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Developing West African nation, which once exported slaves and voodoo, is winning with democracy and diversity
December 30, 2006
Though unfamiliar to Americans and home to a painful past, the West African nation of Benin quickly is becoming the center of hope in the region.

Home to a population of nearly 8 million in a geographical area a bit larger than Indiana, Benin used to be a part of the powerful Dahomey kingdom that extended into present-day Nigeria. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Benin's coast was a prominent portal in the Atlantic slave trade. It is estimated that more than 3 million enslaved people left Benin's shores. The major exportation of slaves from the country led to the subsequent spread of the country's indigenous religion -- voodoo -- to the Western world.

In 1872, the kingdom was colonized by the French and remained in French possession until 1960, when it declared itself a republic. Twelve years later, a coup led by Mathieu Kerekou seized control of the country without bloodshed. By 1975, Benin was controlled by a one-party Marxist regime that lasted until 1989, when a democracy was formed without conflict in response to the failing economy.

However, for many Beninese youths who are old enough to remember life under Kerekou, the memories are not good.

"Free expression wasn't possible when Mathieu Kerekou was here," recalled Hospice Akpaki, 19, from Kilibo, a small northern Benin village. "Before, when you saw something bad and you said something about it, they could kill you."

For young people like Hospice, French influences are found everywhere in Benin, but nowhere more so than in the language. French is the official language, although the Beninese speak more than 50 ancestral languages (Fon and Yoruba are the most common), and 42 native ethnic groups exist in the country.

"These different cultures allow us to be friends, to live in friendship, where we don't have racial problems or immigration problems," said 21-year-old Rene Yaovi Comlan, a member of the nonprofit Flourished Youth Association, a youth group fighting unemployment and supporting human rights.

Despite ranking among the poorest nations in the world and possessing a labor force of 3.2 million people, Benin is making strides to reduce poverty, improve its commerce and reduce corruption in government.

Other nations are taking notice.

Last year, Benin accepted an offer from the G-8 Commission to forgive its $800 million debt. In August, Chinese President Hu Jintao met with Beninese President Yayi Boni to strengthen and maintain trade relations. Earlier this month, the Netherlands announced a gift of $10 million euros to support the nation's efforts to reduce poverty.

Last month, Boni traveled to the United States to promote trade and tourism. At that time, the United States announced Benin would be added to the list of African countries receiving billions of dollars to fight malaria.

"One thing I'm impressed with is the president's commitment to democracy, rule of law, decency and education. And to the extent that we can continue to help your country, Mr. President, we will do so," President Bush told Boni during their meeting in Washington.

The U.S. also is supporting Benin's economic development with a five-year, multimillion-dollar grant from the Millennium Challenge Account. The grant will fund four areas: increased access to markets, which includes improvement of the port of Cotonou; helping Beninese property owners obtain land titles; supporting institutions that grant small loans; and improving the county courts and creating a legal-information center.

Although economic development is tied to Benin's accountability, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Benin, Gayleatha Brown, said the U.S. could take a lesson from Benin.

"I don't take the position that (the U.S.) knows it all. I think we could learn a lot in our own country. We could learn a lot from how Benin handled itself."

Beninese younger than 15 make up 47 percent of the nation's population, and it is these youths who eventually will help decide the political and economic fate of their nation.

Jean Yves De Souza, 11, who lives in an orphanage outside Cotonou, is optimistic about the future of his country: "Today, Benin is among the poorest countries, but in 10 years I'm sure things will change because of our fight against previous corruption."
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