How many countries are in West Africa? Is Mauritania in West Africa? How about Cameroon and Chad? Here’s everything you need to know about West African geography.
West Africa is a region of exciting cultures and complex histories. Stretching from the arid Sahel in the north to the lush rainforests along the Atlantic coast, the region is a patchwork of nations brought together by shared languages, cuisines, religions and politics that often transcend the colonial borders enforced upon them.
Given the often arbitrary and unnatural boundaries that define African countries, determining the exact number of countries that constitute West Africa is not as straightforward as it might seem. The count varies depending on geographical, cultural and political perspectives, making it a subject of intriguing discussion for geographers, historians, and political analysts alike.
In this article, we delve into the debate, exploring the various criteria that lead to different interpretations of West Africa’s boundaries. From the universally acknowledged members, like Senegal and The Gambia, to the fringe states like Mauritania and Chad that straddle regional lines, we examine the factors that influence these classifications. How many countries are in West Africa? Keep reading, as we explore the dynamic and sometimes fluid borders that define this fascinating region!
Table of Contents
How many countries are in West Africa?
West Africa typically comprises 16 countries. These are Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo. Each of these nations contributes its unique cultural, historical, and geopolitical characteristics to the region, while also adding to West Africa’s geopolitical complexities.
However, there can be some debate over the number of countries in West Africa. Largely, this is due to different definitions and interpretations of the region’s geographical boundaries. While the most common, United Nations-sanctioned list includes 16 countries, some sources might include or exclude certain nations based on various criteria such as cultural, historical, or political affiliations.
For instance, Mauritania is sometimes included in discussions of West Africa due to its historical and cultural ties with the region, despite its geographical location being more in the northwest of the continent. Mauritania is often included in lists of North African countries, primarily because it’s not a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Similarly, Chad and Cameroon are occasionally included in broader definitions of West Africa due to their political and economic ties with the region, even though they are geographically located in Central Africa.
As a result, the exact number of countries in West Africa can vary slightly depending on the context and criteria used for the classification.
List of countries in West Africa
Here’s a list of the 16 countries that are considered under the United Nations regional divisions to be in the West African region:
- Burkina Faso
- Cape Verde
- Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast)
- The Gambia
- Sierra Leone
If you were to include Chad and Cameroon, the total number of countries in West Africa could be considered to be 18. Exclude Mauritania, and you’re down to 15 countries!
So, where is West Africa located, exactly?
Confused? We’re not surprised! So let’s try and define West Africa in more concrete, geographical terms. As you’d expect, West Africa is located in the westernmost part of the African continent. It is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the Sahara Desert to the north, Central Africa to the east, and the Gulf of Guinea to the south. This expansive region covers a significant area extending from the vast Sahelian plains in the north to the dense rainforests near the coast.
The region comprises a variety of countries, typically including Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo. Some broader definitions also incorporate Chad and Cameroon due to their economic and political connections with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
What is the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)?
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), established in 1975, is a regional political and economic union of fifteen West African countries, and by many counts, is a great way to define the region as a whole.
Designed to foster economic integration and collective self-sufficiency, ECOWAS includes Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo. It does not include Mauritania, Cameroon, or Chad.
ECOWAS aims to promote economic cooperation and create a single large trading bloc through economic integration. It facilitates the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital across member states, enhancing economic stability and raising living standards (although as I realised when crossing the border between The Gambia and Senegal, this doesn’t necessarily make things easier on the ground!). The organization also addresses regional issues, including peacekeeping and security, through political dialogue and intervention.
The ECOWAS Court of Justice and the West African Health Organization are significant institutions within ECOWAS, focusing on regional legal matters and public health issues, respectively. Over the years, ECOWAS has played a pivotal role in mediating political crises and conflicts within the region, exemplifying regional collaboration in peacekeeping and conflict resolution. Its efforts in promoting democracy and economic development have been pivotal in stabilising West African politics and fostering regional integration.
Where does North Africa begin?
If you’re still bemused by West Africa’s boundaries, then it might help to know where North Africa begins and ends. North Africa is generally defined as the northernmost region of the African continent, extending from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Suez Canal and the Red Sea in the east. Geographically and culturally, it is distinct from Sub-Saharan Africa.
