Last Updated: Friday, 26 December 2014, 13:50 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Benin : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Benin : Overview, 2007, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4954ce26c.html [accessed 28 December 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Environment


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.


Peoples


Main languages: French (official), Fon, Yoruba, Bariba, Fulani

Main religions: indigenous beliefs, Christianity, Islam

Main minority groups: Bariba (Baatonu) 460,000 (5.9 %), Fulani (Peul) 310,000 (4.0%), Ditammari ('Somba') 20,000 (0.3%), Dendi 30,000 (0.4%)

[Note: demographic data is taken from Ethnologue. The number for Bariba is from 1995, for Fon (mentioned below) from 2000, Fulani from 2002, Ditammari from 1991 and Dendi from 1995. Percentages are based on the 2006 CIA World Factbook estimated total population of 7.8 million.]

Fon are the largest and dominant ethnic group. Constituting 21.8 per cent of the total population, they predominate 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 Ditammari. 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.


History


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 Ditammari 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.


Governance


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 1991 presidential elections to Christophe Soglo, who broke with Kerekou'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.

Although Benin's many political parties tend to be ethnically based, ethnic relations have improved under the new constitution, as has minority groups' representation in government. In particular the government has 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.


Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples


Benin's economy remains weak, dependent on subsistence farming as well as exports of cotton that are hampered by western production quotas and world competition. A majority of the population is illiterate and only around half of all children attend school. It remains to be seen whether Benin's nascent democracy - confounding the common wisdom of political scientists through its birth in the absence of a middle class - and improved inter-ethnic relations can be sustained in an environment of enduring poverty, or whether political reform and stability might lead to broader economic development.

In recent years Benin's National Media Commission has issued licenses for 125 community radio stations and more than 70 are active. These have served to revive local languages and culture, while providing a means for national and local NGOs to reach deep into communities with messages on healthcare, development, politics and education.

Copyright notice: © Minority Rights Group International. All rights reserved.

Search Refworld

Countries

Topics