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Overseas Security Advisory Council
Bureau of Diplomatic Security
U.S. Department of State

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Benin 2020 Crime & Safety Report

This is an annual report produced in conjunction with the Regional Security Office at the U.S. Embassy in Cotonou. OSAC encourages travelers to use this report to gain baseline knowledge of security conditions in Benin. For more in-depth information, review OSAC’s Benin country page for original OSAC reporting, consular messages, and contact information, some of which may be available only to private-sector representatives with an OSAC password.

Travel Advisory

The current U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory at the date of this report’s publication assesses Benin at Level 1, indicating travelers should exercise normal precautions. Some areas have increased risk. Reconsider travel to Park Pendjari, Park W and adjacent hunting zones, and other areas near Benin's northern border with Burkina Faso, due to terrorism and kidnapping. Exercise increased caution in urban areas due to crime. Review OSAC’s report, Understanding the Consular Travel Advisory System.

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

Crime Threats

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Cotonou as being a CRITICAL-threat location for crime directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. A broad spectrum of criminal activity occurs in Cotonou. Most crimes affecting U.S. citizens are crimes of opportunity (e.g. pickpocketing, purse snatching, theft of valuables from vehicles, assaults, residential burglaries). In particular, low-level criminal activity occurs in areas of congregation, particularly in the Dantokpa Market and on Cotonou’s beaches. Criminals may take advantage of foreigners attempting to navigate the crowded markets or leaving their belongings unattended. Travelers should avoid the Dantokpa market between dusk and dawn, and the beaches fronting Cotonou’s city center at all hours.

Robbery and muggings occur along the Boulevard de la Marina (the main thoroughfare fronting the U.S. Embassy), on the beaches near hotels international visitors frequent, within the Haie Vive and Les Cocotiers neighborhoods (near popular bars and restaurants), and elsewhere throughout the city. Most reported incidents involve the threat or use of force by armed persons, with injuries rarely occurring when victims comply with aggressor demands. Criminals targeted U.S. Embassy and other diplomatic personnel living and working in the safest neighborhoods of Cotonou throughout 2019. The most recent event of note was the robbery of four western visitors on a beach directly in front of their hotel; suspects armed with knives stole several thousand dollars in an incident that happened less than 500 meters from the U.S. Embassy. Review OSAC’s report, All That You Should Leave Behind.

The Embassy is aware of several armed robberies in 2019 involving assault rifles. Criminals have also used pistols, knives, and machetes during the commission of armed robberies. Most attacks end without violence if the victim cooperates, and often occur late at night or in the early morning hours. Locals report that the mornings are not safe until around 0630. Robberies are generally crimes of opportunity, with the perpetrators targeting vulnerable victims and seeking cash/valuables. The typical modus operandi consists of two to four perpetrators traveling on motorcycles/scooters and targeting victims walking alone in poorly illuminated areas. One or two perpetrators usually jump off the motorcycle with a knife/machete and rob the victim. Robbery victims should comply with the demands of perpetrators, as resisting may cause the situation to escalate violently.

Sexual assaults do occur and are usually associated with alcohol-related incidents. Some victims have reported that perpetrators used date-rape drugs to assault them. In 2019, the Regional Security Office received information regarding multiple sexual assaults and robberies involving the possible use of drugs.

There have been numerous carjackings and robberies on roads after dark, some of which of which resulted in murder when the driver refused to comply with assailant demands. Carjacking is especially prevalent in rural areas, and many cases involve armed bandits placing barricades in the roadway to slow or halt vehicles. This tactic occurs frequently at the conclusion of the rainy season when vegetation is lush, providing adequate concealment. In 2019, armed assailants stopped a motorcade belonging to an expatriate NGO on the road between Cotonou and Parakou. The assailants fired on the vehicles to ensure compliance. The assailants took the occupants out of the vehicles, stripped them of all their belongings, and left them by the side of the road as they fled in the NGO vehicles.

