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Safety Travel Safety: Africa: Benin

Benin: Republic of Benin
Capital: Porto-Novo
Population: 6,787,625
Currency: Communaute Financiere Africaine franc (XOF)
Languages: French (official), Fon and Yoruba (most common vernaculars in south), tribal languages (at least six major ones in north)
Religions: indigenous beliefs 50%, Christian 30%, Muslim 20%
Borders: Burkina Faso 306 km, Niger 266 km, Nigeria 773 km, Togo 644 km

COUNTRY DESCRIPTION ^
Benin is a developing country in West Africa. Its political capital city is Porto Novo; its administrative capital, Cotonou, is Benin's largest city and the site of most government, commercial, and tourist activity.

SECURITY AND SAFETY ^
U.S. citizens should avoid crowds, political rallies, and street demonstrations and maintain security awareness at all times.

The ocean currents along the coast are extremely strong and treacherous (a rough surf and a strong undertow) and result in several drownings each year.

CRIME ^
Street robberies are a significant problem in Cotonou, especially in the wealthier Haie-Vive and Cocotiers areas. Some robberies and muggings occur along the Boulevard de France (the beach road by the Marina and Novato Hotels) and the beach near hotels frequented by international visitors. Most of the reported incidents involve the use of force, often by armed persons, and occasional minor injury to the victim. Isolated and poorly lit areas should be avoided. Therefore, we encourage you not to walk around the city or the beaches before dawn or after dusk. If you are a victim of street crime, we ask that you please contact the Embassy immediately. Robbery and carjacking after dark on highways and rural roads outside of major metropolitan areas are also a major concern (see Traffic Safety and Road Conditions, below.)

BUSINESS FRAUD ^
Perpetrators of business fraud often target foreigners, including Americans. While such fraud schemes in the past have been largely associated with Nigeria, they are now prevalent throughout western Africa, including Benin. These scams, which may appear to be a legitimate business deal requiring advance payments on contracts, pose a danger of both financial loss and physical harm. Recently, an increasing number of American citizens have been the targets of such scams.

Typically, these scam operations begin with an unsolicited communication (usually by e-mail or fax) from an unknown individual who describes a situation that promises quick financial gain, often by assisting in the transfer of a large sum of money or valuables out of the country. A series of advance fees may be requested. Examples of advance fee requests include funds to open a bank account, to pay certain taxes, to pay up front for a partial shipment, or to secure a contract with a promised large commission. Alleged deals frequently invoke the authority of one or more government ministries or offices and may cite, by name, the involvement of a Beninese government official. In some scams, government stationery, seals and offices are used. In fact, the final payoff does not exist; the purpose of the scam is simply to collect the advance fees. One common variation of this scheme involves individuals claiming to be refugees or other victims of various western African conflicts (notably Sierra Leone) who contact U.S. citizens to request their help in transferring large sums of money out of Benin. Another typical ploy has persons claiming to be related to present or former political leaders who need assistance to transfer large sums of cash.

The best way to avoid becoming a victim of advance-fee fraud is common sense - if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Any unsolicited business proposal originating from Benin should be carefully checked out before any funds are committed, any goods or services are provided, or any travel is undertaken. Information on these scams can be found on the U.S. Secret Service website at http://www.usss.treas.gov/financial_crimes.shtml; look for Nigerian Advance Fee Fraud - Operation 4-1-9. For additional information, single copies of the Department of State's brochures Advance Fee Business Schemes and Tips for Business Travelers to Nigeria, are available at no charge by sending a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the Office of American Citizens Services and Crisis Management, Room 4811, Department of State, Washington, D.C. 20520-4818.

CRIMINAL PENALTIES ^
While in a foreign country, a U.S. citizen is subject to that country's laws and regulations, which sometimes differ significantly from those in the United States and may not afford the protections available to the individual under U.S. law. Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than in the United States for similar offenses. Persons violating Benin law, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested or imprisoned. Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Benin are strict and convicted offenders can expect jail sentences and heavy fines.

