Benin (formerly Dahomey) has no geographical or historical unity and owes its frontiers to Anglo-French rivalry in the late-19th-century partition of Africa. This is especially marked in northern Benin, whose affinities are rather with the neighboring countries of West Africa than with the peoples of the south. Southern Benin has some historical unity, owing to the existence there of several kingdoms, all traditionally related and peopled by Fon and Adja (related to the Ewe of southern Togo and southeastern Ghana). Traditionally, the kingdoms of Allada, Abomey (or Dahomey), and Adjatché (later Porto-Novo) were founded when two brothers of the king of Allada created new states, respectively, north and southeast of Allada. Abomey conquered Allada in 1724, seized the port of Ouidah in 1727, and became a famous slave-trading kingdom. At this time, women soldiers ("Amazons") were recruited by Abomey for regular service.
The Portuguese—the first Europeans to establish trading posts on the West African coast—founded the trading post of Porto-Novo on what is now the Benin coast. They were followed by English, Dutch, Spanish, and French traders as the slave trade developed. The French established posts at Ouidah and Savé in the middle of the 17th century, and the English and Portuguese also built forts nearby in the early 18th century. The Portuguese fort at Ouidah, which remained Portuguese territory until 1961, was built in 1727. French, English, and Portuguese coastal trade continued, and as Yoruba power weakened, Abomey continually raided the Yoruba and westward toward the Ashanti. Prisoners seized in these campaigns were sacrificed or exported as slaves until the latter half of the 19th century. European traders were closely controlled by the yevogan of Ouidah, the Abomey functionary stationed there, and subjected to substantial levies. It was not until the mid-19th century, with the gradual replacement of the slave trade by trade in palm oil, that European activity brought forth new developments. In 1857, the French established themselves in Grand Popo. In 1868, the French made a treaty with the king of Abomey by which they were permitted to establish a trading post at Cotonou. The British meanwhile established themselves in Lagos, which they annexed in 1861 in order to eliminate the slave trade. Anglo-French rivalry in Porto-Novo, in which successive local kings took different sides, eventually ended with a French protectorate there (1882) and British posts at various points farther west, which were abandoned by the Anglo-French agreements of 1888–89. But Abomey remained outside French control, and its levies on European trade became increasingly irksome. War between Abomey and Porto-Novo broke out in 1889 over France's rights of sovereignty to Cotonou, and Béhanzin, who succeeded to the throne of Abomey in that year, attacked the French posts there. His forces included some 2,000 Amazons. Béhanzin next attacked Porto-Novo and Grand Popo in 1891. In 1893, a French expeditionary force commanded by Dodds took Abomey, and a French protectorate was declared. Renewed hostilities were followed by Béhanzin's surrender to the French in 1894. (He died in exile in Martinique in 1906.) His successor, his brother Agoli Agbo, was exiled in 1899 for misadministration, and the kingdom of Abomey finally came to an end.
From 1892 to 1898, the territory took its modern shape with the exploration and extension of French control in the north. The construction of the railroad to the north was begun in 1900. Dahomey became a component colony of the federation of French West Africa in 1904. In 1946, under the new French constitution, it was given a deputy and two senators in the French parliament, and an elected Territorial Assembly with substantial control of the budget. Under the reforms of 1956–57, the powers of the Territorial Assembly were extended, and a Council of Government elected by the Assembly was given executive control of most territorial matters. Universal adult suffrage and a single electorate were established at the same time. In September 1958, the territory accepted the French constitution proposed by Gen. de Gaulle's government and opted for the status of an autonomous republic within the French Community, as provided by the new constitution.
On 4 December 1958, the Territorial Assembly became a national constituent assembly and the Republic of Dahomey was proclaimed a member of the French Community. On 14 February 1959, a constitution was adopted; the first Legislative Assembly was elected on 3 April. Hubert Maga, chairman of the Dahomeyan Democratic Rally, was named prime minister on 18 May 1959. On 1 August 1960, Dahomey proclaimed its complete independence, and on 25 November a new constitution, calling for a strong unitary state, was adopted. Other constitutions were adopted in 1963, 1965, and 1968.
After independence, the country suffered from extreme political instability, with military coups in 1963, 1965 (twice), 1967, 1969, and 1972. The numerous and often ingenious efforts at constitutional government, including, from 1970–72, a three-man presidential council with a rotating chairman, failed for a number of reasons. The major ones were regionalism, especially the north–south differences, and the country's poor economy; unemployment was high for the relatively large number of educated Beninese, and economic growth minimal.
The coup on 26 October 1972 established Maj. Mathieu Kérékou as the leader of a military regime. It represented a clear break with all earlier Dahomeyan administrations, introducing revolutionary changes in the political and economic life of the country. In late 1974, President Kérékou said that the national revolution would follow a Marxist-Leninist course, and the state sector was rapidly expanded by nationalization. As of 1 December 1975, the country's name was changed to the People's Republic of Benin by presidential proclamation.
On 16 January 1977, about 100 persons, including 27 Africans and 62 European mercenaries, made a poorly organized assault on Cotonou. After directing small-arms fire on the presidential palace, they departed three hours later on the DC-8 jet on which they had arrived. The government blamed "international imperialism" in general and France, Morocco, and Gabon in particular.
