West Africa

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - View original article

Jump to: navigation, search
  Western Africa (UN subregion)
  Maghreb, a separate region.

West Africa, also called Western Africa and the West of Africa, is the westernmost region of the African continent. In line with the current membership of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), West Africa has been defined in Africa as including the fifteen countries of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.[1]

In the United Nations scheme of African regions, the region includes 16 countries and one overseas territory:[2]


The Economic Community of West African States, established in May 1975, has defined the region of West Africa since 1999 as including the following 15 countries:.[1]

  • Benin
  • Burkina Faso
  • Cape Verde
  • Ivory Coast
  • Gambia
  • Ghana
  • Guinea
  • Guinea-Bissau
  • Liberia
  • Mali
  • Niger
  • Nigeria
  • Senegal
  • Sierra Leone
  • Togo

Geopolitically, the United Nations definition of Western Africa includes the preceding countries with the addition of Mauritania (which withdrew from ECOWAS in 1999), comprising an area of approximately 6.1 million square km.[9] The UN region also includes the island of Saint Helena, a British overseas territory in the south Atlantic Ocean.


West Africa is west of an imagined north-south axis lying close to 10° east longitude.[10] The Atlantic Ocean forms the western as well as the southern borders of the West African region.[10] The northern border is the Sahara Desert, with the Ranishanu Bend generally considered the northernmost part of the region.[11] The eastern border is less precise, with some placing it at the Benue Trough, and others on a line running from Mount Cameroon to Lake Chad.

Colonial boundaries are reflected in the modern boundaries between contemporary West African nations, cutting across ethnic and cultural lines, often dividing single ethnic groups between two or more countries.[12]

In contrast to most of Central, Southern and Southeast Africa, West Africa is not populated by Bantu-speaking peoples.[13]

Geography and climate[edit]

Dust Plumes off Western Africa.

West Africa, broadly defined to include the western portion of the Maghreb (Western Sahara, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia), occupies an area in excess of 6,140,000 km2, or approximately one-fifth of Africa. The vast majority of this land is plains lying less than 300 meters above sea level, though isolated high points exist in numerous countries along the southern shore of the region.[10]

The northern section of West Africa (narrowly defined to exclude the western Maghreb) is composed of semi-arid terrain known as Sahel, a transitional zone between the Sahara and the savannahs of the western Sudan. Forests form a belt between the savannas and the southern coast, ranging from 160 km to 240 km in width.[14] The northwest African region of Mauritania periodically suffers country-wide plagues of locusts which consume water, salt and crops on which the human population relies.[15]


Despite the wide variety of cultures in West Africa, from Nigeria through to Senegal, there are general similarities in dress, cuisine, music and culture that are not shared extensively with groups outside the geographic region. This long history of cultural exchange predates the colonization era of the region and can be approximately placed at the time of the Ghana Empire (proper: Wagadou Empire), Mali Empire or perhaps before such empires.


A large number of travellers such as traders, historians, emigrants, colonialists, missionaries, etc., have travelled the world to the West African Region and have benefited from the generosity of the native populations and left with a piece of the cultural heritage of the region. Implicitly, West African cuisines have had a significant influence on the Western World for centuries. For example a large number of West African recipes are enjoyed in the West Indies, Australia, Louisiana, Italy, Haiti, and all over the world. Although some of these recipes have been altered to suit the other climates and tastes, nevertheless they still retain their West African fervours.[16]

West Africans cuisine includes fish especially among the coastal areas, meat, vegetables and fruits most which are grown by farmers within the region. In spite of the obvious differences among the local cuisines in the region, there are more similarities than differences. The small difference may be in the ingredients used. Most foods are boiled or fried. Starchy vegetables including yam, plantain, cassava, sweet potatoes.[17] Rice is also a staple food throughout the region, and so is the Serer people's sorghum couscous (called "Chereh" in Serer) particularly in Senegal and the Gambia.[18] Jollof rice originally from the Kingdom of Jolof (now part of modern day Senegal which spread to the Wolofs of Gambia), is enjoyed throughout West Africa and in the Western World;[19] Mafé (proper : "Tigh-dege-na" or Domodah) from Mali (via the Bambara and Mandinka)[20] - a peanut-butter stew served with rice;[21][22] Akara (fried bean balls seasoned with spices served with sauce and bread) from Nigeria is a favourite breakfast for Gambians and Senegalese, as well as a favourite side snack or side dish in Brazil and the Caribbean just as it is in West Africa. It is said that its exact origin may be from Yorubaland in Nigeria.[23][24] Fufu (from the Twi language, a dough served with a spicy stew or sauce for example okra stew etc.) from Ghana is enjoyed throughout the region and beyond even in Central Africa with their own versions of it.[25]


The board game oware is quite popular in many parts of West Africa. The word "Oware" originates from the Akan people of Ghana. However, virtually all African peoples have a version of this board game.[26] Football is also a pastime enjoyed by many, either spectating or playing. The national teams of some West African nations, especially Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast regularly qualify for the World Cup.[27]


The talking drum is an instrument unique to the West African region.

