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U.S. Department of State Background Note

Benin

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Benin

GEOGRAPHY

Benin, a narrow, north-south strip of land in West Africa, lies between the Equator and the Tropic of Cancer. Benin's latitude ranges from 6o30N to 12o30N and its longitude from 10E to 3o40E. Benin is bounded by Togo to the west, Burkina Faso and Niger to the north, Nigeria to the east, and the Bight of Benin to the south. With an area of 112,622 square kilometers, roughly the size of Pennsylvania, Benin extends from the Niger River in the north to the Atlantic Ocean in the south, a distance of 700 kilometers (about 500 mi.). Although the coastline measures 121 kilometers (about 80 mi.), the country measures about 325 kilometers (about 215 mi.) at its widest point. It is one of the smaller countries in West Africa: eight times smaller than Nigeria, its neighbor to the east. It is, however, twice as large as Togo, its neighbor to the west. A relief map of Benin shows that it has little variation in elevation (average elevation 200 meters).

The country can be divided into four main areas from the south to the north. The low-lying, sandy, coastal plain (highest elevation 10 meters) is, at most, 10 kilometers wide. It is marshy and dotted with lakes and lagoons communicating with the ocean. The plateaus of southern Benin (altitude between 20 meters and 200 meters) are split by valleys running north to south along the Couffo, Zou, and Oueme Rivers. An area of flat lands dotted with rocky hills whose altitude seldom reaches 400 meters extends around Nikki and Save. Finally, a range of mountains extends along the northwest border and into Togo; this is the Atacora, with the highest point, Mont Sokbaro, at 658 meters. Two types of landscape predominate in the south. Benin has fields of lying fallow, mangroves, and remnants of large sacred forests. In the rest of the country, the savanna is covered with thorny scrubs and dotted with huge baobab trees. Some forests line the banks of rivers. In the north and the northwest of Benin the Reserve du W du Niger and Pendjari National Park attract tourists eager to see elephants, lions, antelopes, hippos, and monkeys.

Benin's climate is hot and humid. Annual rainfall in the coastal area averages 36 cm. (14 in.), not particularly high for coastal West Africa. Benin has two rainy and two dry seasons. The principal rainy season is from April to late July, with a shorter less intense rainy period from late September to November. The main dry season is from December to April, with a short cooler dry season from late July to early September. Temperatures and humidity are high along the tropical coast. In Cotonou, the average maximum temperature is 31oC (89oF); the minimum is 24oC (75oF).

Variations in temperature increase when moving north through a savanna and plateau toward the Sahel. A dry wind from the Sahara called the Harmattan blows from December to March. Grass dries up, the vegetation turns reddish brown, and a veil of fine dust hangs over the country, causing the skies to be overcast. It also is the season when farmers burn brush in the fields.

PEOPLE

The majority of Benin's 7.86 million people live in the south. The population is young, with a life expectancy of 53 years. About 42 African ethnic groups live in this country; these various groups settled in Benin at different times and also migrated within the country. Ethnic groups include the Yoruba in the southeast (migrated from Nigeria in the 12th century); the Dendi in the north-central area (they came from Mali in the 16th century); the Bariba and the Fulbe (Peul) in the northeast; the Betammaribe and the Somba in the Atacora Range; the Fon in the area around Abomey in the South Central and the Mina, Xueda, and Aja (who came from Togo) on the coast.

Recent migrations have brought other African nationals to Benin that include Nigerians, Togolese, and Malians. The foreign community also includes many Lebanese and Indians involved in trade and commerce. The personnel of the many European embassies and foreign aid missions and of nongovernmental organizations and various missionary groups account for a large number of the 5,500 European population.

Several religions are practiced in Benin. Animism is widespread (50%), and its practices vary from one ethnic group to the other. Arab merchants introduced Islam in the north and among the Yoruba. European missionaries brought Christianity to the south and central areas of Benin. Muslims account for 20% of the population and Christians for 30%. Many nominal Muslims and Christians continue to practice animistic traditions. It is believed that voodoo originated in Benin and was introduced to Brazil and the Caribbean Islands by slaves taken from this particular area of the Slave Coast.

