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If people in the rich world associate Benin with anything at all, it is likely to be child trafficking, slavery or voodoo – not exactly the ideal calling cards for a nation. Latterly, however, Benin is developing an entirely new reputation – for the success of its democratic transformation since 1991.

A boat carrying dozens of children made Benin the centre of an international search in April 2001, highlighting slave trafficking in the region, while a 2005 UNICEF report revealed that some 50,000 children are trafficked every year from the country – most to work in quarries in Nigeria, but others to work as domestic servants in Europe.

Around the size of the US state of Pennsylvania, Benin was in former times the point of departure for many thousands of slaves on their way to the Americas – more particularly to Cuba, Brazil and the United States. Many carried with them the traditional cult of _vaudou_, which was to be syncretized with other religious practices to create ‘voodoo’.

Once the French colony of Dahomey, the country gained its independence in 1960 following two decades of growing protest and brutal repression: ultimately France decided that it was more trouble than it was worth. Independence brought little hope, however, until 1972 when the latest in a long line of military coups turned into what seemed like a significant break with the past. In 1974 Mathieu Kérékou declared the newly named Benin a Marxist-Leninist state. All foreign property was nationalized, and a one-party system was introduced.

The experiment had a sad end, in effective dictatorship and state failure. On the brink of the economic abyss and besieged by street demonstrations, President Kérékou announced at the end of 1989 that he was abandoning Marxism-Leninism and called a national reconciliation conference in February 1990, inviting Beninese people both at home and abroad to sit around the same table. This was the first of the ‘national conferences’ that have since cropped up all over Africa. A new constitution was drawn up, providing for a series of political and economic reforms, and Kérékou was ultimately defeated in the 1991 presidential election.

Though Kérékou returned to power in 1996, the 1990s was a continuing story of increasing economic liberalization and privatization at the behest of the IMF and World Bank – eventually rewarded by $460 million worth of debt relief under the HIPC Initiative in 2000. The last 10 years have been chaotic on the economic front, with increasing numbers of cases of corruption and organized pillage of the national economy. Agriculture was neglected or even sabotaged by officials, to the point where Benin, which was the leading cotton producer in West Africa towards the end of the 1990s, has now been overtaken by its near-neighbours.

The parallel positive story has been the revitalization of democratic politics: 10 years of real political liberty marked by a multitude of political parties as well as thousands of NGOs and development associations.

In March 2006 the Beninese finally brought the Kérékou era to a close by electing as President a man who has never been involved in formal politics – Thomas Boni Yayi, an economist and for 12 years the head of the West African Development Bank. Boni Yayi made the promise of change his election watchword and launched immediately into the reform of the telecom, energy, transport and financial sectors. His promise of renewed foreign investment spurring economic development is the standard recipe for current African states but at least there is a new climate of optimism. As the hope for change rises among the Beninese it is bound to be tinged with some reserve – the disappointment and pain of the past remain all too vivid.

Map of Benin

Fact file

Leader President Thomas Boni Yayi.
Economy GNI per capita $530 (Nigeria $390, France $30,090).
Monetary unit CFA franc (linked to the euro).
Main exports Cotton, coffee, crude oil, palm products. About 65 per cent of Benin’s workforce is engaged in subsistence agriculture (most of it still collectivized). They grow yams, cassava, sorghum beans, millet, maize and rice. Production of staple foods is affected by drought and cross-border smuggling into Nigeria.
People 8.1 million. People per square kilometre: 73 (UK 245).
Health Infant mortality 90 deaths per 1,000 live births (Nigeria 101, France 4). Some 68 per cent of population has access to improved drinking water sources. Malaria is a major killer. HIV prevalence rate: 1.9%.
Environment Air pollution is a particular problem in Cotonou, the commercial hub. Deforestation in the north is another problem.
Culture Of the 42 ethnic groups, the most important are the Fon, Adja, Yoruba and Bariba.
Religion There is no official religion. Traditional religions (including vaudou) 50%, Christian (Catholic, Protestant, Evangelist) 30%, Muslim 20%.
Language French (official). Of the local languages, Fon and Yoruba are most common in the south, Bariba and Dendi in the north.
Human Development Index: 1990 0.111. Latest 0.431 (Nigeria 0.453, France 0.938).

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution Approximately 33 per cent of Beninese still live on less than a dollar a day – and unemployment is boosting the ranks of the poor.
Literacy The national rate of 34% obscures the fact that half as many women (23%) can read and write as men (46%). Net primary school attendance is 54%. Primary school is supposed to be free of charge for girls but there are not enough schools in rural areas and small towns.
Life expectancy 54 years (Nigeria 43, France 80). Up from 43 years when last profiled.
Freedom There is now real freedom of expression and association in Benin and democracy is functioning well. Its independent press is ranked the freest in Africa according to Reporters Without Borders.
Position of women In legal terms, women have equal rights and there is an atmosphere of some freedom in the cities, though in rural areas old traditions can still apply. Female genital mutilation was outlawed in 2003, though no prosecutions have yet been brought.
Sexual minorities Homosexuality is illegal for both men and women. Transgender: no data.
Previously reviewed 1987
New Internationalist assessment The economy may be stagnant, the justice system may be out of date, unemployment may be high, but democracy is on the march. Peaceful elections and transitions have successfully taken place ever since 1990 and Benin is cited all over the world as an example of democratic success in Africa. President Boni Yayi is seen as a hard worker, aiming to drive the country at high speed out of its economic malaise, and is popular for the moment. All eyes are on him.

New Internationalist issue 393 magazine cover This article is from the September 2006 issue of New Internationalist.
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