Mbalax, Highlife, Fuji and Afrobeat are all modern musical genres which listeners enjoy in this region. Old traditional folk music is also well preserved in this region. Some of these are religious in nature such as the "Tassou" tradition used in Serer religion.[28]

Griot and Praise-singing[edit]

Kora-playing Griots in Senegal, 1900. Both the Kora, a 21-stringed harp-lute, and the griot musical-caste are unique to West Africa

Two important parallel traditions that musically make West African musical attitudes unique are the Griot tradition, and the Praise-singing tradition. In many cases, these two genres are highly similar, the difference being whether the traditions are considered the property of hereditary castes (Griot) or to talented individuals among a ruler's subjects (Praise-singing). In both cases the minstrel tradition and specialization in certain string and percussion instruments is observed.

Traditionally, musical and oral history as conveyed over generations by Griots are typical of West African culture in Mande, Wolof, Songhay, Moor and (to some extent, though not universal) Fula areas in the far west. An hereditary caste occupying the fringes of society, the griots were charged with memorizing the histories of local rulers and personages and the caste was further broken down into music-playing Griots (similar to bards) and non-music playing Griots. Modern Griots enjoy higher status in the patronage of rich individuals in places such as Mali, Senegal, Mauritania and Guinea, and to some extent make up the vast majority of musicians in these countries. Examples of modern popular Griot artists include Salif Keita, Youssou N'Dour, Rokia Traore and Toumani Diabate.

In other areas of West Africa, such as among the Hausa, Yoruba, Jola, Mossi peoples in Burkina Faso, northern Ghana, Nigeria and Niger, the traditional profession of non-hereditary Praise-singers, minstrels, and poets play a vital role in extending the public show of power, lineage and prestige of traditional rulers through their patronage. Competition between ensembles and artistes are high, and artists responsible for highly skilled prose, compositions and songs are usually lavishly rewarded with money, clothing and other luxury items by patrons (usually politicians, rulers, Islamic clerics and merchants), and these praise-singers rise to national stardom. Examples of such praise-singers and groups include Mamman Shata, Souley Konko and Dan Maraya. In the case of Niger, numerous praise songs are composed and shown on television in praise of local rulers, Islamic clerics and politicians to the modern day.


In contrast to other parts of Africa south of the Sahara, the concepts of hemming and embroidering clothing was traditionally known in West Africa, and historically included the production of various breeches, shirts, tunics and jackets, concepts unknown in clothing traditions from other parts of the continent. This had ensured a wide variety of worn clothing with underlying similarities. A typical formal attire worn in this region are the knee to ankle-length flowing Boubou robe, Dashiki and Senegalese Kaftan (also known as Agbada and Babariga), which has its origins in the clothing of nobility of various West African empires in the 12th century. Traditional half-sleeved hip height woven smocks or tunics (known as fugu in gurunsi, riga in hausa), worn over a pair of baggy trousers is also widely worn by people.[29] In the coastal regions stretching from southern Ivory Coast to Benin, a huge rectangular cloth is wrapped under one arm, draped over a shoulder, and held in a hand, and coincidentally has the appearance and symbolism similar to the togas of the Romans. The most well known of these toga like cloth garments is the Kente made by the Akan people of Ghana and Ivory Coast who wear it to show their identity as a member of their nation.

Film industry[edit]

Nollywood of Nigeria, is the main film industry of West Africa. The Nigerian cinema industry is the second largest film industry in terms of number of annual film productions, even ahead of the American film industry in Hollywood.[30] Senegal and Ghana also has long traditions of producing films. The late Ousmane Sembène, the Senegalese film director, producer and writer is from the region, as is the Ghanaian Shirley Frimpong-Manso.



The 13th century Great Mosque of Djenné is built in the Sahelian architectural style prevalent in the interior regions of West Africa.

