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African Kingdoms

West Africa


Modern Dahomey / Benin
AD 1960 - Present Day

The modern republic of Benin is a west African state with its capital at Porto-Novo (originally developed as a port for the slave trade). The government, however, sits in Cotonou, the country's economic centre. Benin is bordered by Togo to the west, Burkina Faso to the north-west, Niger to the north-east, and Nigeria to the east. To the south is the Gulf of Guinea and the Atlantic Ocean, and the majority of the country's population live close to the coast. Benin's shore includes what used to be known as the Slave Coast, the departure point for captives to be shipped across the Atlantic.

The tribal kingdom of Dahomey in West Africa was ended by French colonial occupation in 1894, after they took control during the Dahomey War of 1892-1894. The state was granted autonomy as the Republic of Dahomey in 1958, followed by full independence in 1960. A period of instability followed, mostly consisting of governmental musical chairs with various coups taking place and presidents being appointed by the military. Along the way Marxism-Leninism was adopted as the official ideology, but economic crisis at the end of the 1980s forced this experiment to be abandoned in favour of parliamentary democracy. Today this country of almost eleven million people is one of Africa's most stable democracies.

Despite that, it is also severely under-developed and corruption is rife. Elements of voodoo, which are still practised in countries such as Haiti, originated from the west African coast which includes Benin. The religion is celebrated on the country's annual Voodoo Day (there are various spellings of 'vodoo', with the original word ending with an 'n', as Voudun or Vodun - Vodoo is a close relative of Nigerian 'Ifa', sharing most of the same minor deities with Ifa under similar or different names, and also using the exact same system of divination). To the north, there have been sporadic clashes along Benin's border with Burkina Faso. The trouble has been blamed on land disputes between rival communities on either side of the border. The country continued to bear its old name until 1975, when it was neutrally renamed the Republic of Benin to appease the large number of ethnic groups which formed part of the relatively new modern state. The name came from the Bight of Benin, which itself gained its name from the Benin empire.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from All Africa: All Its Political Entities of Independent or Other Status, Elisa Daggs (Hastings House, 1970), from Historical Dictionary of Dahomey (People's Republic of Benin), Samuel Decalo (Scarecrow Press, 1976), from African Powder Keg: Revolt and Dissent in Six Emergent Nations, Ronald Matthews (The Bodley Head, 1966), and from External Links: BBC Country Profiles, and Atlas Monographique des Communes du Benin (dead link), and Wanderlust Travel Magazine.)


Dahomey gains independence and is admitted to the United Nations. Later in the year, elections are won by the Parti Dahomeen de L'Unite. Party leader Hubert Maga becomes country's first president (and escapes an assassination attempt against him in the following year).

Coutougou Herbert Maga
Coutougou Herbert Maga became the first president of the newly-independent republic of Dahomey in 1960, and was removed from office in 1963 as part of the first of a series of largely bloodless coups in the country

1963 - 1964

President Maga is deposed by a coup that is led by the army's chief of staff, Colonel Christophe Soglo. The reason for the coup is stated as being the prevention of civil war between the new state's increasingly antagonistic opposing elements. The focus of recent rioting has turned towards Maga, meaning that Soglo feels justified in removing him from office.

1963 - 1964

Christophe Soglo

Seized power in a coup. Allowed elections in 1964.

1964 - 1965

Soglo has established a provisional government with himself as chairman. With the government reformed, Sourou-Migan Apithy is elected president in 1964, only to become locked in intense feuding over government policies. Soglo's advice to all parties to engage in productive discourse fall on deaf ears so, in November 1965, he forces the president to step down and a fresh provisional government is formed. In December of the same year Soglo assumes power.

1965 - 1967

Christophe Soglo

Seized power in a coup. Overthrown and retired from politics.


Major Maurice Kouandété, one of a group of young army officers, leads a coup against Soglo. Two days later Kouandété is forced to hand power to Lt Col Alphonse Alley who assumes the position of head of state.

1967 - 1968

Alphonse Alley

Appointed head of state following a coup. Force to retire.

1968 - 1970

With Alley sidelined by Lt Col (formerly major) Kouandété, the military regime nominates Dr Emile-Derlin Zinsou as president but in the following year he too is deposed, by Kouandété. Presidential elections are held in 1970 but are abandoned. Power is ceded to a presidential council which consists of Ahomadegbe, Apithy, and Hubert Maga (the former first president who now returns from exile). Maga had received almost equal support in the abandoned poll, and it is he who is the first of the three to serve as president with a two-year term.

Mathieu Kérékou
Mathieu Kérékou, dictator of Dahomey who oversaw its change of name to Benin, is seen here in 2006, after the conclusion of his successful term as the country's democratically elected president


The country has experienced almost continuous strife following independence, overseen by a semi-democratic government which has seen frequent changes in ruler, mostly at the hands of the military. In 1972 yet another military coup, this time led by Mathieu Kérékou, overthrows the ruling council and establishes a Marxist government. The council members (including Maga) are imprisoned until 1981.

1972 - 1991

Mathieu Kérékou

Dictator. Stood down after free elections. Died 2015.


Shortly after adopting a Marxist-Leninist form of government for the state, Kérékou renames the country the People's Republic of Benin. In the same year the Marxist People's Revolutionary Party is made the country's sole political party.

1979 - 1980

Kérékou's Marxist military council is dissolved and elections take place, albeit with Kérékou as the only candidate allowed. In 1980 he is confirmed as the elected president by the Revolutionary National Assembly.

1989 - 1990

The country has undergone an economic crisis in a decade which forces Kérékou to abandon Marxism in favour of a parliamentary system. The following year the country's name is changed on 1 March to the Republic of Benin (dropping the Marxist 'People's' prefix from the title), and Kérékou is largely stripped of power by the National Conference.


Kérékou loses free elections to Nicéphore Soglo (cousin of Christophe Soglo), and he steps down. He later stands for the 1996 elections, which he wins, and governs fairly, without attempting to change the new 1990 constitution to allow him to remain in power.

Benin voodoo ceremony
In the tiny west African nation of Benin, Voodoo remains the state religion - enter a world of python temples, haystack cults, and oozing fetish shrines during the country's annual Voodoo Day


Fully free and fair multi-party elections in the country draw international praise. Political newcomer Yayi Boni, running as an independent, wins the run-off vote in presidential elections. The incumbent since 2001, the re-elected Mathieu Kérékou, is barred from the poll under a constitutional age limit. In the following month, April, the World Bank and the African Development Bank approve debt relief for several countries, including Benin.

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