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Benin - Ethnic Groups

Ethnic conflicts in Dahomey do not stem from ethnic differences. The Yoruba-related people in Porto Novo do not oppose a Fon president in the country because the Fon culture is different (it is not so different in any case,) nor is the North-South split caused by mere differences between a "Christian" or westernized South and a Muslim-traditional North.

Ethnic conflicts stem from people's collective memories of real or fictionalized historic relations and attitudes formed in hundreds of years of migrations and ensuing relations among the various groups. While leaders and elites may be motivated by strictly "modern" factors (such as a political ideology) their potential supporters are more likely to be mobilized against an historic enemy.

Ethnic memories are complex and may reach in some instances back to times immemorial. There is little hope for an outsider to account accurately for the total picture. One may only attempt to point to a few probable cases and their contemporary implications.

In pre-colonial times the late-comer and expansionist Abomey Kingdom was an aberration to both the more ancient Oyo (Yoruba) and Porto Novo Kingdoms, which resulted in the latter's numerous wars against Abomey. These wars may at least in part explain the closeness and the lasting political allience between the Goun and Yoruba Porto-Novians against the "uptight" Fon.

This hostility was reinforced by the pattern of the French penetration in the late 19th century. In 1868 and 1878 the French signed treaties with Glele the King of Dahomey, or Abomey, a traditional African kingdom in the southern part of the independent state of today. In 1883 the Porto Novo Kingdom became a French Protectorate.

Both feuding partners, Abomey and Porto Novo, thought that the French were siding with them against attacks from the other. Then, to the Porto-Novians delight, the French conquered Abomey in 1893 and expelled its king. This conquest became an added factor to the traditional political feud and mistrust between the two regions Porto Novo,in the South East and Abomey in the center of the country.

The Mahi country, (Dassa, Save region), north of Abomey, had been a slave raiding ground for the Abomey Kingdom as well as for the Oyo Kingdom. Squeezed between the Fon in the south, the Yoruba in the East, and the Bariba country in the North, the Mahi traditionally resented all of them and may have developed a feeling of inferiority toward them and an urge for revenge. Practically all of the Marxist ideologues of today come from this Dassa-Save region.

The Tammari people, or Batammariba, also known as Somba, are people of the Atakora Department of Benin and neighboring areas of Togo, where they go by the name of Taberma. They are famous for their two-story fortified houses, known as Tata Somba ("Somba house"), in which the ground floor is used for housing livestock at night, internal alcoves are used for cooking, and the upper floor contains a rooftop courtyard and is used for drying grain, sleeping quarters, and granaries. These evolved by adding an enclosing roof to the clusters of huts joined by a connecting wall that are typical of Gur-speaking areas of West Africa. The Tammari are mostly animist by religion. Their language is in the Gur family.

The Somba people live in the North-West of the country. They have been considered "primitives" and "savages" probably because for long into the 20th century, even after independence, Somba men used to go around in their villages practically nude. Hubert Maga was a teacher in the Somba country, in Natitingu, in the 1940's and undoubtedly encouraged many young Somba children to pursue their education. One of these children may have been Mathieu Kerekou who was born in 1933. Later Kerekou became Maga's aide de camp and incidentally, carried out the 1972 coup, after Maurice Koundate who is, according to one account, Kerekou's brother, was sentenced to death and thus prevented his execution.

The Bariba in the North West Borgou region, who are related to groups in Nigeria just across today's international border, consider themselves to be the descendants of ancient semitic tribes from the Middle East. Their historic myths are very much unlike those of the other Dahomeans. Their traditional social and political system was of a feudal type, quite unlike other groups in Dahomey. They owned and rode horses, had trade routes parallel to and away from the sea, not toward it, they were exposed to Islam not to Christianity. They had virtually nothing in common and nothing to do with the peoples that lived in the South. As horse-riding warriors they would have been invincible enemies to southerners, if the latter ever tried to counter them. The Bariba horses in turn could not have survived in the southern climate because of the tse-tse fly. Probably in all respects they were as strange and foreign to each other as the conquering Europeans were to both.

Significant competition existed among the ethnic communities that inhabited what is now Benin even before the French invaded and colonized the area at the end of the 19th century. In the 1600's, leaders of the Fon people took advantage of the economic and military opportunities provided by the slave trade to construct a highly centralized kingdom called Dahomey. At its height, the Dahomey kingdom stretched from its capital at Abomey to the town of Ouidah on the coast, and across most of southern and central Benin.

In addition, to the east of Dahomey, the Yoruba empire, based in what is now southwestern Nigeria, eventually spread into the area around Porto-Novo. Like the Dahomey kings, the Yoruba-led Oyo Empire extending to southeastern Benin, profited from the slave trade by capturing and selling off members of neighboring tribes.

Although the Dahomey kingdom was destroyed by the French in 1895, and the British subjugated the Yoruba at about the same time, the legacy of ethnic domination and subjugation continues to impact politics in modern Benin.

Historical rivalries persist between the Fon people and most of the surrounding ethnic groups, including the Bariba and Somba to the north, the Adja in the southwest and the Gon in the southeast. Most of these groups suffered greatly as a result of Dahomey's ascendency during the slave trade, and their ancestors in contemporary Benin continue to regard the Fon with resentment and mistrust.

Much the same can be said about the Yoruba in southeastern Benin their fellow ethnics in Nigeria have contributed to the high degree of cross-border trade -- both legal and illegal -- between the two countries. Mistrust of Yoruba by other ethnic groups is sometimes articulated and often framed in terms of questions about Yoruba loyalty to Benin.

While these ethnic and regional tensions have alternately flared and faded many times over the years, the leaders of the main political parties in contemporary Benin -- Amoussou, Kerekou, Soglo, Houngbdji, Fagbohoun, and Lafia -- each represented one of the major ethnic groups. The highest profile Fon in modern Benin (Soglo) had difficulty maintaining alliances with the smaller, historically excluded groups in the south to counter Kerekou's northern-based political network. This may perhaps be explicable because of previous Fon engagement in the slave trade and their economic dominance for centuries.

These dynamics tend to prevent one ethnic group from dominating politics in Benin, and currently provide incentives for smaller ethnic groups to create narrowly-based political parties, which in turn form wide-ranging and ever-shifting alliances, to compete in the political game.

This diffusion of ethnically-based parties may help to explain why Benin's political system has not degenerated into a battle between north and south, as in neighboring Togo, Cte d'Ivoire, and to some extent, Nigeria. Notwithstanding, observers continued to be aware of the potential for political misuse of ethnic affiliation in Benin, as the structural and historic conditions would not rule out this possibility in the event that unscrupulous politicians found incentive to engage in such mischief.





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