Islam is the predominant religion of the West African interior and the far west coast of the continent; and was introduced to the region by traders in the 9th century. Islamic rules on livelihood, values, dress and practices had a profound effect on the populations and cultures in their predominant areas, so much so that the concept of tribalism is less observed by Islamized groups like the Mande, Wolof, Hausa, Fula and Songhai, than they are by non-Islamized groups.[31] Ethnic intermarriage and shared cultural icons are established through a superseded commonality of belief or community, known as ummah.[32] Traditional Muslim areas include Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, Guinea, Niger; the inland areas of Sierra Leone and Liberia; the western, northern and far-eastern regions of Burkina Faso; and the northern halves of the coastal nations of Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Ivory Coast.[33]


Wesley Methodist Cathedral in the city of Kumasi, Ghana

Christianity, a relative newcomer, has become the predominant religion in the central and southern part of Nigeria, and the coastal regions stretching from southern Ghana to coastal parts of Sierra Leone. Like Islam, elements of Traditional African religion are mixed with Christianity.[34] This religion was brought to the region by European missionaries during the colonial era.[35]

African traditional[edit]

Voodoo altar with several fetishes in Abomey, Benin

African Traditional Religions (noting the many different belief systems) are the oldest belief systems among the populations of this region, and includes Yoruba religion, Odinani, Serer religion, etc. It is spiritual but also linked to the historical and cultural heritage of the people.[36] Although traditional beliefs varies from one place to the next, there are more similarities than differences.[37]


Emir of Kano and officials, 1911

The history of West Africa can be divided into five major periods: first, its prehistory, in which the first human settlers arrived, developed agriculture, and made contact with peoples to the north; the second, the Iron Age empires that consolidated both intra-African, and extra-African trade, and developed centralized states; third, Major polities flourished, which would undergo an extensive history of contact with non-Africans; fourth, the colonial period, in which Great Britain and France controlled nearly the whole of the region; fifth, the post-independence era, in which the current nations were formed.


Early human settlers from northern holocene societies arrived in West Africa around 12,000 B.C.[dubious ] Sedentary farming began in, or around the fifth millennium B.C, as well as the domestication of cattle. By 1500 B.C, ironworking technology allowed an expansion of agricultural productivity, and the first city-states later formed. northern tribes developed walled settlements and non-walled settlements that numbered at 400. In the forest region, Iron Age cultures began to flourish, and an inter-region trade began to appear.The desertification of the Sahara and the climatic change of the coast cause trade with upper mediterranean peoples to be seen.

The domestication of the camel allowed the development of a trans-Saharan trade with cultures across the Sahara, including Carthage and the Berbers; major exports included gold, cotton cloth, metal ornaments and leather goods, which were then exchanged for salt, horses, textiles, and other such materials. Local leather, cloth, and gold also contributed to the abundancy of prosperity for many of the following empires.


Mansa Musa depicted holding a gold nugget from a 1395 map of Africa and Europe.

The development of the region's economy allowed more centralized states and civilizations to form, beginning with the Nok culture which began 1000 B.C. and the Ghana Empire which first flourished between the 1st and 3rd centuries which later gave way to the Mali Empire. In current day Mauritania, there exists archaeological sites in the towns of Tichit and Oualata that were initially constructed around 2000 B.C., and was found to have originated from the Soninke branch of the Mandé peoples. Also, based on the archaeology of city of Kumbi Saleh in modern-day Mauritania, the Mali empire came to dominate much of the region until its defeat by Almoravid invaders in 1052.

The Sosso Empire sought to fill the void, but was defeated (c. 1240) by the Mandinka forces of Sundiata Keita, founder of the new Mali Empire. The Mali Empire continued to flourish for several centuries, most particularly under Sundiata's grandnephew Musa I, before a succession of weak rulers led to its collapse under Mossi, Tuareg and Songhai invaders. In the 15th century, the Songhai would form a new dominant state based on Gao, in the Songhai Empire, under the leadership of Sonni Ali and Askia Mohammed.

Meanwhile, south of the Sudan, strong city states arose in Igboland, such as the 10th century Kingdom of Nri,which helped birth the arts and customs of the Igbo people, Bono in the 12th century which eventually culminated in the formation the all-powerful Akan Empire of Ashanti, while Ife and Benin City rose to prominence around the 14th century. Further east, Oyo arose as the dominant Yoruba state and the Aro Confederacy as a dominant Igbo state in modern-day Nigeria.

