Formerly colonized by the French in 1872 and known as Dahomey which formed part of French West Africa, the country gained independence on 1 August 1960. Initially the country was ruled by military government and in 1972 moved to a staunchly one-party Marxist-Leninist regime. This was abandoned in 1989 when the country held its first democratic elections.
Pre-colonial Benin was ruled under the dynasty of many great 'obas' (kings) who brought great prosperity and expanded their territory to as far as what is now the city of Lagos in Nigeria. From the 15th century onwards there was an enormous amount of slave labor from the territory conducted by the Dutch and Portuguese. The decline of the great obas began in the 18th century.
The capital city is Porto-Novo and Cotonou is the seat of government. French is the official language, whilst Fon and Yoruba are common languages especially in the south. Their legal system is based on customary law and French civil law. Indigenous religious beliefs are still practised by about 50% of the population. Of the 42 ethnic groups, the Fon, Adja, Yoruba and Bariba are the most important.
The currency is the Communaute Financiere Africaine franc.
Benin is a small west African country bordering Nigeria to the east, Niger and Burkina Faso to the north, Togo to the west and the Bight of Benin to the south (Atlantic Ocean). The total surface area is 43,482 square miles, roughly the size of Pennsylvania. The country is largely flat and as a result has a larger arable land area of 23,5%. The climate is hot and humid in the south, and semiarid to the north.
Natural resources include limestone, marble, timber and small offshore oil deposits producing about 400 barrels per day. Agricultural products include cotton, corn, cassava, yams, beans, palm oil, peanuts and livestock.
The total population is 7,8 million people and the citizenry are commonly known as Beninese. As the economy is still largely under developed about 33% live below the poverty line. The HIV/AIDS prevalence rate is estimated at 1,9% and an average of 5 children are born per woman.