The region typically includes the following countries:
- Morocco (including Western Sahara, which is claimed by Morocco)
Sudan and Mauritania are also included in broader definitions of North Africa, primarily due to their Arab cultural and historical ties, despite being geographically situated in the Sahel region, which bridges North and Sub-Saharan Africa.
North Africa is characterised by its close historical, cultural, and political ties with the Middle East, particularly through the Arab and Islamic influence, which differentiates it from regions to the south. The Sahara Desert, which spans much of North Africa, forms a natural geographic barrier that has historically separated it from West Africa.
Where does Central Africa begin?
Still confused? Let’s look at Central Africa, where West Africa typically ends on the borders of Chad and Cameroon. However, Central Africa, as a region, is less clearly defined than North, West, or Southern Africa, but it generally comprises the central part of the African continent, often characterised by its tropical rainforests, vast river basins, and diverse cultures.
The countries most commonly included in Central Africa are:
- Central African Republic
- Congo (Brazzaville)
- Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
- Equatorial Guinea
- São Tomé and Príncipe
The definition of Central Africa might be expanded to include other nations that share certain cultural, historical, or ecological characteristics with the region, such as Burundi, Rwanda, and parts of Tanzania. The European Union claims there are 11 nations in Central Africa, using this broader definition, while the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa includes 7 nations under its Central African remit.
Central Africa is distinguished by its dense rainforests, particularly in the Congo Basin, which is a critical area for biodiversity and environmental health. The region has a rich cultural diversity with hundreds of ethnic groups and languages. It has experienced significant political and social challenges, including colonial legacies, political instability, and conflict, which have influenced its development and role in the broader African context.
Is Mauritania in West Africa?
Mauritania is often considered part of West Africa, but it’s also considered part of the North Africa region. Geographically, it is located in the western part of the African continent, bordering the Atlantic Ocean to the west, Western Sahara to the north and northwest, Algeria to the northeast, Mali to the east and southeast, and Senegal to the southwest.
While Mauritania is situated in the transition zone between the Maghreb region of North Africa and the sub-Saharan African region, its historical, cultural, and political ties with West Africa often lead to its inclusion in the region. Despite being a founding member, Mauritania is no longer a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), having withdrawn its membership in 2000. Definitions might place Mauritania in North Africa due to its cultural and historical connections with the Maghreb, and other North African countries.
Are Chad and Cameroon in West Africa?
Chad and Cameroon are typically classified as part of Central Africa, but their classification can vary based on the context.
Geographically and culturally, Cameroon is often considered a part of Central Africa. It shares borders with Nigeria to the west, which is a part of West Africa, but most of its landmass and cultural orientation are more aligned with Central Africa. Cameroon is a member of the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC), underlining its economic ties with Central Africa.
Chad, located to the northeast of Cameroon, is also primarily considered a part of Central Africa. It shares borders with several countries, including Niger in the West and Nigeria to the southwest, but its geographic position, cultural aspects, and political affiliations align more closely with Central Africa.
In broader regional groupings or in specific contexts such as economic or political alliances, both countries might occasionally be included in discussions about West Africa. For example, both Chad and Cameroon are members of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and the Lake Chad Basin Commission, which includes countries from both Central and West Africa. Such affiliations can sometimes lead to their inclusion in broader definitions of West Africa, especially in discussions focused on regional cooperation or security.
How many languages are spoken in West Africa?
West Africa is a linguistically diverse region with a multitude of languages spoken across its various countries. The languages can be broadly classified into a few major language families:
Niger-Congo Languages: This is the largest language family in West Africa, encompassing a wide range of languages including:
- Mande Languages: Spoken in western countries like Mali and Guinea (e.g., Bambara, Mandinka).
- Atlantic Languages: Found in countries along the Atlantic coast (e.g., Wolof in Senegal, Fula, which is widely spoken across several West African countries).
- Kwa Languages: Predominant in countries like Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire (e.g., Akan languages like Twi and Fante, and Gbe languages like Ewe and Fon).
- Gur Languages: Spoken in the northern areas of countries like Ghana and Burkina Faso (e.g., Mossi).
Afro-Asiatic Languages: Predominantly in the northern parts of West Africa, especially in countries like Mauritania and northern Nigeria.
- Chadic Languages: Including Hausa, one of the most spoken languages in West Africa, predominantly in Nigeria and Niger.