Slavery and European contact[edit]

Portuguese traders began establishing settlements along the coast in 1445, followed by the French and English; the African slave trade began not long after, which over the following centuries would debilitate the region's economy and population. The slave trade also encouraged the formation of states such as the Asante Empire, Bambara Empire and Dahomey, whose economic activities include but not limited to exchanging slaves for European firearms.


French colonies in West Africa circa 1913.

In the early 19th century, a series of Fulani reformist jihads swept across Western Africa. The most notable include Usman dan Fodio's Fulani Empire, which replaced the Hausa city-states, Seku Amadu's Massina Empire, which defeated the Bambara, and El Hadj Umar Tall's Toucouleur Empire, which briefly conquered much of modern-day Mali.

However, the French and British continued to advance in the Scramble for Africa, subjugating kingdom after kingdom. With the fall of Samory Ture's new-founded Wassoulou Empire in 1898 and the Ashanti queen Yaa Asantewaa in 1902, most West African military resistance to colonial rule resulted in failure.

Britain controlled the Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Nigeria throughout the colonial era, while France unified Senegal, Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, Ivory Coast and Niger into French West Africa. Portugal founded the colony of Guinea-Bissau, while Germany claimed Togoland, but was forced to divide it between France and Britain following First World War due to the Treaty of Versailles. Only Liberia retained its independence, at the price of major territorial concessions.

Postcolonial era[edit]

Following World War II, nationalist movements arose across West Africa. In 1957, Ghana, under Kwame Nkrumah, became the first sub-Saharan colony to achieve its independence, followed the next year by France's colonies (Guinea in 1958 under the leadership of President Ahmed Sekou Touré); by 1974, West Africa's nations were entirely autonomous.

Since independence, many West African nations have been submerged under political instability, with notable civil wars in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Ivory Coast, and a succession of military coups in Ghana and Burkina Faso.

Since the end of colonialism, the region has been the stage for some of the most brutal conflicts ever to erupt. Among the latter are:

Regional organizations[edit]

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), founded by the 1975 Treaty of Lagos, is an organization of West African states which aims to promote the region's economy. The West African Monetary Union (or UEMOA from its name in French, Union économique et monétaire ouest-africaine) is limited to the eight, mostly Francophone countries that employ the CFA franc as their common currency. The Liptako-Gourma Authority of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso seeks to jointly develop the contiguous areas of the three countries.

Women's peace movement[edit]

Since the adoption of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 in 2000, women have been engaged in rebuilding war-torn Africa. Starting with the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace and Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET), the peace movement has grown to include women across West Africa.

Established on May 8, 2006, Women Peace and Security Network - Africa (WIPSEN-Africa), is a women-focused, women-led Pan-African non-governmental organization based in Ghana.[38] The organization has a presence in Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Regional leaders of nonviolent resistance include Leymah Gbowee,[39] Comfort Freeman, and Aya Virginie Toure.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell is a documentary film about the origin of this peace movement. The film has been used as an advocacy tool in post-conflict zones like Sudan and Zimbabwe, mobilizing African women to petition for peace and security.[40]

Food crisis[edit]

Underdevelopment, low rainfall, forced migration, climate change, poverty, rising food prices and declining food stock are all key factors that are contributing toward Western Africa's food crisis. Fifteen million people across Western Africa are directly affected by the food crisis and it is predicted to worsen by the end of 2012. This is causing an increase in the illness rate in Western Africa as many people are becoming severely malnourished.[41] Periodic plagues of locusts threaten food crops and cause famine.

For this to become less severe, Western Africa needs rain. The next rainfall is due in July 2012, although even with this rainfall, the harvests won't be ready until October 2012.