Far more common, and primarily affecting the local population, are motojackings. Using similar tactics as carjackers or moto-riding bandits, criminals will surround a moto rider and threaten them with a weapon as they forcibly take their moto. Attempted and successful motojackings affected several U.S. Embassy local contract guards and household staff members in 2019.

Residential burglaries are also very common in Cotonou, and throughout Benin. Significant investment in residential security measures (e.g. perimeter walls, concertina wire, window/door grilles, alarms), including 24-hour contract guards often mitigate the dangers of burglaries and force criminals to look for less secure targets. Still, many burglaries occur in neighborhood containing U.S. Embassy residences. Review OSAC’s reports, Hotels: The Inns and Outs and Considerations for Hotel Security.

Review OSAC’s reports, The Overseas Traveler’s Guide to ATM Skimmers & Fraud and Taking Credit.

Cybersecurity Issues

Cybercrime is a concern. The Embassy frequently receives reports from U.S. citizens residing in the U.S. who have become victims of online financial scams originating (or claiming to originate) in Benin. These scams typically involve a con artist attempting to convince a victim to send money. These schemes can include lotteries, online dating services, inheritance notices, work permits/job offers, bank overpayments, or requests of assistance from a “new friend in trouble.” The Embassy strongly urges U.S. citizens not to send any money; any funds you send are likely unrecoverable. Victims should halt contact with scammers immediately. Do not attempt to recover funds in person. Report the matter immediately to The Internet Crime Complaint Center, a partnership among the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C), and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BIA). Refer to the fraud warning on the Embassy’s website for more information. Review OSAC’s reports, Cybersecurity Basics, Best Practices for Maximizing Security on Public Wi-Fi, Traveling with Mobile Devices: Trends & Best Practices, and Satellite Phones: Critical or Contraband?

Transportation-Safety Situation

Road Safety and Road Conditions

Traffic conditions can be treacherous throughout Benin – including in Cotonou and even during the day. Avoid driving at night outside of urban areas. It is not unusual to see pedestrian traffic on major motorways and side roads at all hours. Motorcyclists often do not use turn signals or headlights after dark, and often drive against the flow of traffic on divided roads. Overall, vehicle maintenance and upkeep of large trucks and buses are poor. Large trucks break down or overturn frequently due to lack of maintenance and poor road conditions. Many road accidents result in death. Medical care, especially emergency trauma support, is substandard or nonexistent nationwide.

Road conditions deteriorate noticeably outside of Cotonou. Even the trunk road linking Cotonou to Malanville on Benin’s border with Niger has severely deteriorated sections. Roads in Benin are generally in poor condition and are often impassable during the rainy season, especially if they are unpaved. The Government of Benin is undertaking large roadbuilding projects in Cotonou and across the country. Use four-wheel drive vehicles with full spare tires and emergency equipment. Travel in a convoy of two or more vehicles outside of urban areas. Private vehicles must carry certain road emergency/safety items or risk a substantial fine.

The U.S. Embassy prohibits travel by diplomatic personnel outside of metropolitan areas after dusk, and urges all U.S. citizens to avoid night driving. Rural roads double as sidewalks, congregation areas, and locations to move livestock more easily. The chances of road collisions with a human being or animal at night are extremely high.

Gasoline smuggled from Nigeria is widely available in glass bottles at informal roadside stands throughout much of the country. This gasoline is of unreliable quality, often containing water or other contaminants that can damage or disable a vehicle. Purchase fuel only from official service stations. There are periodic gas shortages, especially in the north of the country where there are few service stations; travelers to these areas should bring additional fuel with them.

Review OSAC’s reports, Road Safety Abroad, Driving Overseas: Best Practices, and Evasive Driving Techniques; and read the State Department’s webpage on driving and road safety abroad.

