Benin history: Top 10 Benin Facts You Don’t Know8 min read


In this article, we head to the West African country called Benin. Let’s begin by looking at the flag of Benin. The flag of Benin has three colors green yellow and red. The yellow and green represent the savannas and the palm groves located in the south of the country while the red represents the blood shed for those who fought for the country. In another respect the flag also utilizes the Pan Africanist movement colors to signify the unity and strength of the people after colonization and pride in their identity. Benin may be a very narrow and thin country but don’t be fooled it has a long and crazy history behind its location.

First of all Benin is located in West Africa below the Sahara line bordered by four other countries Togo Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria with the Gulf of Guinea to the south. People may tell you that the shape of Benin kind of looks like a key, I personally think it looks like a mushroom cloud explosion. The capital of Benin is Porto-Novo which means Newport in Portuguese despite the fact that French is the official language and is located in the South.

The seat of government and most governmental buildings are located just a few kilometers southwest in the largest city called Cotonou located on the coast. The country is divided up into twelve departments which are further divided into 77 communities. Originally the country had six departments but then in 1999 the originally six split up and then Atakora, Plateau, Donga, Djougou, Dogbo, Littora and Collines were added each with their own capital city.  Although the coastline is only about 75 miles long or 120 kilometers the majority of people live in the South within 100 kilometers of the coast. However, the North has some decently sized towns that hold their ground especially in the Donga and Atakor districts along the border by Togo such as Natitingou and Djougou.

In the far north there is a disputed patch of land that they have with Burkina Faso near the Beninese town of Porga which has the world’s most boring airport ever. A large portion of the borders grow along rivers, the Pendjari River from Burkina Faso, the Okpara from Nigeria and further north along the Niger River. Most of Benin’s land borders aren’t really tightly marked or enforced giving people easy access from Nigeria and Togo. I mean half of the city in towns like llara and Tuandi are split between Benin with Nigeria and Togo and nobody really seems to care.

Benin maybe small with some interesting perimeters but what really counts is the secret special things in those parameters. Benin landscape is generally flat for the most part the country and gradually slopes a little bit upwards to further north you go until you reach the Atacora mountain range along the northwest border with Togo with the highest point at Mount Sokbaro at only about 650 meters or 2200 feet above sea level being in this area. However, generally there are four main geographical areas that divide up this country the low-lying sandy coast with marshes and lagoons connected to the ocean, the plateaus with valleys and rivers were the majority of eco-regions and nature preserves are found in and then you got the flat lands with the dry savannas and rocky hills further north and finally the Atacora mountain region in the northwest.

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Benin kind of has two separate climates in the south and the north. The south is generally hot and humid year-round and gathers most of the rainfall while the north is hot, arid and dry. Benin is located right below the Sahel line which means that as the Sahel and Sahara are battling it out the north part of Benin gets some of the backlash in the form of a dry wind called the Hamattan. This wind dries up the grass and vegetation annually and leaves a veil of dust that hangs over everything. This is also the season where farmers burn the brush to help nourish the soil for next year’s harvest. Benin is as many African nations are an agricultural urban economy in which food items and cotton make up the majority of the GDP. However they do have one secret weapon “gold” locked away in the veins of the Atacora mountains close to the towns of Kwatena and Tchantangou is Benin’s largest gold mines which in recent years has contributed to as high as around 20 percent of overall exports mostly from foreign investors like China and the European countries.

Benin is a country that has about ten million people or about the same size as Sweden. In terms of tribal ethnic groups Benin has 42; the largest ones are the Pon, the Aja, the Yoruba, the Bariba, the Fula, the Ottamari, the Kabye and the Dendi.  Speaking of which Adja and Fons in addition to Ewe and Ga-Adangbe tribes found along the coast of West Africa make up the majority of tribes that were taken to the Americas from this region during the transatlantic slave trade. Many of them headed to North America and the Caribbean as opposed to the Africans from the southern regions of Africa like Angola and Cape Verde that went to the South American regions like Brazil and Venezuela.

Also although debatable it’s been said that voodoo originated from the Adja and Mina tribes whom brought the belief to the Americas most heavily in Haiti. To this day about 17% of the country still practices one variation or another of Voodoo however the rate is even higher in neighboring Togo with many in Nigeria as well making the area unofficially known as the Voodoo coast. Traditional African religions in addition to voodoo make up about half of the population whereas Christians mostly in the south make up about 30% and Muslims mostly in the north make about 20%. However, it’s kind of confusing because many Beninese people will overlap traditional beliefs with Christianity and Islam. Nominally about 42 percent identify as Christian however doctrinally it’s more like a 12% fusion Christianity compromise buffer zone and the same goes for those who claim to be Muslims.

Although small and less than 1% the majority of the white population in Benin are mostly Christian missionaries who provide aid and long term assistance such as economical and medical health as well as a few French nationals and their families left over from the former years before Benin gained her independence from France.  To understand the people of Benin you kind of have to understand where they came from. Eventually the Fon people set up the kingdom of Dahomey in the 17th century and they were a very militaristic people group sometimes referred to as black Sparta in which they even instituted a female soldier corps called the Ahosi.

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Eventually the Portuguese came in and the kingdom did business by selling war captives as slaves to the Portuguese. After the slave trade died down in the late 1800s France swept in and nabbed the area recalling it French Dahomey. Finally in 1960 France let go and gave them their independence so as you can see Benin kind of has both the Portuguese and French influence past. Benin was the only country in West Africa that was ruled by a tight fisted ruler called Mathieu Kerekou. Basically, if you want to know anything about Benin, you need to know about its former ruler Kerekou who ran the country with an iron fist and ruined everything businesses, education, banking and then tried to finance the country by taking nuclear waste from Russia and France. After riots broke out from his own regime for not having enough money to pay them, he renounced Marxism and finally in 1990 a new constitution was complete and the modern-day Republic of Benin was born kind of I mean the first real free and fair election kind of happened in 2006.

Benin has a quirky unexpected history in friendship. First of all like I mentioned before they have historical ties to both Portugal and France however, ties with France are much stronger as the country didn’t engage in slave trading and the language became official. Nonetheless most Beninese people take a new approach to the French not really enamored by their presence but at the same time not dwelling on the drama of being occupied in the past either. After independence Benin took a strange move and decided to side with the Soviets. After independence the USSR jumped in and coaxed Benin by being one of the first to recognize their sovereignty they built up relations fast and sent ambassadors and finally that’s when Mathieu Kerekou started a military coup and took over driven by Soviet influence new Marxist ideologies to rule the nation.

Various cooperation treaties were signed the Russian Navy had a port in West Africa they could use and even after the dropping of Marxism in Benin and the fall of the Soviet Union the newly established Russian Federation still maintained good relations and ties with Benin. Togo is kind of seen as like the weird little brother that Benin kind rolls their eyes at. Culturally and historically they’ve been close through thick and thin they both speak French and were part of the French Empire although Togo is under Germany for a while and they both share some of the same tribes like the Aja and the Mena tribes.

Nonetheless, Benin considers themselves very different as a whole and claims Togolese people are way too superstitious especially in the large population of voodoo adherents with the strange rituals and even building things like a temple devoted to snakes.  When it comes to their best friend however more or less Benin would probably say Nigeria in fact Benin depends on Nigeria for the majority of its export sector and trade. Parts of Benin were historically part of the Nigerian Yoruba tribe Oyo Empire and to this day tons of Yorubas live in Benin. In conclusion as small as the country is Benin story is gigantically laden with empires, kingdoms, colonies and gold.