HISTORY

Benin was the seat of one of the great medieval African kingdoms called Dahomey. Europeans began arriving in the area in the 18th century, as the kingdom of Dahomey was expanding its territory. The Portuguese, the French, and the Dutch established trading posts along the coast (Porto-Novo, Ouidah, Cotonou), and traded weapons for slaves. Slave trade ended in 1848. Then, the French signed treaties with Kings of Abomey (Guézo, Toffa, Glèlè) to establish French protectorates in the main cities and ports. However, King Behanzin fought the French influence, which cost him deportation to Martinique. As of 1900, the territory became a French colony ruled by a French Governor. Expansion continued to the North (kingdoms of Parakou, Nikki, Kandi), up to the border with former Upper Volta. On December 4, 1958, it became the République du Dahomey, self-governing within the French community, and on August 1, 1960, the Republic of Benin gained full independence from France.

Post-Independence Politics
Between 1960 and 1972, a succession of military coups brought about many changes of government. The last of these brought to power Major Mathieu Kérékou as the head of a regime professing strict Marxist-Leninist principles. The Revolutionary Party of the People of Benin (PRPB) remained in complete power until the beginning of the 1990s. Kérékou, encouraged by France and other democratic powers, convened a national conference that introduced a new democratic constitution and held presidential and legislative elections. Kérékou's principal opponent at the presidential poll, and the ultimate victor, was Prime Minister Nicéphore Soglo. Supporters of Soglo also secured a majority in the National Assembly.

Benin was thus the first African country to effect successfully the transition from dictatorship to a pluralistic political system. In the second round of National Assembly elections held in March 1995, Soglo's political vehicle, the Parti de la Renaissance du Benin, was the largest single party but lacked an overall majority. The success of a party formed by supporters of ex-president Kérékou, who had officially retired from active politics, encouraged him to stand successfully at both the 1996 and 2001 presidential elections.

During the 2001 elections, however, alleged irregularities and dubious practices led to a boycott of the run-off poll by the main opposition candidates. The four top-ranking contenders following the first round presidential elections were Mathieu Kérékou (incumbent) 45.4%, Nicephore Soglo (former president) 27.1%, Adrien Houngbedji (National Assembly Speaker) 12.6%, and Bruno Amoussou (Minister of State) 8.6%. The second round balloting, originally scheduled for March 18, 2001, was postponed for days because both Soglo and Houngbedji withdrew, alleging electoral fraud. This left Kérékou to run against his own Minister of State, Amoussou, in what was termed a "friendly match."

In December 2002, Benin held its first municipal elections since before the institution of Marxism-Leninism. The process was smooth with the significant exception of the 12th district council for Cotonou, the contest that would ultimately determine who would be selected for the mayoralty of the capital city. That vote was marred by irregularities, and the electoral commission was forced to repeat that single election. Nicephore Soglo's Renaisance du Benin (RB) party won the new vote, paving the way for the former president to be elected Mayor of Cotonou by the new city council in February 2002.

National Assembly elections took place in March 2003 and were generally considered to be free and fair. Although there were some irregularities, these were not significant and did not greatly disrupt the proceedings or the results. These elections resulted in a loss of seats by RB--the primary opposition party. The other opposition parties, the Party for Democratic Renewal (PRD) led by the former Prime Minister Adrien Houngbedji and the Alliance Etoile (AE), joined the government coalition.

Former West African Development Bank Director Boni Yayi won the March 2006 election for the presidency in a field of 26 candidates. International observers including the United Nations, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and others called the election free, fair, and transparent. President Kérékou was barred from running under the 1990 constitution due to term and age limits. President Yayi was inaugurated on April 6, 2006.

Benin held legislative elections on March 31, 2007 for the 83 seats in the National Assembly. The "Force Cowrie for an Emerging Benin" (FCBE) party, closely linked to President Yayi, won a plurality of the seats in the National Assembly, providing the president with considerable influence over the legislative agenda.

