Benin, cradle of voodoo, democracy

2016-04-07 17:01
A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Cotonou for the presidential run-off election in Benin. (Pius Utomi Ekpei, AFP)

A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Cotonou for the presidential run-off election in Benin. (Pius Utomi Ekpei, AFP)

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Cotonou - The small west African nation of Benin, where businessman Patrice Talon was sworn in this week as president, is known for cotton production and a bustling port, but exports also include world-class music and voodoo beliefs.

The former French colony on the Gulf of Guinea lies between tiny Togo to the west and vast Nigeria to the east. It has a population approaching 11 million, according to a UN estimate.

Benin was once the powerful regional kingdom of Dahomey from the 16th century, sometimes warring with neighbours. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in 1485 and began trading copper and brass for pepper, palm oil, cloth and ivory.

Historians are divided about the impact of the Transatlantic slave trade on Dahomey itself during more than 300 years until the early 19th century, but an infamous "slave road" cut right through the territory to the port of Ouidah, where a monument to the victims was built in 1992.

The town and the trade are chronicled in the 1980 bestseller by Bruce Chatwin "The Viceroy of Ouidah".

Ouidah is held to be the birthplace of voodoo, a religion more often called "vodun" in west Africa, with a hierarchy of deities and tribal nature spirits, embracing magical practises and healing remedies considered divine.

Voodoo readily absorbed the Roman Catholic roster of saints, notably among descendants of slaves in Haiti, but the use of fetishes and rituals has often been poorly served by Hollywood, which tends to turn a world where revered ancestors live alongside the living into a source of black magic.

Voodoo was banned by Mathieu Kerekou, a revolutionary and key figure in politics who came to power in 1972, when he staged a military coup.

His elected successor, Nicephore Soglo, lifted the ban on the age-old partly animist faith and Kerekou made no move to reinstate it when voted back into office in 1996, by then a onetime Marxist-Leninist turned born-again Christian.

A beacon of democracy and peace

Benin has been a peaceful democracy for a quarter of a century and in 2015 figured in 9th place out of 54 African nations for human rights on the index drawn up by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

For overall governance including human development, safety and rule of law and sustainable economic opportunity, it took 15th place.

In the 2015-2016 period, which has seen many elections in Africa, it is one of the only nations where power had shifted peacefully from one president to another.

One of the nation's most prominent daughters, the singer-songwriter Angelique Kidjo, is no stranger to politics in a broad sense, alongside a prodigious musical career that began at home in the 1980s and led her to Island Records in 1991.

With three Grammy awards, numerous prizes and more than a dozen albums to her name, Kidjo has been a goodwill ambassador for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) since 2002.

"Africa is on the rise, Africa is positive, Africa is joyful," the musician said last February when she accepted her third Grammy for "Sings", a cross-cultural album.

Just a year earlier, Kidjo also took the Best World Music Album prize for "Eve", which included a song with her octogenarian mother and was dedicated to "the pride and strength" of women across the continent. The artist now lives in New York.

She was born in 1960 to a Fon father and a Yoruba mother and sings in the languages of both main ethnic groups as well as French and English.

Two cities

Benin's political capital is Porto Novo but Cotonou is Benin's main port and economic hub, accounting for almost half the country's tax receipts.

It handles some 90% of Benin's overseas business and sells itself as a transit port for neighbouring Nigeria to the east and surrounding countries such as Niger and Burkina Faso.

More than 60% of Benin's population work on the land and cotton accounts for about 80% of exports according to the World Bank.

Unemployment remains a major problem. Officially, the unemployment rate is under 4.0 percent but with 85% of people in informal jobs, the figure does not reflect reality.

With few jobs available, many university graduates end up driving motorbike-taxis that are increasingly found everywhere in Benin.

Read more on:    benin  |  west africa

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