékou, who had officially retired from active politics, encouraged him to stand successfully at both the 1996 and 2001 presidential elections.

Election Irregularities

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 Kérékou (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 was postponed for days because both Soglo and Houngbedji withdrew, alleging electoral fraud. Kérékou thus ran against his own Minister of State, Amoussou, in what was termed a "friendly match."

The First Municipal Elections

In December 2002, Benin held its first municipal elections since before the institution of Marxism-Leninism. The process was smooth with the significant exception of the 12th district council for Cotonou, the contest that would ultimately determine who would be selected for the mayoralty of the capital city. That vote was marred by irregularities, and the electoral commission was forced to repeat that single election. Nicephore Soglo's Renaisance du Benin (RB) party won the new vote, paving the way for the former president to be elected Mayor of Cotonou by the new city council in February 2002.

National Assembly elections took place in March 2003 and were generally considered to be free and fair. Although there were some irregularities, these were not significant and did not greatly disrupt the proceedings or the results. These elections resulted in a loss of seats by RB--the primary opposition party. The other opposition parties, the Parti du Renouveau Démocratique (PRD) led by the former Prime Minister Adrien Houngbedji and the Alliance Etoile (AE), have joined the government coalition. RB currently holds 15 of the National Assembly's 83 seats.

An Independent for President

Former West African Development Bank Director Boni Yayi won the March 2006 election for the presidency in a field of 26 candidates. International observers including the United Nations, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and others called the election free, fair, and transparent. President Kérékou was barred from running under the 1990 constitution due to term and age limits. Yayi was inaugurated on 6 April 2006.


Public Domain material, US Department of State Background Notes.