The Republic of Benin, formerly called Dahomey, is one of Africa's smallest countries. It extends N to S for about 620km [390mi]. The coastline on the Bight of Benin, which is about 100km [62mi] long, is lined by lagoons. It lacks natural harbours and the harbour at Cotonou, the main port and commercial centre, is artificial.
Behind the coastal lagoons is a flat plain. Beyond this plain is a marshy depression, but the land rises to a low plateau in central Benin. The highest land is in the NW.
Savanna covers most of N Benin and is home to savanna animals such as buffaloes, elephants and lions. The N has two national parks, the Penjari and the 'W', which Benin shares with Burkina Faso and Niger.
Benin has a hot, wet climate. The average annual temperature on the coast is 25°C [77°F], while the average annual rainfall is 1,330mm [52in]. The forested inland plains are wetter than the coast, but the rainfall decreases to the N, which has rainy summer season and a very dry winter.
The ancient kingdom of Dahomey, a prominent W African kingdom that developed in the 15th century, had its capital at Abomey in what is now SW Benin. In the 17th century, the kings of Dahomey became involved in supplying slaves to European slave traders, and by 1700 more than 200,000 slaves were being annually transported from the 'Slave Coast'. The Portuguese shipped many Dahomeans to Brazil and, despite the British abolition of slavery, the trade persisted well into the 19th century. Traces of the culture and religion of the slaves still survive in parts of the Americas. For example, the voodoo cult in Haiti originated in Dahomey.
After slavery was ended in the 19th century, France began to gain influence in the area. Around 1851, France signed a treaty with the kingdom of Dahomey and, in the 1890s, the area, which also included some other small African states, became a French colony. From 1904, they ruled Dahomey as part of a huge region called French West Africa, which also included what are now Burkina Faso, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Senegal. The French developed the country's infrastructure and institutions. Dahomey became an overseas territory of France in 1946 and a self-governing nation in the French Community in 1958. Full independence was achieved in 1960.
Dahomey suffered from instability and unrest in the early years of independence. The first president, Hubert Maga, was removed in 1963 in a military coup led by General Christophe Soglo. A presidential council was set up in 1970 and Hubert Maga became one of three rotating presidents. But this regime was overthrown in 1973 by a coup led by Lt-Col Matthieu Kérékou. In 1975, Kérékou renamed the country Benin after the powerful historical state in SW Nigeria. Benin became a Marxist-Leninist People's Republic and, in 1977, it became a one-party state. This regime, headed by President Kérékou, held power until 1989, when, following the lead of several East European countries in abandoning Communism, Kérékou announced that his country would also abandon Marxism-Leninism and, instead, follow liberal economic policies.
In 1990, a new democratic constitution with a presidential system was introduced. Presidential elections were held in 1991 and Nicéphore Soglo, a former World Bank executive and prime minister, defeated Kérékou. However, in 1996, Kérékou returned to power. Kérékou, who was re-elected in 2001, worked to restore Benin's fragile economy. In 2006 elections he was replaced by Yayi Boni. Many observers have praised Benin's transition from a Marxist-Leninist state into one of Africa's most stable democracies.
Benin is a poor developing country. About half of the population depends on agriculture, but farming is largely at subsistence level. The main food crops include beans, cassava, millet, rice, sorghum and yams. The chief cash crops are cotton, palm oil and palm kernels. Forestry is also important.
Benin produces some oil, but manufacturing remains on a small scale. It depends heavily upon Nigeria for trade.
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