- Berber Languages: Mainly in the Saharan regions.
Nilo-Saharan Languages: Less widespread but found in parts of West Africa, especially in Chad.
- Songhay Languages: Spoken along the Niger River in Mali and Niger.
Creole Languages: Arising from the colonial era, blending European languages with African languages. Examples include Krio in Sierra Leone and Pidgin English in Nigeria.
European Languages: Due to the colonial history of West Africa, European languages are widely used, especially in formal, educational, and governmental contexts.
- French: An official language in many West African countries like Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.
- English: Official in countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.
- Portuguese: In Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau.
- Spanish: Equatorial Guinea.
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What religions are practised in West Africa?
West Africa is a region with a huge number of religious beliefs and practices, reflecting its diverse cultural and historical heritage. The major religions in West Africa are:
- Islam: Predominant in many West African countries, Islam was introduced to the region through the trans-Saharan trade routes between the 7th and 9th centuries. It is the majority religion in countries like Senegal, Mali, Niger, and Northern Nigeria. Islamic practices in West Africa often blend with local customs and traditions, leading to unique expressions of the faith.
- Christianity: Introduced primarily through European colonialism, Christianity has a significant following in West Africa. It is widely practised in countries like Nigeria (especially in the south), Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ivory Coast. West African Christianity is diverse, encompassing Roman Catholicism, various Protestant denominations, and a range of independent African churches.
- Traditional African Religions: Indigenous beliefs and practices are deeply rooted in West African culture and continue to play a significant role in many societies. These traditional religions are often characterized by ancestor worship, spiritism, and various rituals and ceremonies connected to the natural and spiritual worlds. Countries like Benin and Togo are known for their rich traditions in Vodun (often spelt Voodoo), while other traditional beliefs are prevalent across the region.
So, how many countries are in West Africa?
The delineation of West Africa as a region encompasses a diverse array of nations, each with its own unique cultural, historical, and geographical identity. While the most widely accepted definition includes 16 countries, this number can slightly vary based on different perspectives and criteria used in defining the region’s boundaries.
Whether it’s for geopolitical analysis, economic cooperation, or cultural studies, the nations of West Africa collectively represent a region of significant importance on the African continent. Their shared and individual histories, challenges, and triumphs not only define the character of West Africa but also contribute profoundly to the broader narrative of Africa.
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FAQ: How many countries are in West Africa?
Here’s an FAQ on the topic: ‘How many countries are in West Africa?’:
Q1. How many countries are typically considered to be part of West Africa?
West Africa is generally composed of 16 countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo.
Q2. Does the number of countries in West Africa ever vary?
Yes, the count can vary slightly depending on different definitions based on geographical, cultural, or political criteria. For example, some broader definitions might include Chad and Cameroon due to their economic and political connections to the region.
Q3. Why is Mauritania sometimes not included in the list of West African countries?
Mauritania is often included, but it can be excluded in some contexts due to its stronger cultural and historical ties with the Maghreb region of North Africa.
Q4. Are Chad and Cameroon part of West Africa?
Geographically and culturally, Chad and Cameroon are often classified as part of Central Africa. However, they are sometimes included in broader definitions of West Africa due to regional economic and political ties.
Q5. What criteria are used to determine whether a country is part of West Africa?
The criteria include geographical location, cultural and historical affiliations, and political and economic ties, such as membership in regional organizations like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Q6. Which organisation’s definition of West Africa is most commonly used?
The United Nations’ definition, which includes 16 countries, is widely used, especially for statistical and administrative purposes.
Q7. Can the number of countries in West Africa change over time?
While the core countries remain consistent, the broader definition can change due to evolving political, economic, and cultural ties among African nations.
Q8. How does ECOWAS influence the definition of West Africa?
ECOWAS, as a significant regional economic and political union, includes most of the countries traditionally considered part of West Africa, shaping perceptions and definitions of the region.
Q9. Is there a cultural or historical basis for the grouping of West African countries?
Yes, the countries in West Africa share cultural and historical experiences, including colonial histories, linguistic similarities, and shared economic and environmental challenges.
Q10. Are language and religion considered in defining West Africa?
While not primary criteria, shared languages (like Niger-Congo languages) and religious practices (predominantly Islam and Christianity) do contribute to the cultural coherence of the region.