Principal Government Officials
President of the Republic (Head of State and Head of the Government)--Boni Yayi
Minister of Foreign Affairs, African Integration, Francophonie and the Beninese Diaspora--Moussa Okanla
Minister of State, in charge of the Economy, Economic Forecasting Development and the Evaluation of Public Action--Pascal Irene Koupaki
Minister of State in charge of National Defense--Issifou Kogui N'douro
Minister of Agriculture, Animal Husbandry and Fisheries--Roger Dovonou
Minister of Work and Public Service--Emmanuel Tiando
Minister of Administrative and Institutional Reform--Idrissou Sina Bio Gounou
Minister of Culture, Tourism and Handicrafts--Soumanou Toleba
Minister of Urban Development, Land Reform and Coastal Erosion Prevention--François Gbenoukpo Noudegbessi
Minister of Microfinance and Youth and Women's Employment--Sakinatou Abdou Alfa Orou Sidi
Minister-Delegate for Budget in the Office of the Minister of Finance--Albert Segbegnon Houngbo
Minister of Interior and Public Security--General Félix Hessou
Minister of Decentralization, Local Communities and Land Management--Démolo Issa Moko
Minister of Finance--Soulé Mana Lawani
Minister of Industry, Commerce, and Small and Medium Scale Enterprises--Grégoire Akofodji
Minister of Mines, Energy and Water--Sacca Lafia
Minister of Health--Kessile Tchala
Minister of Primary Education, Literacy and National Languages--Christine Ouinsavi
Ministry of Secondary Education, and Vocational and Technical Training--Bernadette Sohoudji Agbossou
Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research--Vicentia Bocco
Minister of Youth, Sports and Leisure--Ganiou Soglo
Minister of Family and Children--Gnimbéré Dansou
Minister of the Environment and the Conservation of Nature--Juliette Koudenoukpo Biaou
Keeper of the Seals, Minister of Justice, Legislation and Human Rights--Cassa Gustave Anani
Minister in charge of the Relations with the Institutions, Spokesman of the Government--Alexandre Houtondji
Minister-Delegate for Communication and New Technology in the Office of the President of the Republic--Désiré Adadja
Minister-Delegate for Transport and Public Works in the Office of the President of the Republic--Armand Zinzindohoue

Ambassador to the United States--Sègbé Cyrille Oguin
Permanent Representative to the United Nations--Simon Idohou

Benin maintains an embassy in the United States at 2124 Kalorama Road, Washington, DC 20008, tel. 202-232-6656. The Permanent Representative of the Republic of Benin to the United Nations is located at 4 East 73rd Street, New York, NY 10021 tel. 212-249-6014, fax 212-734-4735.

Next Elections Scheduled
Local elections--Either December 2007 or January 2008; no date selected.

ECONOMY

Benin's economy is chiefly based on agriculture. Cotton accounts for 40% of GDP and roughly 80% of official export receipts. There also is production of textiles, palm products, and cocoa. Corn, beans, rice, peanuts, cashews, pineapples, cassava, yams, and other various tubers are grown for local subsistence. Benin began producing a modest quantity of offshore oil in October 1982. Production ceased in recent years but exploration of new sites is ongoing. A modest fishing fleet provides fish and shrimp for local subsistence and export to Europe. A number of formerly government-owned commercial activities are now privatized, and the government, consistent with its commitments to the IMF and World Bank, has plans to continue on this path. Smaller businesses are privately owned by Beninese citizens, but some firms are foreign owned, primarily French and Lebanese. The private commercial and agricultural sectors remain the principal contributors to growth.

Economic Development
Since the transition to a democratic government in 1990, Benin has undergone a remarkable economic recovery. A large injection of external investment from both private and public sources has alleviated the economic difficulties of the early 1990s caused by global recession and persistently low commodity prices (although the latter continues to affect the economy). The manufacturing sector is confined to some light industry, which is mainly involved in processing primary products and the production of consumer goods. Benin is dependent on imported electricity, mostly from Ghana, which currently accounts for a significant proportion of the country's imports. Benin has several initiatives to attract foreign capital to build electricity generation facilities in Benin in order to break this dependency. The service sector has grown quickly, stimulated by economic liberalization and fiscal reform. Membership of the CFA Franc Zone offers reasonable currency stability. Benin sells its products mainly to France and, in smaller quantities, to the Netherlands, Korea, Japan, and India. France is Benin's leading source for imports. Benin also is a member of the West African economic community ECOWAS.

