Benin -- African home of voodoo, women warriors

COTONOU, March 22 (Reuters) - Benin, which holds a delayed presidential election run-off on Thursday, is the ancestral home of the voodoo cult and of a tribe of women warriors who helped defend one of Africa's greatest pre-colonial empires.

The West African country of nearly six million people has a rich past, dominated by the kingdom of Dahomey which was founded in the 16th century with its capital in Abomey and held sway in the region for over two centuries.

On the Gulf of Guinea, Dahomey was at the heart of the transatlantic slave trade.

Present-day Benin, an area of marsh, forest and semi-desert peopled by a rich ethnic mix, became part of French West Africa in 1894, but retained the name Dahomey.

Since independence from France in 1960, French-speaking Benin has tasted a mix of political systems ranging from army rule and Marxism-Leninism to multi-party politics.

Benin in 1990 became one of the first nations in Africa to abandon one-party rule, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communist rule in Eastern Europe.

The currency of French-speaking African countries, the CFA franc, was devalued in January 1994 and since then Benin's economy, based on cotton and transit trade, has shown signs of revival.


A 112,622 sq km (43,484 sq mile) strip running north from the Gulf of Guinea and adjoining Nigeria, Togo, Burkina Faso and Niger. Marsh and swamp in the south, forest and semi-desert in the north.


About 5.7 million people, a majority from the Fon ethnic group. Yoruba, Batomba, Fulani and Somba form the other main ethnic groups.

Some 3.2 million people have registered to vote in Sunday's election.

The capital, Porto-Novo, has some 200,000 inhabitants; Cotonou, the main city, almost one million.


French, with more than 50 local languages, principally Fon and Yoruba.


Traditional beliefs and Christianity (mainly Roman Catholic) account for over one-third each. Moslems make up more than 20 percent.


Political uncertainty and army coups destabilised Benin after independence. Army officer Mathieu Kerekou seized power in 1972 and introduced Marxist-Leninist politics. In the late 1980s, with the economy on the brink of bankruptcy and facing political and social discontent, he bowed to pressure at home and from foreign donors for multi-party politics. Nicephore Soglo, a former World Bank official, came to power after a 1990 conference of the "active forces of the nation," defeating Kerekou in a 1991 multi-party presidential election. But Kerekou defeated Soglo in the next election, held in 1996.


Benin's economy is based on farming, particularly cotton, but through informal cross-border trade is dependent on its eastern neighbour Nigeria. Mineral assets include iron ore, chromium and phosphates, but apart from oil and artisanal gold, the raw materials sector has been little exploited.

Kerekou began selling off ailing state industries in the 1980s and encouraging private sector participation. Under Soglo, Benin pursued a structural adjustment programme with the International Monetary Fund, winning help from abroad as a result, although the economy was initially hard hit by the devaluation of the regional currency, the CFA franc, in 1994.

After coming back to power, Kerekou pursued the liberalisation policy of his predecessor. Growth in 1999 was 5.5 percent. Foreign debt was $1.38 billion at the end of 1998.

19:44 03-21-01

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