Public Transportation Conditions

Avoid public transportation. Benin’s limited public transportation system is poor, even in major metropolitan areas. Most buses and taxis lack proper maintenance, though several new taxi companies have appeared in Cotonou since 2017. The most common form of transport is licensed motorcycle taxis (zemijahns); however, many are unlicensed, and Embassy personnel may not use them. Zemijahns are the vehicles most frequently struck or otherwise involved in accidents on Benin’s roads. Travelers using zemijahns, particularly at night, are much more vulnerable to mugging, assault, or robbery. Buses and bush taxis offer service in the interior. Review OSAC’s report, Security In Transit: Airplanes, Public Transport, and Overnights.

Aviation/Airport Conditions

Cardinal Bernadin Gantin Airport (COO, aka Cadjehoun Airport) in Cotonou’s Cadjehoun neighborhood is an old, two-terminal facility with limited capacity. The airport lacks many amenities and can get crowded. There are no facilities to purchase food or beverages once one passes through the security checkpoint leading to the passenger waiting area. There have been instances of airport security personnel trying to extort money from passengers.

Terrorism Threat

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Cotonou as being a MEDIUM-threat location for terrorism directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. In 2019, this assessment changed from its previous LOW-threat rating. This change reflects the increasing risk from terrorist groups operating across Benin’s northern borders with Burkina Faso and Niger.

There are no known indigenous terrorist organizations in Benin. Due to porous borders and northern Benin’s close proximity to terrorist strongholds in eastern Burkina Faso and southwestern Niger, many suspect that terrorists could be entering Benin to safe haven, fundraise, ship supplies, or plot attacks.

Although there have not been any terrorist attacks in Benin, terrorist activity and spillover from neighboring countries remains a major concern for the Government of Benin and the international community. Since January 2019, the security situation in eastern Burkina Faso on the northern side of the border with Benin has deteriorated significantly. Terrorist groups have used improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and complex attacks with combined arms attacks to target Government of Burkina Faso (GoBF) law enforcement and security personnel. Dozens have died or received injuries. Terrorist actors, including AQIM and ISGS, have also turned their attention to local populations. Robberies, kidnapping, carjacking, and murder of ordinary citizens in eastern Burkina Faso has increased dramatically, as have stories of violent extremists coming into villages and demanding populations abide by fundamentalist ideologies. Southwestern Niger has seen an incredible upsurge in attacks against its military forces by violent extremist groups since December 2019. Nearly 200 Nigerien troops died in two attack alone. Incidents have not spared expatriates either; attacks, kidnapping attempts and murder targeting U.S., Canadian, and Czech nationals occurred in December 2018 and January 2019 in eastern Burkina Faso. Many of these attacks occurred within just a few kilometers from the Benin border.

Kidnapping for ransom has long been a major fundraising activity for Sahel-based international violent extremist organizations. In May 2019, Benin recorded its first kidnapping of westerners when kidnappers took two French citizens from northern Benin and killed their guide. Once in custody, kidnappers immediately moved them to unknown locations outside of Benin. Media reported that violent extremist organizations were responsible for the kidnapping. The event occurred in Pendjari National Park, Benin’s most heavily guarded park. A military intervention rescued the kidnap victims several days later.

Two Nigeria-based terrorist groups, Boko Haram and ISIS-WA operate in Lake Chad Basin countries that neighbor Benin. Boko Haram militants have used armed assaults, kidnappings, IEDs, and suicide vehicle-borne IEDs (SVBIED) to target churches, government installations, educational institutions, entertainment venues, markets, and refugee camps. ISIS-WA has predominantly targeted local and regional security forces, but has recently engaged in kidnapping. The group has also been slowly moving outside of the Lake Chad Basin to expand its influence. Benin contributes more than 400 troops and police to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA). In 2017, Benin joined the multinational joint task force (MNJTF) to combat terrorism in the Lake Chad region, leading to concerns about possible retaliation from terrorist groups based in Mali or the Lake Chad Basin.

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Cotonou as being a LOW-threat location for political violence directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests.

