After several years of dictatorial rule, Benin has become a stable and peaceful democratic country, where the rights of the population are relatively safeguarded. The transition to a representative democracy, with the president-elect, the National Assembly and the legal opposition, occurred in 1989. There are presidential elections every five years, and the elected president can sit in power for only two terms.
The current president is called Thomas Boni Yayi, and is the former bank director. He ran for election in 2006 as an independent candidate and promised to fight corruption if he became president. He received 75 percent of the valid votes in the second round of elections. None of the 27 candidates got a majority in the first round.
Yayi is the third elected president of Benin after the transition to democratic rule. His predecessors are Nicephore Soglo (1991-1996) and former dictator Mathew Kerekou (1996-2004). Yayi’s political alliance, Forces Cauris pour un Bénin Emergent (FCBE), has a majority among the 83 members of Benin’s National Assembly. Twelve political parties or coalitions participated in the national assembly elections in 2007. The elections were declared free and fair by both local and international election observers. For three years in a row, Freedom House, an international organization that promotes freedom and rights, has named Benin one of the eight freest communities in sub-Saharan Africa. The next presidential and national assembly elections are in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
Both the elected parliament and the government are male dominated. In Parliament there are 8 percent women and 92 percent men. The government in 2010 consists of four women and 27 men.
Benin’s democracy is demonstrated in many areas. Basic human rights (freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of organization, and freedom from torture and persecution) are respected. The country’s nine largest ethnic groups and three main religious faiths (Christians, Muslims, African traditional religion) live peacefully side by side. Oppositional activity, trade unions and other voluntary organizations are recognized in Benin’s 1990 constitution, and have free range within the country’s democratic framework. Today, there are seven trade union federations fighting for workers’ rights.
Opposition to Yayi’s economic and social policies is growing. The criticism comes from his established political opponents, from former Allied politicians in the National Assembly, and from civil society. They believe that the government’s policies have failed, both in terms of economy, health and district development. In 2008, a conflict arose between the government and several coalition partners in parliament, which refused to support Yayi’s reform policy. The conflict peaked in 2009, when the National Assembly refused to acknowledge the government’s budget proposal for 2010. In addition, Yayi is criticized for what the opposition characterizes as a declining commitment to fight corruption, and the development may also appear to go wrong: In 2009, Benin ranked as the 106th most corrupt country in the world, against a 96th place in 2008, according to Transparency International.
Economy: Growth and Poverty
Economically, Benin is considered to be a low-income country and one of the poorest countries in Africa. Yayi’s government has succeeded somewhat in liberalizing the economy, and continues to privatize agriculture and services, in particular telecommunications, water utilities and electricity. The Government also, with the support of the World Bank and other development partners, is focusing on the development and facilitation of small and medium-sized enterprises.
Nevertheless, the global economic downturn in 2008-2009 led to a decline in Benin’s estimated economic growth to 2.5 percent, compared with a growth of 4.6 percent in 2007 and 5.5 percent in 2008.
Exploration for oil and gas under the seabed in the Gulf of Benin is now a high priority. However, Benin’s economy is still based on self-storage farming, cotton and palm oil production, trade with neighboring countries and assistance from bilateral and multilateral donors. Tourism is an area of growth in Benin, an African country listed here.
The Human Poverty Index (HPI) now ranks the country number 126 (number 100 in 2008) on the living standards scale. 55 percent of the population live in rural areas, where poverty is most prevalent. One third of the population lives below the poverty line.
Illiteracy and few doctors
Reading and writing skills among those who are 15 years or older are low. In total, only 35 percent can read and write. The figure is higher for men (50 percent) and lower for women (23 percent). Although compulsory education is compulsory, admission to school is low, especially among girls. A collaboration program between the authorities and the US aid organization USAID has increased the focus on education and increased the admission from 57 percent in 1991 to 81 percent in 2008.
Figures from Benin’s Ministry of Health show that in 2003 there were about one doctor per 19,000 inhabitants and one doctor per 2,400 hospital beds. This distribution is far below the World Health Organization norm of one doctor per 10,000. Furthermore, the distribution between city and country is skewed.
In addition, 30 percent of Benin’s health services are private, run by NGOs and religious institutions. The private health system also includes so-called traditional healers and midwives, who operate mostly in rural areas and treat using herbal medicine. The government has created a program for cooperation between the modern and the traditional health system.
Benin has an important challenge in combating trafficking with children. The country has become a transit country for growing human trafficking, and it is estimated that 50,000 children from all over West Africa have been transported through Benin to be employed in neighboring Nigeria and other countries. The government passed a law against trafficking of children in 2006.
Debt and international pressure
Benin, like many other poor African countries, has had to adapt to the international financial institutions and the conditionality of the donor countries. This includes public sector reform, financial and economic reform, and social and environmental issues. Creditors at the Paris Club have eased the country’s debt burden somewhat, and in July 2005, the G8 countries cleared part of the debt. In 2006, the country received $ 307 million in program support under the United States Millennium Challenge Account.
Benin plans to attract increased investment from abroad and focus more on the information and communication sector, as well as on tourism development. The country also plans to develop new industry in food and agricultural production.
Area: 112 622 km2 (38th largest)
Population: 8.6 million
Population density: 77 per km2
Urban population: 41 percent
Largest city: Cotonou – approx. 762 000
GDP per capita: $ 767
Economic growth: 5 percent
HDI Position: 161