Export to Present day Benin was the site of Dahomey, a prominent West African kingdom that rose in the 15th century. The territory became a French Colony in 1872 and achieved independence on 1 August 1960, as the Republic of Benin. A succession of military governments ended in 1972 with the rise to power of Mathieu KEREKOU and the establishment of a government based on Marxist-Leninist principles. A move to representative government began in 1989. Two years later, free elections ushered in former Prime Minister Nicephore SOGLO as president, marking the first successful transfer of power in Africa from a dictatorship to a democracy. KEREKOU was returned to power by elections held in 1996 and 2001, though some irregularities were alleged.
Before being colonised by France towards the end of the 1800s, the area comprised several independent states, including the Kingdom of Dahomey, which had a well-trained standing army and was geared towards the export of slaves and later palm oil.
Instability marked the first years after full independence from France in 1960 and the early part of Mr Kerekou’s rule featured Marxism-Leninism as the official ideology.
However, during the 1980s Mr Kerekou resigned from the army to become a civilian head of state and liberalised the economy.
While Benin has seen economic growth over the past few years and is one of Africa’s largest cotton producers, it ranks among the world’s poorest countries. The economy relies heavily on trade with its eastern neighbour, Nigeria.
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.
Thousands of Togolese refugees fled to Benin in 2005 following political unrest in their homeland. Benin called for international aid to help it shelter and feed the exiles.