Benin is one of the more stable countries in West Africa, although things are not all that rosy. The current president, Patrice Talon, has been in office since 2016. He has pledged to overhaul and reform the current constitution, improve relations with France, reduce the maximum presidential term to five years and reduce internal government corruption. He inherits a country with a recent history of corruption scandals and a distrustful public, with the majority living below the poverty line.
Sandwiched between Nigeria and Togo, Benin is 700km long and 120km across in the south, widening to about 300km in the north. Most of the coastal plain is a sand bar that blocks the seaward flow of several rivers. As a result, there are lagoons a few kilometres inland all along the coast, which is being eroded by the strong ocean currents. Inland is a densely forested plateau and, in the far northwest, the Atakora Mountains.
Wildlife thrives in Parc National de la Pendjari, with elephants and several feline species.
Deforestation and desertification are major issues because of the logging of valuable wood, such as teak.
People of Benin
There is an array of different ethnic groups within Benin's narrow borders, although three of them account for nearly 60% of the population: Fon, Adja and Yoruba. The Adja people live near the border of Benin and Togo and are primarily farmers. The Fon and the Yoruba both migrated from Nigeria and occupy the southern and mideastern zones of Benin.
The Bariba and the Betamaribé, who make up 9% and 8% of the population respectively, live in the northern half of the country and have traditionally been very protective of their cultures and distant towards southern people.
The nomadic Fula (also called Fulani or Peul), found widely across West Africa, live primarily in the north and comprise 6% of the population.
Despite the underlying tensions between the southern and northern regions, the various groups live in relative harmony and have intermarried.
Some 40% of the population is Christian and 25% Muslim, but most people practise voodoo, whatever their religion. The practice mixed with Catholicism in the Americas, to where the Dahomeyan slaves took it and their Afro-Brazilian descendants brought it back. Christian missionaries also won over Dahomeyans by fusing their creed with voodoo.
Under the Dahomeyan kings, richly coloured appliqué banners were used to depict the rulers' past and present glories. With their bright, cloth-cut figures, the banners are still being made, particularly in Abomey.
Benin has a substantial Afro-Brazilian architectural heritage, best preserved in Porto Novo and Ouidah – there are plenty of hidden gems to seek out in the streets. The Lake Nokoué stilt villages, especially Ganvié, and the tata somba houses around Natitingou, are remarkable examples of traditional architecture.
The cire perdue (lost wax) method used to make the famous Benin bronzes originates from Benin City, which lies in present-day Nigeria. However, the method spread west and the figures can be bought throughout Benin itself.
If you're into music, you'll love Angélique Kidjo, a major international star and Benin's most famous recording artist. Born in Ouidah in 1960 to a choreographer and a musician with Portuguese and English ancestry, Kidjo is a world musician in the true, boundary-busting sense of the phrase. Her music is inspired by the links between Africa and Latin America and the fusion of cultures. Check out www.kidjo.com for more information about her career. Other well-known Beninese artists include Gnonnas Pedro, Nel Oliver and Yelouassi Adolphe, and the bands Orchestre Poly-Rythmo and Disc Afrique.