In March 2003, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreed to support a comprehensive debt reduction package for Benin under the enhanced Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative. Debt relief under HIPC amounts to approximately $460 million. Benin received $27.1 million in 2002 and received $32.9 million in 2003. HIPC will reduce Benin's debt-to-export ratio, freeing up considerable resources for education, health, and other anti-poverty programs.

Despite its growth, the economy of Benin still remains underdeveloped and dependent on subsistence agriculture, cotton production, and regional trade. Inflation has subsided over the past several years. Growth in real output averaged a sound 5% from 1996 to 2003, but a rapid population rise offset much of this growth on a per capita basis. Real economic growth for 2004 was estimated at 5%. Commercial and transport activities, which make up a large part of GDP, are vulnerable to developments in Nigeria, including fuel shortages. Recent heightened enforcement of Nigerian customs regulations, an unfavorable exchange rate with the Naira and difficulties at Cotonou's port have contributed to the economic downturn.

FOREIGN RELATIONS

Abroad, Benin has strengthened ties with France, the former colonial power, as well as the United States and the main international lending institutions. Benin also has adopted a mediating role in the political crises in Liberia, Guinea-Bissau, and Togo and provided a contribution to the UN force in Haiti. In early 2003, Benin provided a peacekeeping contingent to the ECOWAS stabilization force in Cote d'Ivoire. Benin's democratic standing, stability, and positive role in international peacekeeping have helped Benin's international stature continue to grow. Benin enjoys stable relations with Nigeria, the main regional power. Benin held a seat on the UN Security Council; its membership term ended December 31, 2005.

U.S.-BENINESE RELATIONS

The United States and Benin have had an excellent history of relations in the years since Benin embraced democracy. The U.S. Government continues to assist Benin with the improvement of living standards that are key to the ultimate success of Benin's experiment with democratic government and economic liberalization, and are consistent with U.S. values and national interest in reducing poverty and promoting growth. The bulk of the U.S. effort in support of consolidating democracy in Benin is focused on long-term human resource development through U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) programs.

Efforts to pursue this national interest are spearheaded by USAID, which has effective programs focused on primary education, family health (including family planning), women's and children's health, and combating sexually transmitted diseases, especially the spread of HIV. USAID's Democracy and Governance program also emphasizes encouraging greater civil society involvement in national decisionmaking; strengthening mechanisms to promote transparency and accountability; improving the environment for decentralized private and local initiatives; and enhancing the electoral system and the national legislature. A panoply of military-to-military cooperation programs reinforces democratizing efforts. U.S.-Benin military cooperation is now being expanding, both bilaterally and within a broader regional framework.

In February 2006, the Government of Benin signed a 5-year $308 million Millennium Challenge Compact (MCC) to increase investment and private sector activity in Benin. The program removes key constraints to growth and supports improvements in physical and institutional infrastructures in four critical sectors: land, financial services, justice, and markets. The proposed projects reinforce each other, contributing to an economic rate of return of 17%.

The U.S. advances the ethos of law enforcement by working with Beninese authorities to crack down on crimes, help eradicate corruption, promote good governance, the rule of law, and greater official accountability.

The U.S. Public Affairs Office in Cotonou leads the U.S.-Benin cultural, professional, and educational exchanges, with a focus on helping educate the Government of Benin and the public on the trade opportunities and advantages of the African Growth and Opportunity Act. The PA Office also helps in expanding efforts to build a more responsible media.

The U.S. Peace Corps program in Benin provides ongoing opportunities for increased understanding between Beninese and Americans. The approximately 110 volunteers promote sustainable development through activities in health, education, the environment, and small enterprise development. The U.S. Peace Corps program in Benin is one of the most successful in Africa, in part because of Beninese receptivity and collaboration.