Civil Unrest 

Even with the low overall risk, a number of protests related to April 2019 legislative elections turned violent. On several occasions, protests shut the main highway between northern and southern Benin, on one occasion for nearly 60 hours. Review OSAC’s report, Surviving a Protest.

Religious/Ethnic Violence

There were no inter-religious violence events in 2019.

There are concerns of potential intercommunal violence related to land and grazing rights between nomadic herding people and subsistence farmers; this violence often takes on a religious and ethnic dimension, as herders are predominantly Fulani and Muslim, while farmers are typically members of other ethnic groups and are Christian/animist. Violent clashes have at times broken out with lives lost. The Government of Benin recently decided to restrict drastically the entry and grazing of Fulani cattle herders other than those who normally reside in Benin. It is unclear what kind of impact this will have on annual Fulani migration through Benin, or what enforcement will look like.

Anti-U.S./Anti-Western Sentiment

The Beninese population generally holds U.S. nationals and other westerners in high regard, though some groups decry what they view as France’s “neo-colonial” role.

Post-specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards

Swimming conditions along Benin’s coastline are dangerous due to strong tides, waves, and rip currents; several people drown each year.

Floods are common during the rainy season (mid-March through June). Significant flooding can occur in northern areas, affecting transit between Niger and Benin. Due to lack of infrastructure and drainage capabilities, severe rainstorms quickly inundate roadways and villages, making major routes impassable and impeding transportation within Cotonou and across Benin. Heavy flooding occurred in the Mono Department, washing away bridges, leaving many major roads impassable in late summer and early fall 2019, and displacing tens of thousands of people for several months.

Critical Infrastructure Concerns

Most working conditions are unsafe due to poor structural integrity, electrical problems, and imprecise oversight. Utility outages and wiring-related residential fires are common.

Economic Espionage/Intellectual Property Theft

Economic espionage is rare, though counterfeit goods, to include counterfeit and fraudulent medicines, are a problem in local markets. The fraudulent medicine market is large in Benin. The Government of Benin has recognized this problem and is taking steps to stamp out fake medicine sales and import.

Since August 2019, the Benin/Nigeria border has closed to all formal trade. This was a unilateral decision on the part of Nigeria to stop the trade of goods (mostly rice) from import/re-import into Nigeria through Benin. Although there is very little data to show how the effect to Benin, a huge percentage of Beninese trade is with Nigeria. Public reaction has been muted.  

Personal Identity Concerns

Benin’s laws on sexual morality provide latitude for authorities to prosecute a range of sexual activity, even though its penal code does not mention or criminalize same-sex sexual relations. In general, however, Beninese authorities do not act against those in same-sex relationships. Benin is less socially progressive than most Western cultures. Local social norms favor discretion in sexual relations and are not uniformly accepting of same-sex relationships. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for LGBTI+ travelers.

Review the State Department’s webpage on security for female travelers.

Review OSAC’s report, Freedom to Practice, and the State Department’s webpage on security for faith-based travelers.

Most buildings, businesses, government offices, and medical facilities do not provide special features accommodation for persons with mobility issues. Public transportation catering to those with mobility issues is almost non-existent. Many roads are unpaved and lack usable sidewalks. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for travelers with disabilities.

Drug-related Crime

Due to its port, Cotonou is a major trans-shipment point for illegal drugs. Traffickers also use Benin’s air transport routes to ship illicit drugs to Europe and the United States. However, while illegal drugs are present, organized crime and associated armed violence is not as prevalent in Benin as in other countries. Late 2019 and early 2020 saw a dramatic increase in illicit drugs seizures within or en route to Benin.

Kidnapping Threat

See the section on terrorism, above. Review OSAC’s report, Kidnapping: The Basics.

Other Issues

Many locals do not like having their pictures taken. Photographing certain religious objects/sites is not welcome. Review OSAC’s report, Picture This: Dos and Don’ts for Photography.

