On Tuesday, April 3, the U.N. Pathways program held its second ambassador forum on the College at Florham campus for the spring semester. Ambassador Jean-Francis Régis Zinsou came to speak about the developments in West Africa.
Zinsou has held the position of Permanent Representative of Benin to the United Nations for approximately two years. Zinsou previously was chargé d’affaires ad interim of Benin to the United Nations, which is a temporary leader of a diplomatic mission, and also was responsible for political and legal affairs as minister-counselor.
The forum discussed the role Benin has played in the developments in West Africa. Benin is a republic that is located east of Togo, west of Nigeria, south of Burkina Faso and Niger, and north of the Bight of Benin. It is a small country – about the size of the state of Pennsylvania.
West Africa, and Africa as a whole, has been plagued by severe ethnic strife, or fractionalization.
Zinsou told the audience that Benin is the exception.
“Benin is one of the most stable democracies in Africa. There are problems all over West Africa, but in Benin there is no ethnic strife.”
The ambassador talked about the many different people who live in his country. There are 16 ethnic groups in Benin. In addition, there is a north/south language barrier, as well as more of an Islamic influence in the north versus a more Christian influence in the south.
“This diversity has brought the Beninis together,” Zinsou said.
Among the different ethnic groups and religions is the practice of vodoun, an indigenous religion in Benin.
“Every vodoun practice has its meaning,” the ambassador explained. “It is not black magic.”
Vodoun is embedded in the African culture. Instead of having written books like Christianity, Judaism or Islam, those who practice vodoun rely on oral tradition.
The conversation then shifted over to Benin’s history. The territory of Benin was once known as Dahomey. Dahomey was a kingdom developed in the 1400s. The region shifted to French colonialism in the late 19th century. Benin gained its independence from the French in 1960.
The government of Benin has evolved over time. The government was once a military government before it adopted a communist-based regime.
From 1989 to 1991 the country shifted over to a representative democracy and has been successful in maintaining that transformation.
The current president of Benin is Yayi Boni, who was elected in 2006.
“President Yayi Boni has brought the Beninis together in order to revitalize the economic situation in Benin and decrease conflict in the area.”
The final topic Zinsou discussed was the economy of Benin.
“Benin relies on agriculture and cotton to survive,” he said. “Additionally, there has been production of palm oil products and cashews for local subsistence.”
While Benin has been successful in terms of its government and its people, there are still problems that plague the country.
Child trafficking between Benin and Congo is a major problem that the Benin government faces and has signed an accord with Congo in an effort to stunt child traffic. Whether the problem will be wholly eradicated is uncertain.