Currently, trade between Benin and the United States is small, but interest in American products is growing. The United States is interested in promoting increased trade with Benin in order to contribute to U.S. trade with Benin's neighbors, particularly Nigeria, Niger, and Burkina Faso, which receive large amounts of their own imports through the port of Cotonou. Such trade also is facilitated by Benin's membership in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and in the CFA franc monetary zone. The U.S. Government also works to stimulate American investment in key sectors such as energy, telecommunications, and transportation. Benin has been eligible for the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) since the program began in 2000. It qualified for AGOA textile and apparel benefits in January 2004.

Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador-- Gayleatha B. Brown
Deputy Chief of Mission--Martina Flintrop
Director, USAID Mission--Rudolph Thomas
Peace Corps Director--Sheryl Cowan
Public Affairs Officer--Shirley Lisenby
Political/Economic Officer--Jason Hahn
Consular Officer--Christopher Derrick
Management Officer--Lyngrid Rawlings

The U.S. Embassy is located on rue Caporal Bernard Anani, 01 BP 2012, Cotonou, Benin, tel. 229-21-30-06-50, fax 229-21-30-14-39. For American citizen services and visa questions, the Embassy consular section fax number is 229-21-30-66-82.

For more information on Benin, please visit the Republic of Benin's official website www.benintourism.com.

TRAVEL AND BUSINESS INFORMATION
The U.S. Department of State's Consular Information Program advises Americans traveling and residing abroad through Consular Information Sheets, Public Announcements, and Travel Warnings. Consular Information Sheets exist for all countries and include information on entry and exit requirements, currency regulations, health conditions, safety and security, crime, political disturbances, and the addresses of the U.S. embassies and consulates abroad. Public Announcements are issued to disseminate information quickly about terrorist threats and other relatively short-term conditions overseas that pose significant risks to the security of American travelers. Travel Warnings are issued when the State Department recommends that Americans avoid travel to a certain country because the situation is dangerous or unstable.

For the latest security information, Americans living and traveling abroad should regularly monitor the Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs Internet web site at http://www.travel.state.gov, where the current Worldwide Caution, Public Announcements, and Travel Warnings can be found. Consular Affairs Publications, which contain information on obtaining passports and planning a safe trip abroad, are also available at http://www.travel.state.gov. For additional information on international travel, see http://www.usa.gov/Citizen/Topics/Travel/International.shtml.

The Department of State encourages all U.S citizens traveling or residing abroad to register via the State Department's travel registration website or at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate abroad. Registration will make your presence and whereabouts known in case it is necessary to contact you in an emergency and will enable you to receive up-to-date information on security conditions.

Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may be obtained by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll free in the U.S. and Canada or the regular toll line 1-202-501-4444 for callers outside the U.S. and Canada.

The National Passport Information Center (NPIC) is the U.S. Department of State's single, centralized public contact center for U.S. passport information. Telephone: 1-877-4USA-PPT (1-877-487-2778). Customer service representatives and operators for TDD/TTY are available Monday-Friday, 7:00 a.m. to 12:00 midnight, Eastern Time, excluding federal holidays.

Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at 877-FYI-TRIP (877-394-8747) and a web site at http://www.cdc.gov/travel/index.htm give the most recent health advisories, immunization recommendations or requirements, and advice on food and drinking water safety for regions and countries. A booklet entitled "Health Information for International Travel" (HHS publication number CDC-95-8280) is available from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.

Further Electronic Information
Department of State Web Site. Available on the Internet at http://www.state.gov, the Department of State web site provides timely, global access to official U.S. foreign policy information, including Background Notes and daily press briefings along with the directory of key officers of Foreign Service posts and more. The Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) provides security information and regional news that impact U.S. companies working abroad through its website http://www.osac.gov

Export.gov provides a portal to all export-related assistance and market information offered by the federal government and provides trade leads, free export counseling, help with the export process, and more.

STAT-USA/Internet, a service of the U.S. Department of Commerce, provides authoritative economic, business, and international trade information from the Federal government. The site includes current and historical trade-related releases, international market research, trade opportunities, and country analysis and provides access to the National Trade Data Bank.

Revised: Sep. 2007

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