All visitors arriving in Benin should obtain a visa in advance. There is no visa upon arrival. Benin has recently instituted a very intuitive and easy-to-navigate e-visa system. After online payment, a visa confirmation usually arrives in 24-48 hours. Print the confirmation page and use to show airlines staff and present to immigration upon arrival at a Beninese port of entry.

Check with a sponsoring organization to ensure you have the correct documentation in place or risk penalties (e.g. detention, fines, deportation).

Read the State Department’s webpage on customs and import restrictions for information on what you cannot take into or out of other countries.

Police Response

The emergency line in Benin is 166 for the police and 118for the fire and ambulance service. Police responsiveness and ability to investigate reported crimes is limited due to insufficient resources, lack of equipment, and inadequate training. However, local police are generally well intentioned and will respond eventually.

Be aware of the nearest police station relative to your location, and should go in person if you are the victim of a crime. Since French is the official language of Benin, have a French speaker on hand to report a crime. Download the State Department’s Crime Victims Assistance brochure.

There were no known incidents of harassment or unfair detention of U.S. citizens by Beninese police in 2019. U.S. citizens should contact the U.S. Embassy (+229 2136-7500) to report any incidents of police detention or harassment, but understand that the U.S. Embassy cannot assist people who have been detained beyond providing general information.

Benin’s prisons are poorly operated, unsafe, and overcrowded. However, Benin’s prison system is undergoing structural change for the better.

Medical Emergencies

Healthcare does not meet Western standards. Find contact information for available medical services and available air ambulance services on the U.S. Embassy website. Most hospitals and medical facilities do not have adequate supplies or drugs for treatment of major illnesses/injuries. Bring sufficient amounts of medication for your stay, as many prescription medications are not available or may be counterfeit or expired. Only purchase medicines from reputable pharmacies.

All routine U.S. immunizations should also be up to date prior to arrival; these diseases are more common in Benin than in the U.S.

Avoid swimming in any lakes, rivers, or still bodies of water, as most bodies of water contain parasites. Schistosomiasis comes from a parasitic worm spread by freshwater snails. Avoid wading, swimming, bathing, washing in, or drinking from bodies of fresh water such as canals, lakes, rivers, streams, or springs.

In many areas, tap water is not potable. Bottled water and beverages are generally safe, although many restaurants and hotels serve tap water unless you specifically request bottled water. Ice for drinks may consist of tap water.

Diarrheal illness is very common among travelers, even in large cities and luxury accommodations. Diminish diarrhea risk through scrupulous hand washing and use of hand sanitizers, especially before food preparation and eating. The greatest risk of traveler’s diarrhea is from contaminated food.

Even in urban areas, dogs may have rabies. Immediately clean bites/scratches from dogs, bats, or other mammals with soap and water, and seek medical evaluation to determine if additional rabies immunization is warranted.

The U.S. Department of State strongly recommends purchasing international health insurance before traveling internationally. Review the State Departments webpage on insurance overseas.

The following diseases and illnesses are prevalent: Yellow Fever; Malaria (all travelers should use prophylactic medication); Dengue; Chikungunya; and HIV/AIDS. The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Benin.

Review OSAC’s reports, The Healthy Way, Traveling with Medication, I’m Drinking What in My Water?, Shaken: The Don’ts of Alcohol Abroad, Health 101: How to Prepare for Travel, and Fire Safety Abroad.

OSAC Country Council Information

The Cotonou Country Council meets quarterly. Contact OSAC’s Africa team for more information or to join.

U.S. Embassy Contact Information

Blvd de la Marina, 01 BP 2012, Cotonou

Hours: American citizen emergencies 24/7; standard American citizen services, Thurs 1400-1600.

Embassy Operator: +229 21 36 75 00

Consular Duty Officer: +229 97 97 47 28

Website: http://bj.usembassy.gov/

Helpful Information

Before you travel, consider the following resources:

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