Cotonou – Capital of Islamic Culture for 2015 (African Region)


Cotonou est la capitale économique et la plus grande ville du Bénin, anciennement connue sous le nom de Dahomey. La ville abrite beaucoup de services gouvernementaux et diplomatiques. Cotonou est ainsi de facto la capitale du Bénin, même si officiellement Porto Novo reste la capitale.

The name «Cotonou» means “by the river of death” in the Fon language. The city accordingly derives its name from its location on the coastal strip between Lake Nokoué and the Atlantic Ocean. This geographical advantage is put to good use by the country’s authorities by developing communication infrastructures in Cotonou, thus making it a hub of the sub-regional trade.

Cotonou is also known in the West-African region by its 20-hectare Dantokpa Market, one of the largest in West Africa. Another familiar feature of the city is the motorcycle-taxis known as Zémidjans.

Street scene in Cotonou: Zémidjans

Cotonou is also known for its many plazas, which commemorate outstanding events in the country’s history. The Etoile Rouge (Red Star), the largest among them, lies at the heart of an immense roundabout of several main roads of Cotonou. Other equally important squares include the Bulgarian Plaza in Gbégamey, the Souvenir Plaza, formerly known as the Martyrs Plaza, and the Lenin Square in Akpakpa. Like the French Revolution Bicentennial Plaza on the Victoire Avenue and Quebec Plaza in front of the Pleven Stadium, all these areas are often used for recreation and shows.


History of the city

Cotonou, formerly Koutonou, was originally a fishermen-peopled marshy area under control of the Kingdom of Abomey. Given its strategic location between Ouidah (slavery port) and Porto-Novo (the rival Kingdom), the kings of Abomey, particularly Glèlè, used to post their representatives there to monitor trade with Europeans. Following the abolition of slavery in the mid-nineteenth century, it served as a clandestine alternative slave-shipping point to the thenceforth-monitored Port of Ouidah.

Cotonou then witnessed a remarkable boom with the arrival of the French. By virtue of a treaty signed with King Glèlè in May 1668, the city was ceded to France for 20,000 francs a year. The French created the first roads and dug a waterway in 1885 cutting the city in two. That canal was intended to facilitate access to the sea at the lagoon of Porto Novo (via Lake Nokoué).

When King Glèlè died, his son Béhanzin, who succeeded him, challenged the agreement with the French. France then declared war on the young king and built between 1891 and 1893 a wharf to facilitate the landing of the troops of General Dodds, appointed to the High Command of the French settlements on the Slave Coast. The Wharf was a metal walkway stretching from the coast to the area beyond the the wave zone (relics of the work are still visible on the beach in Cotonou). This was the starting point for the construction of modern buildings and the railway from Cotonou.

Despite fierce resistance from the troops of King Béhanzin, France ultimately won the war and annexed the Kingdom of Abomey and all the northern and southern territories which were under its control. The colony of Dahomey was then created in 1894 and placed under the authority of Governor Victor Ballot. Cotonou became its shopping and business hub and Porto-Novo its capital.

Originally a fishing village, the city has witnessed a rapid growth. Its population evolved from 70000 in 1960 to over 1 million in 2013. However, aggregated with Abomey, Cotonou’s population already exceeded 1 million in the 2002, and is estimated at around 2.2 million today.

The urban area continues to expand, notably towards the west.

The Gate of No Return, Ouidah

Benin Parliament building


Cotonou is a representative sample of the entire country. Visiting this major city is to some extent like exploring the whole country, which inevitably involves the discovery of the specificity of this city.

Indeed, besides its economic and administrative importance, Cotonou is home to many institutional and private cultural venues such as the Biennale des Arts, the Zinsou Foundation, and the Olympic Museum of Benin.

The city of Cotonou, and Benin in general, is also characterized by the emergence of activities related to the promotion of various sectors of culture, including cinema, literature, music, painting, sculpture and photography.

In addition, it is worth mentioning that Benin is the bedrock of the Vodun culture. Vodun can be described as a philosophy, a bodily, linguistic and artistic expression and a ritual and therapeutic art. It is the cultural basis of several populations living south of the Gulf of Benin (Benin, Togo, Ghana, and Nigeria). In this regard, Vodun occupies an important place in popular beliefs.



Islam in Benin

Initially introduced to Benin by marabouts from Mali and Nigeria, Islam has grown among the Beninese population. According to the figures of the General Census of Population, Muslims in Benin accounted for 7% of the population in 1962, 20% in 1992 and between 30% and 45% in 2000. The majority of Muslims in Benin belong to the ethnic groups of Peul, Nago, Kotokoli, Dendi, Ani, Hausa and Yoruba.

Though the presence of Islam in Benin dates back to ages, it was only with the democratic transition of the 1990s, particularly with its subsequent social and economic positive record, that the Muslim community of Benin has begun to have an active presence, such as through the construction of several mosques, and the launch of Islamic newspapers like “La Lumière de l’Islam”, the most recent monthly “Al-Oumma Al-Islamia” and the radio station “Voix de l’Islam “.

The number of mosques in the economic capital of Benin, Cotonou, is witnessing an increasingly growing annual trend. The city is currently home to hundreds of mosques, including 12 reserved for Friday prayers. The largest of these places of worship is the central mosque of the Zongo district, which has a capacity of 30000 people, whose construction cost FCFA 1 billion (around US$ 2 million).

The peaceful coexistence among Christians and Muslims is epitomized by the remarkable presence of their respective places of worship. A shining example of this coexistence is the juxtaposition of Cotonou’s Cathedral and Grand Mosque.


Such a peaceful coexistence was also highlighted through the organization of a session of interreligious dialogue in Cotonou in March 2014. The session was attended by Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and H.E. Thomas Boni Yayi, President of the Republic, according to whom “Interreligious dialogue is to be available for one another, to watch and to respect the beliefs of others, to rediscover one’s own spiritual identity, to reflect on what we can do for the material and spiritual welfare of humanity.”

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