Little is known about the history of N Benin. In the south, according to oral tradition, a group of Aja migrated (12th or 13th cent.) eastward from Tado on the Mono River and founded the village of Allada. Later, Allada became the capital of Great Ardra, a state whose kings ruled with the consent of the elders of the people. Great Ardra reached the peak of its power in the 16th and early 17th cent.
A dispute (c.1625) among three brothers over who should be king resulted in one brother, Kokpon, retaining Great Ardra. Another brother, Do-Aklin, founded the town of Abomey, and the third, Te-Agdanlin, founded the town of Ajatche or Little Ardra (called Porto-Novo by the Portuguese merchants who traded there). The Aja living at Abomey organized into a strongly centralized kingdom with a standing army and gradually mixed with the local people, thus forming the Fon, or Dahomey, ethnic group.
By the late 17th cent. the Dahomey were raiding their neighbors for slaves, who were then sold (through coastal middlemen) to European traders. By 1700, about 20,000 slaves were being transported annually, especially from Great Ardra and Ouidah, located on what was called the Slave Coast. In order to establish direct contact with the European traders, King Agaja of Dahomey (reigned 1708–32), who began the practice of using women as soldiers, conquered most of the south (except Porto-Novo). This expansion brought Dahomey into conflict with the powerful Yoruba kingdom of Oyo, which captured Abomey in 1738 and forced Dahomey to pay an annual tribute until 1818. However, until well into the 19th cent. Dahomey continued to expand northward and to sell slaves, despite efforts by Great Britain to end the trade.
In 1863, Porto-Novo accepted a French protectorate, hoping thereby to offset Dahomey's power. During the 1880s, as the scramble among the European powers for African colonies accelerated, France tried to secure its hold on the Dahomey coast in order to keep it out of German or British hands. King Behanzin (reigned 1889–93) attempted to resist the French advance, but in 1892–93 France defeated Dahomey, established a protectorate over it, and exiled Behanzin to Martinique. During the period 1895–98 the French added the northern part of present-day Benin, and in 1904 the whole colony was made part of French West Africa.
Under the French a port was constructed at Cotonou, railroads were built, and the output of palm products increased. In addition, elementary school facilities were expanded, largely under the auspices of Roman Catholic missions. In 1946, Dahomey became an overseas territory with its own parliament and representation in the French national assembly; in 1958, it became an autonomous state within the French Community.
On Aug. 1, 1960, Dahomey became fully independent. The country's first president was Hubert Maga, whose main support came from Parakou and the north and who was allied with Sourou Migan Apithy, a politician from Porto-Novo. Independent Dahomey was plagued by governmental instability that was caused by economic troubles, ethnic rivalries, and social unrest. In 1963, following demonstrations by workers and students, the armed forces staged a successful coup, putting Justin Ahomadegbé into power (in alliance with Apithy). Political unrest continued in Dahomey for the next six years until Lt. Col. Paul-Émile de Souza was made president in 1969.
Elections were attempted in 1970 but were canceled following severe disagreement between northern and southern politicians. Instead, a three-man presidential council (consisting of Maga, Ahomadegbé, and Apithy) was formed; each member was to lead the country for two years. The first leader was Maga, who in May, 1972, was replaced without incident by Ahomadegbé. However, in Oct., 1972, the military again intervened, toppling Ahomadegbé and installing an 11-man government headed by Maj. Mathieu Kérékou.
Kérékou declared Benin a Marxist-Leninist state and sought financial support from Communist governments in Eastern Europe and Asia. To distance the modern state from its colonial past, Dahomey became the People's Republic of Benin in 1975. Continual strikes and coup attempts resulted in the formation of a repressive militia. In 1989, with social unrest and economic problems besetting the country, Marxism was renounced as a state ideology.
In 1990 a national conference and a referendum provided for a new constitution and multiparty elections; Nicéphor Soglo defeated Kérékou at the polls and became president in 1991. Credited with reviving the economy but criticized as aloof and distant from the people, Soglo was defeated in the 1996 presidential election, which returned Kérékou to power. In the 1999 assembly elections, however, the opposition, led by Soglo's wife, Rosine, won the majority of seats. Conflict with Niger over the ownership of one of several disputed islands in the Niger River led to tensions in 2000; the islands were divided between the two nations in 2005 after international arbitration.
Kérékou was reelected in Mar., 2001, after Soglo withdrew from a runoff, accusing the president of fraud. The president's coalition won a majority in the national assembly in Mar., 2003. In 2005 Kérékou announced that he would retire in 2006 at the end of his term, and would not seek to amended the constitution to stay in power. In Mar., 2006, Thomas Yayi Boni, an economist who had previously headed the West African Development Bank, was elected president after a runoff, winning nearly 75% of the vote. In June, 2006, the national assembly voted to amend the constitution to extend assembly members' terms to five years, but the supreme court rejected the amendment as for violating the 1990 consensus that established the constitution. President Yayi survived an apparent assassination attempt in Mar., 2007. Yayi's coalition won a plurality of the seats in the national assembly in the elections later that month.
In July, 2010, the collapse of a company that was running a Ponzi scheme roiled the country. Some 130,000 were believed to have invested in it, many with their life savings. The interior minister and the chief prosecutor were dismissed for connections to the scheme, and many believed that the president was involved because photographs of him meeting with company officials were publicized by the company. National Assembly members accused Yayi of complicity in the scheme, but failed in an attempt (August) to impeach him. He won reelection in Mar., 2011, against a divided opposition. In Oct., 2012, several people, including a former commerce minister, were accused of attempting to assassinating the president with poison and arrested, and in Mar., 2013, another coup plot, said to be linked possibly to the poisoning plot, was reported to have been foiled.