Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main minority and indigenous communities: There are reportedly more than 50 ethnic groups in Benin. The 2013 census gives the main ethnic groups as: Fon and related groups (38.4 per cent); Adja and related groups (15.1 per cent); Yoruba and related groups (12 per cent); Bariba and related groups (9.6 per cent); Peul and related groups (8.6 per cent); Gua / Ottamari and related groups (6.1 per cent); Yoa-Lokpa and related groups (4.3 per cent) and Dendi and related groups (2.9 per cent).
Main languages: French (official), Fon, Yoruba, Bariba, Fulani. There are 52 registered national languages.
Main religions: The 2013 census found that 48.5 per cent of the population was Christian (the largest proportion of these – one quarter – are Roman Catholic); 27.7 per cent Muslim (mainly Sunni); 11.6 per cent Voodoo (although many who reported as Christian or Muslim also practice Voodoo or other traditional beliefs); 2.6 per cent indigenous religious groups; and 2.6 per cent other religious groups.
Fon are the largest and dominant ethnic group, constituting together with related groups 38.4 per cent of the total population, predominantly in the south. Other southern ethnic groups include Adja, Ewe, Aizo and Yoruba. In the north the principal ethnic groups are Bariba, Fulani (traditionally nomadic herders) and Ottammari. Benin’s population is unevenly distributed; more than two-thirds of the people live in the south; the northern savannah grasslands, although half of the country in terms of area, are only sparsely settled.
Historically an important ethnic group, Bariba live in northern Benin, especially in the Borgou, a region artificially bisected by the Benin-Niger border. They are of Sudanese origin and call themselves Baatonu, ‘the people’. Their society is stratified and traditionally held slaves. They are mainly cattle herders who delegated herding either to ex-slaves or to Fulani in exchange for protection and permission to graze on Bariba lands.
Fulani (Peul) are Muslims, although the Islamic faith in Benin is strongly influenced by contact with surrounding animist populations – as is the Christian faith. Fulani are pastoralists and live with the Bariba, whose cattle they tend in exchange for protection. They comprise a significant proportion of the population in the Bourgou region. Fulani have often formed alliances with Dendi. Dendi are a non-indigenous minority primarily involved in trade and dispersed throughout urban areas of northern Benin. Although they are Muslim and speak their own language, many have intermarried with the local population. Gando constitute one of the largest social strata in traditional Bariba society, and have a similar geographical distribution. They are of various ethnic origins; many were Yoruba in origin, some were the slaves of Fulani and Bariba. Mahi are an ethnic group, living north of Abomey who were a prime target in pre-colonial raids for slaves by Fon, to whom they are closely related. ‘Brazilians’ are Beninois of mixed Euro-African parentage, descended from exiles and deported Africans from the time of the Dahomey dynastic wars, and from slaves or descendants of slaves taken to Brazil and returning to Dahomey in the nineteenth century. Mostly Roman Catholic and well-educated, they lived in the coastal areas as traders and played a dominant role in the early days of French colonial rule. With independence their political significance declined. Devoid of ethnic networks, they lack the building blocks for political power in Benin, and after the change of government in 1972 many emigrated to France.
Immigration in Benin has historically been from other parts of West Africa, with foreigners making up 1.9 per cent of the population according to the 2013 census. The refugee population in Benin numbers less than a thousand and has largely comprised of people from Central African Republic and Cote d’Ivoire.
Updated March 2018.
Like many African countries, Benin’s population is concentrated along the coast: one half of its people – predominately drawn from the southern, mainly Christian ethnic groups – live on the heavily populated coast in the extreme south, where the capital city, Cotonou, is located. While after independence in 1970 regional and ethnic divides in the country, particularly between Fon, Yoruba and Bariba as well as the northern/southern regions, were exploited by competing political elites, these tensions have diminished from the 1990s, though political parties remain ethnically based.
Cotonou has long been vulnerable to coastal erosion and rising sea levels, but in recent years Benin has also suffered a number of environmental shocks which have affected people across regions and ethnic groups, including in the ethnically distinct, sparsely populated, historically pastoralist and mainly Muslim north, which borders on the Sahel region. These have contributed to rising food insecurity, and increased competition between migrating Beninois and cross-border pastoralist groups with local groups of sedentary farmers, particularly in the north. It has also prompted responses such as improved planning around environmental risks and resilience as well as early warning procedures.
Following reports about the prevalence of multi-faceted gender-based violence in Benin, some efforts have been made to improve cross-border anti-trafficking efforts, as well as judicial and police responsiveness to cases of violence against women and girls. Benin has also joined regional efforts to combat early marriage. However, the UN has continued to express concern at ongoing reports of trafficking and of harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and early and forced marriage. Some sources reported that FGM was significantly more prevalent in the northern half of the country, and more so among ethnic groups such as Bariba and Peul than among other groups.
Benin has taken part in regional efforts to combat violence by Nigeria-based Islamist group Boko Haram, joining Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. It also sent troops to the international UN peacekeeping force combating jihadist and other armed groups in Mali. Within Benin itself, although there were reportedly sporadic incidents of tension between Voodoo and Christian practitioners, for instance, the representatives of the country’s two main religions, Christianity and Sunni Islam, undertook joint initiatives to promote tolerance and inter-faith dialogue.
Updated March 2018.