Through the years, hundreds of government opponents have been incarcerated, often without trial. Opposition centered in the banned Communist Party (Parti Communiste du Dahomey— PCT) and among student protesters. Since 1990, however, arbitrary arrest and detention are no longer routinely practiced by the government. In 1979, a National Revolutionary Assembly was elected from the single list of candidates offered by the Party
of the People's Revolution of Benin, the only legal political organization. This body elected Kérékou to a new term as president in 1980. In that year, in the course of an official visit to Libya, he converted to the Islamic faith in the presence of the Libyan leader, Col. Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi, and accordingly took the first name Ahmed. During the visit the two countries signed a major bilateral cooperation agreement.
In February 1990, after weeks of unrest and economic disorder, Kérékou convened a National Conference of Active Forces of the Nation to discuss Benin's future. It became a public critique of Kérékou's 17 years of rule. On 2 December 1990, a new constitution was adopted by popular referendum. The National Conference forced Kérékou to turn over effective power to a transitional government, which held presidential and parliamentary elections on 10 March 1991, and runoffs on 24 March. It has been called a "civilian coup." The conference also changed the name of the country to the Republic of Benin.
Prime Minister Nicephore Soglo won 68% of the votes versus Kérékou's 32%. In the elections to the 64-seat National Assembly, no party or coalition of parties gained more than 12 seats and 11 parties or coalitions of parties were represented. The new government took office on 4 April 1991. Following some civil unrest in late 1991 and 1992, prompted by the government's slowness in paying salaries and issuing grants to students, there were reports of an attempted coup, but the Soglo administration managed to thwart it.
In late 1993, the working coalition of approximately 34 parties, referred to as the "presidential majority," dissolved. Since then, there have been tensions between the executive branch and legislature. These were highlighted when Soglo, who previously had not allied himself with any political party, was made head of the Party for the Renaissance of Benin (PRB). Later that year, amid a worsening economy brought on by currency devaluation, labor and student groups began a series of protests over wages and student grants, causing considerable social stress. In January 1994, a National Convention of Forces of Change met and adopted a report on the organization of the next elections. It urged the creation of a national electoral commission.
The government also planned to increase the size of the National Assembly from 64 to 83 seats. After some delay, elections were held on 28 March 1995 and were considered to be generally free and fair, although the Constitutional Court heard complaints of irregularities in April and invalidated 13 seats. New elections for those seats were scheduled for May, amid opposition complaints that Soglo's dominance of the PRB would again lead to irregularities. After the squabbling, the PRB did in fact emerge with a plurality, holding 20 seats along with 13 held by parties aligned with Soglo and the PRB.
Since the 1995 elections, Soglo concerned himself primarily with Benin's economic prospects and its relations with France, the country's principal benefactor. In June 1995, Soglo visited France and met with its newly elected president, Jacques Chirac. Presidential elections were held in 1996, the first round taking place on 3 March. Soglo was challenged by several rivals, but his main opponent was his old rival Kérékou, whom he had soundly defeated in 1991. This time, however, the contest was closer, as people had largely forgiven Kérékou his excesses following his coup and, at the same time, were tired of Soglo's economic mismanagement. A runoff election was held on 4 April and Kérékou was returned to the office of president, winning 52.49% of the vote to Soglo's 47.51%.
Kérékou's key challenges came from the opposition-dominated National Assembly, union militancy, deteriorating security in cities and rural communities, and a fragile economy.
Despite difficulties of stability, the 1990s were a remarkable decade of political progress for Benin. In 1990, Benin held Francophone Africa's first National Conference, and twice transferred presidential and legislative power freely and fairly at the ballot box. It has established an independent electoral commission, introduced the single ballot for legislative elections, enjoys a lively independent press, has a Constitutional Court and a High Court of Justice (to hear cases against the president and senior-level officials), and has kept the armed forces under control.
Presidential elections were held on 4 and 22 March 2001. In the first round of voting, Kérékou received 45.4% of the vote to Soglo's 27.1. Adrien Houngbedji, president of the National Assembly, won 12.6%, and Bruno Amoussou, who was minister of state to Kérékou, received 8.6% of the vote. Following the first round, Soglo and Houngbedji withdrew from the second round, charging electoral fraud. Nine members of the National Autonomous Electoral Commission (CENA) and the Constitutional Court resigned after severe criticism that the election results they authorized were false. In the second round of voting, Kérékou won a landslide victory, taking 84.1% of the vote to Amoussou's 15.9%. Kérékou's election to his second 5-year term as president will be his last.
On 30 March 2001, an unseaworthy ship left Benin headed for Gabon with a cargo of 43 children sold by their parents as slave workers. Gabon refused the illegal cargo, as did Cameroon, but it eventually returned to dock in Benin. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) reports that at least 200,000 children annually are victims of traffickers in the west and central African slave trade. Benin officially bans slavery, although human rights advocates say it is still common in the country.
In May 2002, Niger and Benin submitted a boundary dispute between them to the International Court of Justice in the Hague. At issue are sectors of the Niger and Mékrou Rivers and islands in them, in particular Lété Island.
In December 2002, three million people went to the polls in Benin to elect mayors and municipal councilors, who were previously appointed by the government. They were the first municipal and communal elections since the end of one-party rule in 1990. Soglo was elected mayor of Cotonou by its council in February 2003, and Houngbedji was elected mayor of Porto Novo.