Under the PROTECT Act of April 2003, it is a crime, prosecutable in the United States, for U.S. citizens or permanent resident aliens to exploit children sexually via pornography, the Internet or other means or to engage in illicit sexual conduct with a person under the age of 18 in a foreign country, regardless of whether there was intent.

MEDICAL FACILITIES ^
Medical facilities in Benin are limited and not all medicines are available. Travelers should bring their own supplies of prescription drugs and preventive medicines.

TRAFFIC SAFETY AND ROAD CONDITIONS ^
While in a foreign country, U.S. citizens may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Benin is provided for general reference only, and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance:

Safety of Public Transportation: Poor 
Urban Road Conditions/Maintenance: Poor 
Rural Road Conditions/Maintenance: Poor 
Availability of Roadside Assistance: Poor

With the exception of the road linking Cotonou in the south to Malanville on the border with Niger in the north, and from Parakou in central Benin to Natitingou in the northwestern part of the country, roads in Benin are generally in poor condition and are often impassable during the rainy season. Benin's unpaved roads vary widely in quality. Deep sand and/or ditches are common. During the rainy season from mid-June to mid-September, dirt roads often become impassable. Four-wheel drive vehicles with full spare tires and emergency equipment are recommended. Most of the main streets in Cotonou are paved, but side streets often consist of deeply potholed dirt.

Cotonou has no public transportation system. Most Beninese rely on bicycles, mopeds, motorbikes, and zemidjans, which are moped taxis. All official Americans are required to wear safety helmets when on a motorcycle and are strongly discouraged from using zemidjans. Buses and bush taxis offer service in country. Traffic moves on the right, as in the United States.

Gasoline smuggled from Nigeria is widely sold in glass bottles and jugs at informal roadside stands throughout Cotonou and much of the country. This gasoline is of unreliable quality, often containing water or other contaminants that can damage or disable your vehicle. Drivers should purchase fuel only from official service stations.

U.S. citizens traveling by road should exercise extreme caution. Poorly maintained, overloaded transport and cargo vehicles frequently break down and cause accidents. Undisciplined drivers render traffic movements unpredictable. Construction work is often poorly indicated. Speed bumps - commonly used on paved roads in and near villages - are seldom indicated. Nighttime driving is particularly hazardous as vehicles frequently lack headlights and/or taillights. With few exceptions, Cotonou and other cities lack any street lighting and lighting on roads between population centers is non-existent. There have been numerous carjackings and robberies on roads in Benin after dark. Two of these robberies resulted in murder when the driver refused to comply with the assailants' demands. The U.S. Embassy in Cotonou prohibits non-essential travel outside of metropolitan areas after dusk by official Americans and strongly urges all U.S. citizens to avoid night driving as well.

For additional general information about road safety, including links to foreign government sites, see the Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs home page at http://travel.state.gov/road_safety.html.

AVIATION SAFETY OVERSIGHT ^
As there is no direct commercial air service by local carriers at neither present, nor economic authority to operate such service between the U.S. and Benin, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not assessed Benin's Civil Aviation Authority for compliance with international aviation safety standards. For further information, travelers may contact the Department of Transportation within the U.S. at 1-800-322-7873, or visit the FAA's Internet website at http://www.faa.gov/avr/iasa/index.cfm.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) separately assesses some foreign air carriers for suitability as official providers of air services. For information regarding the DOD policy on specific carriers, travelers may contact DOD at (618) 229-4801.

PHOTOGRAPHY RESTRICTIONS ^
Travelers should obtain permission in advance before taking photographs or videotaping any official persons, places or events. In the weeks prior to the March 2001 presidential elections in Benin, at least one U.S. citizen was detained and extensively interrogated by the police on suspicion of having filmed or photographed a government building.

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Please also refer to the separate Worldwide Caution Public Announcement.

June 18, 2004

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