Benin now includes three regions that had distinct political and ethnic systems prior to French colonial rule. Prior to 1700, there were a few significant city states along the coast (mainly of the Aja ethnic group, but also of the Yoruba and Gbe peoples) and a swath of tribal territories inland (composed of Bariba, Mahi, Gedevi, and Kabye peoples). The Oyo Empire, situated mainly to the east of modern Benin, was the region’s most powerful large-scale military force, conducting raids and exacting tribute from the coastal kingdoms and tribal areas on a regular basis. The situation altered in the 1600s and early 1700s when the Kingdom of Dahomey, of Fon ethnicity, was established on the Abomey plateau and started annexing territories along the coast. By 1727, King Agaja of the Kingdom of Dahomey had captured the coastal towns of Allada and Whydah, but the Kingdom of Dahomey had become a vassal of the Oyo empire and did not attack the Oyo-allied city-state of Porto-Novo directly. The development of Dahomey, the competition between the kingdom and the city of Porto-Novo, and the continuation of tribal politics in the northern area lasted into the colonial and post-colonial eras.
The culture and customs of the Dahomey Kingdom were well-known. Young boys were often apprenticed to elder soldiers and taught the military traditions of the kingdom until they were old enough to join the army. Dahomey was also renowned for establishing an elite female military corps known as Ahosi, i.e. the king’s wives, or Mino, “our moms” in the Fon language Fongbe, and recognized as the Dahomean Amazons by many Europeans. This focus on military preparation and success gained Dahomey the moniker “black Sparta” from European observers and nineteenth-century travelers like as Sir Richard Burton.
Dahomey’s monarchs sold their war prisoners into transatlantic slavery; otherwise, the captives would have been executed in a ritual called as the Annual Customs. By about 1750, the King of Dahomey was earning an estimated £250,000 per year from the sale of Africans to European slave merchants. Though the authorities of Dahomey seemed to oppose the slave trade at first, it thrived in the territory of Dahomey for almost three centuries, starting in 1472 with a trade deal with Portuguese traders, which led to the area being dubbed “the Slave Coast.” Court rules requiring the decapitation of a percentage of war captives from the kingdom’s numerous wars reduced the number of enslaved individuals shipped from the region. By the 1860s, the population had dropped from 102,000 individuals each decade in the 1780s to 24,000 people per decade.
The decrease was caused in part by Britain and other nations prohibiting the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
This decrease lasted until 1885, when the final slave ship sailed off the coast of modern-day Benin Republic headed for Brazil, a former Portuguese territory that had yet to abolish slavery.
The name Porto-Novo is of Portuguese origin and means “New Port.” It was initially planned as a slave trading harbor.
Colonial period (1900 until 1958)
By the mid-nineteenth century, Dahomey had started to lose its position as a regional power. This allowed the French to seize control of the region in 1892. In 1899, the French included French Dahomey into the broader French West African colonial territory. France gave the Republic of Dahomey autonomy in 1958, followed by complete independence on August 1, 1960. Hubert Maga was the president who guided them to independence.
After 1960, ethnic conflict led to a period of instability over the following twelve years. Several coups and regime changes occurred, with Hubert Maga, Sourou Apithy, Justin Ahomadegbé, and Emile Derlin Zinsou ruling; the first three each represented a distinct region and ethnicity of the nation. After the 1970 elections were marred by violence, these three decided to establish a Presidential Council.
Maga handed up control to Ahomadegbe on May 7, 1972. Lt. Col. Mathieu Kérékou deposed the governing triumvirate on October 26, 1972, becoming president and declaring that the nation will not “strain itself by imitating foreign ideas, and desires neither Capitalism, Communism, nor Socialism.” However, on November 30, 1974, he declared that the country was officially Marxist, with the Military Council of the Revolution (CNR) in charge, which nationalized the petroleum sector and banks. He renamed the nation the People’s Republic of Benin on November 30, 1975.
When the CNR was disbanded in 1979, Kérékou staged sham elections in which he was the sole candidate permitted. He established connections with China, North Korea, and Libya, and he nationalized virtually all companies and economic activity, leading international investment in Benin to dry up. Kérékou tried to restructure education, promoting his own aphorisms such as “Poverty is not a fatality,” which resulted in a huge departure of teachers and other professionals. The dictatorship funded itself by contracting to transport nuclear waste from the Soviet Union, then from France.
Kérékou converted to Islam in 1980, changing his initial name to Ahmed, then changing his name again after claiming to be a born-again Christian.
Riots erupted in 1989 as a result of the regime’s inability to pay its troops. The banking system failed. Kérékou eventually abandoned Marxism, and a convention compelled him to free political prisoners and hold elections. Marxism-Leninism was also outlawed as a system of governance in the country.
After the constitution of the newly established government was completed, the country’s name was formally changed to the Republic of Benin on March 1, 1990.
Kérékou was defeated in a 1991 election by Nicéphore Soglo. Kérékou regained power after winning the 1996 election. In a tightly fought election in 2001, Kérékou won a second term, prompting his opponents to accuse him of election fraud.
Kérékou offered a national apology in 1999 for the significant role Africans played in the Atlantic slave trade.
Kérékou and former President Soglo did not run in the 2006 elections since they were both prohibited under the constitution’s age and total term limits for candidates.
On March 5, 2006, an election that was deemed free and fair was conducted. Yayi Boni and Adrien Houngbédji were forced to compete in a runoff. Boni was elected in a runoff election on March 19, and he took office on April 6. Internationally, the success of Benin’s fair multi-party elections has been lauded. Boni was re-elected in 2011, receiving 53.18 percent of the vote in the first round, avoiding a runoff election and being the first president to do so since the restoration of democracy in 1991.
In the March 2016 presidential elections, businessman Patrice Talon won the second round with 65.37 percent of the vote, beating investment banker and former Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou, who was prohibited by the constitution from standing for a third term. Talon took the oath of office on April 6, 2016. Talon said on the same day that the Constitutional Court certified the results that he would “first and foremost tackle constitutional change,” outlining his proposal to restrict presidents to a single five-year term in order to fight “complacency.” He also said that he intended to reduce the government’s size from 28 to 16 members.