Present day Benin was the site of Dahomey, a prominent West African kingdom that rose in the 15th century. The territory became a French Colony in 1872 and achieved independence on 1 August 1960, as the Republic of Benin.
Benin has long been a regional exemplar of stability with an absence of military in the streets, a Parliament not in the pocket of the president and a relatively free press. But in August 2010 that stability was rattled by a Ponzi scheme that has ended in disaster for tens of thousands of families, wiping out savings, shaking the economy and threatening the president in the nation of nine million. Officials estimate that there are between 50,000 and 70,000 victims, with losses of perhaps $180 million — a big sum in a place where most subsist on less than $2 a day and breadwinners have extended families counting on them.
With last March's election , tiny Benin has seen three peaceful transfers of power in 15 years. After the peaceful democratic transitions in Ghana, Senegal, Botswana and elsewhere, many analysts say if Benin can do it, so can others.
"The trend was moving positively and Benin has a special place in that history," said Princeton Lyman, head of the Africa program at the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Foreign Relations.
Benin's shore includes what used to be known as the Slave Coast, from where captives were shipped across the Atlantic. Elements of the culture and religion brought by slaves from the area are still present in the Americas, including voodoo.
Once banned in Benin, the religion is celebrated at the country's annual Voodoo Day, which draws thousands of celebrants.
The Europeans had first made contact with Benin in 1473 when Portuguese ships passed by the coast while searching for the sea route to India. However, it wasn't until the late 17th century that the Europeans began to play a part in Benin's history. The Portuguese were the first to arrive; they established themselves on the coast at today's Ouidah and were quickly followed by the French, British and Dutch.
Benin boasts two integrated protected areas, which together cover a huge swathe of the north and northwest of the country. These two parks are the Parc National de la Pendjari, which is the easier of the two to visit, and the truly wild and exciting Parc National du W. In addition to these two parks there is a number of forest reserves throughout the country, although currently most of them have no meaningful protection, tourist access or reliable wildlife surveys.
Instability marked the first years after full independence from France in 1960 and the early part of Mr Kerekou's rule featured Marxism-Leninism as the official ideology.
However, during the 1980s Mr Kerekou resigned from the army to become a civilian head of state and liberalised the economy.
The economy of Benin remains underdeveloped and dependent on subsistence agriculture, cotton production, and regional trade. Growth in real output had averaged almost 4% before the global recession but fell to 2.7% in 2009 and 3% in 2010.
As much of the rest of Africa stumbled through wars, coups and elections during the last two decades, Benin nurtured tourism, a free press and a stable economy built largely on agriculture and services.
Benin is different from other African countries in many ways. It's small: only 8 million people in a country the size of Pennsylvania. It has one national language, French, and a widespread mixing of ethnic groups that fosters stability.
The Republic of Benin, a small country on the western coast of Africa, has been a multiparty democratic republic since 1991. The country has not looked back since a popular uprising effectively overthrew the corrupt military dictatorship two decades ago, the first such overthrow in post-colonial Africa. President Thomas Yayi Boni heads the government of this former French Colony.