Benin is located on the Bight of Benin in the Gulf of Guinea and is bordered by Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso and Togo. The southern part of the country has a tropical climate and vegetation, while the north is drier savannah.
Aja and Fon people established the kingdom of Danhomé, in present-day Benin, in the seventeenth century. The kingdom practiced large-scale human sacrifice and thrived on the sale of slaves to French and Spanish traders on the coast. In 1730 the neighbouring Yoruba kingdom of Oyo subdued Danhomé, which became a tributary until Oyo disintegrated in the early nineteenth century. France conquered the region in the late nineteenth century, turning kingdoms into administrative units and kings into co-opted chiefs. Today’s Benin became part of French West Africa in 1904 under the name Dahomey.
Northern Benin was contested by the French and British, with the latter incorporating part of Bougou into its Nigerian colony, splitting the Bariba into two administrations. With large clan cavalries, Bariba were feared as far as the Togo borders as slave raiders. Largely isolated from European or other influences from the south, once the Bariba regions were integrated into the colony of Dahomey they collapsed economically. Towns which in the nineteenth century had boomed with activity and sustained populations of over 20,000 declined to villages. The abolition of slave raiding and domestic slavery eliminated the source of livelihood and triggered a massive outflow of ex-slaves and manual labour from Bariba villages to new ‘freedom villages’. The region fell into decay, lagging in social, economic and political development.
The Republic of Dahomey gained independence in August 1960. Its economy was weak, and its poorly integrated society rife with ethnic and regional cleavages. The intense regionalism that characterized Beninois politics resulted from the overlay of historical conflict and animosity between certain groups and towns, and the geographic and socio-economic neglect of certain groups such as Ottammari and Bariba. For example, Bariba political elites exploited northern frustrations, and distrust of the Yoruba catapulted nationalist leaders to prominence and intensified the north-south cleavage. Bariba mistrust of southerners was matched by a continued feeling of superiority over other groups in the north, traditionally raided for slaves, such as the Ditammari.
Society rapidly polarized into three ethnic/regionally-based movements. A rotating presidency among Fon, Yoruba and Bariba formed in 1970. As regional tensions were exploited by Benin’s early political elite in its quest for political power, no single ‘national’ candidate emerged but rather regional politicians with electoral fiefdoms in their respective national strongholds.
This system was overthrown in 1972 in a military coup led by General Mathieu Kérékou, who formed the northern-dominated Military Council of the Revolution (CNR) to govern the country and adopted Marxism-Leninism as the national ideology. He renamed the country Benin in 1975, after the Bight of Benin (not the pre-colonial Kingdom of Benin, in today’s Nigeria). The economic policy failures of the statist government led some rural communities to develop accountable local governance, and many rural Beninois farmed for the Nigerian market without regard for the central marketing board. But economic mismanagement took a heavy toll on the urban population, and by the mid-1980s the military regime was financially and morally bankrupt. A general atmosphere of protest pervaded Benin from the late 1980s as student unrest increased and civil service strikes over pay issues and structural adjustment programmes grew. Economic crisis and popular protest led to the abandonment of Marxism in December 1989.
Under pressure, Kérékou agreed to an inclusive national conference that brought together representatives of the country’s various peoples in February 1990. The gathering declared its own sovereignty and drew up a new Constitution that enshrines multi-party democracy and guarantees basic human rights. Kérékou lost the 1991 presidential elections to Christophe Soglo, who broke with Kérékou’s autocratic methods, and advanced human rights reforms. Kérékou returned to power in 1996 elections and was re-elected in 2001 amid opposition claims of voter fraud. In 2006, for the first time under the new Constitution, neither Kérékou nor Soglo ran for the presidency and newcomer Yayi Boni, a northerner and former head of the West African Development Bank, won the poll. Yayi Boni was elected again in 2011 but his favoured successor, a southerner, was defeated by southern Fon Patrice Talon in 2016.
Benin, while promoting tolerance and inter-faith dialogue, was also affected by the trends towards conflict at work in the West Africa and Sahel regions. Benin took part in the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, in place from 2013, and in 2015 joined with Nigeria and neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger in an African Union-backed Multinational Joint Task Force to fight the armed group Boko Haram across national borders in the region.
The 1990 Constitution provides for equality before the law without distinction as to origin, race, sex, religion, political opinion or social position. Although Benin’s many political parties tend to be ethnically based, ethnic relations have improved under the new Constitution, as has minority representation in government. In particular the government made gains in balancing the formerly northern-dominated military. In 2004 Benin passed new laws enhancing women’s rights in the areas of inheritance, property, and marriage and in 2006 newly-elected northerner President Thomas Yayi Boni’s government announced that combating gender discrimination was one of its key aims. Benin also published in October 2014 a National Plan of Action against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.
During the presidential electoral campaign in early 2016, the authorities reportedly banned several opposition demonstrations while allowing pro-government ones. Businessman Patrice Talon, a southern Fon, was elected over Yayi Boni’s preferred candidate Lionel Zinsou, a dual national of France and Benin and nephew of a former, southern, president, in second-round polls in March 2016. Talon had promised a referendum on reducing presidential terms from two five-year to one six-year term, but the legislature rejected a bill to this effect.
Updated March 2018.
Study and Research Group on Democracy Economic and Social Development (GERDDES-Africa)