More than 350 years ago the area now known as Benin was split into numerous principalities. Akaba of Abomey conquered his neighbouring ruler Dan and called the new kingdom Dan-Homey, later shortened by French colonisers.
Each king pledged to leave his successor more land than he inherited, achieved by waging war with his neighbours. They grew rich by selling slaves to the European traders, notably the Portuguese, who established trading posts in Porto Novo, Ouidah and along the coast. For more than a century an average of 10,000 slaves per year were shipped to the Americas. Southern Dahomey was dubbed the Slave Coast.
Following colonisation by the French, great progress was made in education, and many Dahomeyans were employed as government advisers throughout French West Africa.
When Dahomey became independent in 1960, other former French colonies started deporting their Dahomeyan populations. Back home without work, they were the root of a highly unstable political situation. Three years after independence, following the example of neighbouring Togo, the Dahomeyan military staged a coup.
During the next decade Dahomey saw four military coups, nine changes of government and five changes of constitution: what the Dahomeyans called in jest le folklore.
In 1972 a group of officers led by Lieutenant Colonel Mathieu Kérékou seized power in a coup, then embraced Marxist-Leninist ideology and aligned the country with superpowers such as China. To emphasise the break from the past, he changed the country’s flag and renamed it Benin, informing his people by radio on 13 November 1975.
The government established a Marxist infrastructure, which included implementing collective farms. However, the economy fell into a shambles, and there were ethnic tensions between the president, a Natitingou-born northerner, and the Yoruba population in the south. There were six attempted coups in one year alone.
In December 1989, as a condition of French financial support, Kérékou ditched Marxism and held a conference to draft a new constitution. The delegates engineered a coup, forming a new cabinet under Nicéphore Soglo.
Soglo won the first free multiparty elections, held in March 1991, but his autocracy, nepotism and austere economic measures – following the devaluation of the CFA – came under fire. Kérékou was voted back into power in March 1996.
Kérékou’s second and final five-year term in office finished with the elections in March 2006. Benin is likely to maintain its position as one of the most stable, and responsible, democracies among the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) members. The new president Yayi Boni’s campaign was based around the slogan of ‘change’, pledging to fight corruption and revive the economy. In 2006 Benin also signed a US$307 million agreement with the Millennium Challenge Corporation, set up by the US government to aid poor countries. Benin now hopes to lift 250,000 people out of poverty by 2015.