Benin – The diminutive opportunist

If you look geographically at Benin, it seems to be a country that has been squeezed in on the African continent on the last minute. Even more strange the country is known as the cradle of ‘voodoo’. The locals call it ‘Vodun’ which means ‘spirits’. And before you start imaging voodoo dolls and all the black magic stuff, I would like to stop you here. Coming back to the reality, Benin or officially the Republic of Benin and formerly Dahomey, is a country in West Africa. It is bordered by Togo to the west, by y the Bight of Benin to the south, by Nigeria to the east and by Burkina Faso and Niger to the north. In terms of area, Benin is slightly smaller than Pennsylvania and two-third the size of Portugal. The capital Porto Novo was developed as a port for the slave trade with the area nearby referred to as ‘Slave Coast’ from as early as the 17th century. During the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a large number of slaves were shipped to the New World. The last ship of slaves departed from Dahomey for Brazil in 1885. However, there is a lot to learn from this small country that still retains much of its authentic culture and tradition.

Benin is also one of the most politically stable countries in West Africa. However, compared to most other West African nations, Benin has enjoyed relative peace and stability with even its colours on the National flag representing courage, wealth and hope. The most characteristic sights of Benin are the petrol stations. The price of the original petrol is above the financial reach for the majority of people in this country. So, the people found new ways to sell petrol and one crazy but sufficient way was selling petrol in containers with even public transport like buses and taxis. If that was not unique enough for you to read, they refer to white people visiting the country as  “yovo”. Do not be surprised to find people and kids shouting this word behind you if you happen to visit the country. Most of the population is agrarian and lacks the basic requirements of modernity such as quality education, affordable quality healthcare with AIDS straining the health care system and modern economic means of livelihood. However, if you would like to see all these unusual events, you can visit the country by arriving at its only international airport which is located in Cotonou.

When it comes to the economy of Benin, it has grown consecutively for several years, but slowed down in 2017, as its closed trade links to Nigeria expose Benin to risks from volatile commodity prices. Benin’s economy is heavily reliant on the informal re-export and transit trade with Nigeria (estimated at approximately 20% of GDP), and on agriculture. Despite a recent downward trend, the poverty rate remains high, at 46.4% in 2018, with a poverty line of $1.90 a day in purchasing power parity. Like the eight countries of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU), Benin’s monetary policy is managed by the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO), which keeps the CFA franc pegged to the euro. In recent years, the government has tried to attract foreign investment by continuing its efforts to improve the business environment, ongoing civil unrest, bureaucratic inefficiencies, and infrastructure gaps have deterred most investors (Economic Freedom Index, 2020).

On the Neil economic scale, a can of coke cost 487.50 CFA franc (R 14, 64) and the price of a litre of petrol is 505.50 CFA franc (R 15, 18). Though Nigeria inflation rate fluctuated substantially in recent years it tended to increase through 1999 – 2018 period ending at 12.1 % in 2018 with a 4.43% decline from 2017.

There are however a lot of positives to take out of a country like Benin. First, the country can build its future by taking greater advantage of its geographic proximity to Nigeria and its access to the ocean through the port of Cotonou. Secondly, it can create productive cities by starting to process its abundant agriculture resources. It can help enhance its infrastructure and human capital by addressing the issues of coastal erosion and tropical diseases. And lastly, the country can draw strength from the Marvel comic and 2018 film ‘The Black Panther’ that inspired the ‘Dora Milaje’ female warriors in the movie. The combination of these priorities allows us to visualize how Benin could transform itself in the future. If the government can improve the business environment and increase port efficiency, there is no reason that domestic, as well as Chinese or Indian investors, would not be attracted to Benin.