A background intermezzo on Benin

As we are travelling today, perhaps a good moment to look into the history of Benin, before we land there.

The present-day country of Benin – not to be confused with the ancient Kingdom of Benin, which is located inside Nigeria – attracted early attention from the Portuguese, who, after having built Fort Elmira in Ghana, expanded along the coast to establish trade relations with cities like Ouidah and Porto Novo. Trade relations meant increasingly the slave trade, until this was permanently abolished by the European powers in the beginning of the 19th Century. Which did not only pose a problem for plantations in the New World, but also for the rulers of Dahomey, a kingdom that had increasingly gained importance inland, and whose economy was equally based on enslaving people and selling them to traders.

Yet, there was no turning back this profitable business, and in the 1830s trade had shifted to mostly palm oil, and was dominated by the French, based on treaties with Dahomey, and with King Toffa of Porto Novo, who feared the British next door in Lagos. Over time the French increasingly behaved like an occupying force, which then led to a full scale war with the kings of Dahomey, who – surprisingly, perhaps – didn’t accept their power being clipped. Although Dahomey constituted a significant force, including a fierce detachment of female warriors, the Dahomean Amazons, they ultimately lost the battle, in 1892, and the French went on to colonise the whole country to the north. In 1904, Dahomey, as it was still called, became part of French West Africa.

Except for palm oil, there wasn’t a lot to take for the French, which left room for the Catholic missions to exercise their influence, mostly in the 1920s and 30s. One spin-off was a relatively high level of education, which created competent administrators. Yet, high hopes at independence in 1960 were quickly squashed, as political unity proved wafer-thin, and the classical north-south divide surfaced. Riots dominated the streets, and the army intervened – we are talking 1963, now. Unusually, they restored civil rule again four months later, in 1964, only to be followed by a military coup again, and again, and again, with intermittent civil rule, until in 1972 Major Mathieu Kerekou took over, in what proved to be Dahomey’s last successful military coup (the one in 1973, as well as the mercenary-led coup of 1977, both failed). With Kerekou firmly established, he changed the name of the country to Benin, in 1975, and decided on a Marxist-Leninist future, complete with nationalisation of business. And banning opposition activities, which is how Kerekou was elected president unopposed in 1980.

Miraculously, the economy didn’t collapse until 1989, when riots erupted again. With international help, especially financially, Benin reinvented itself, drew up a new constitution, held elections in 1991, and – once more, miraculously – saw Kerekou accept defeat, and peacefully relinquish the presidency. Something that had never happened before, in Africa. And so it went on, democratically, with some, like Kerekou, and others, too, being elected again, and then voted away, and none of them changed the constitution to adjust presidential limits – although there is quite some concern about the erosion of democratic principles under the latest president, Talon, who has helpfully banned opposition parties at the latest elections. L’histoire se repete?

Next: Ouidah in Benin

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