Various organizations such as World Vision, Action Against Hunger, Oxfam, Save the Children, and Plan Canada are trying to help this issue by providing more livestock, drilling more wells, vaccinating livestock, as well as educating parents on child health. Upwards of $240 million is required and the relief operations through these organisations have garnered a scant $52 million, which is merely one third of the amount needed.[42][43]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Paul R. Masson, Catherine Anne Pattillo, "Monetary union in West Africa (ECOWAS): is it desirable and how could it be achieved?" (p: Introduction). International Monetary Fund, 2001. ISBN 1-58906-014-8
  2. ^ United Nations Statistics Division - Standard Country and Area Codes Classifications
  3. ^ Office for North Africa of the Economic Commission for Africa
  4. ^ 2014 UNHCR country operations profile - Mauritania
  5. ^ African Development Bank Group: Mauritania
  6. ^ Facts On File, Incorporated, Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Africa and the Middle East (2009), p. 448, books.google.com/books?isbn=143812676X-"The Islamic Republic of Mauritania, situated in western North Africa..."
  7. ^ David Seddon, A Political and Economic Dictionary of the Middle East (2004), books.google.com/books?isbn=020340291X: "We have, by contrast, chosen to include the predominantly Arabic-speaking countries of western North Africa (the Maghreb), including Mauritania (which is a member of the Arab Maghreb Union)..."
  8. ^ Mohamed Branine, Managing Across Cultures: Concepts, Policies and Practices (2011), - p. 437, books.google.com/books?isbn=1849207291: "The Magrebian countries or the Arab countries of western North Africa (Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia)..."
  9. ^ The UN office for West Africa
  10. ^ a b c Peter Speth. Impacts of Global Change on the Hydrological Cycle in West and Northwest Africa, p33. Springer, 2010. ISBN 3-642-12956-0
  11. ^ Anthony Ham. West Africa p79. Lonely Planet, 2009. ISBN 1-74104-821-4
  12. ^ Celestine Oyom Bassey, Oshita Oshita. Governance and Border Security in Africa. p261. African Books Collective, 2010 ISBN 978-8422-07-1
  13. ^ Ian Shaw, Robert Jameson. A Dictionary of Archaeology. p28. Wiley-Blackwell, 2002. ISBN 0-631-23583-3
  14. ^ Peter Speth. Impacts of Global Change on the Hydrological Cycle in West and Northwest Africa, p33. Springer, 2010.prof Kayode Omitoogun 2011, ISBN 3-642-12956-0
  15. ^ "National Geographic," Feb 2013, p.8.
  16. ^ Chidi Asika-Enahoro. A Slice of Africa: Exotic West African Cuisines, introduction. iUniverse, 2004. ISBN 0-595-30528-8
  17. ^ Pamela Goyan Kittler, Kathryn Sucher. Food and Culture, p212. Cengage Learning, 2007. ISBN 0-495-11541-X
  18. ^ UNESCO. The Case for indigenous West African food culture, p4. BREDA series, Vol 9 (1995) http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0010/001055/105546E.pdf (UNESCO)]
  19. ^ Alan Davidson, Tom Jaine. The Oxford Companion to Food, p423. Oxford University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-19-280681-5
  20. ^ Mafé or Maafe is a Wolof word for it, the proper name is "Domodah" among the Mandinka people of Senegal and Gambia who are the originators of this dish or "Tigh-dege-na" among the Bambara people or Mandinka people of Mali, "Domodah" is also used by all Senegambians borrowed from the Mandinka language)
  21. ^ James McCann. Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine, p132. Ohio University Press, 2009. ISBN 0-89680-272-8
  22. ^ Emma Gregg, Richard Trillo. Rough Guide to the Gambia, p39. Rough Guides, 2003. ISBN 1-84353-083-X
  23. ^ Carole Boyce Davies. Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora: Origins, Experiences and Culture, Volume 1, p72. ABC-CLIO, 2008. ISBN 1-85109-700-7
  24. ^ Toyin Ayeni. I Am a Nigerian, Not a Terrorist, p2. Dog Ear Publishing, 2010. ISBN 1-60844-735-9
  25. ^ Dayle Hayes, Rachel Laudan. Food and Nutrition / Editorial Advisers, Dayle Hayes, Rachel Laudan, Volume 7, p1097. Marshall Cavendish, 2008. ISBN 0-7614-7827-2
  26. ^ West Africa, issues 4106-4119, p-p 1487-8. Afrimedia International, (1996)
  27. ^ BBC: Why does the West dominate African football?
  28. ^ Ali Colleen Neff. Tassou: the Ancient Spoken Word of African Women. 2010.
  29. ^ Barbara K. Nordquist, Susan B. Aradeon, Howard University. School of Human Ecology, Museum of African Art (U.S.). Traditional African dress and textiles: an exhibition of the Susan B. Aradeon collection of West African dress at the Museum of African Art (1975), pp 9-15.
  30. ^ "Nigeria surpasses Hollywood as world's second largest film producer – UN". United Nations. 2009-05-05. Retrieved 2009-09-30. 
  31. ^ The Islamic World to 1600: The Fractured Caliphate and the Regional Dynasties (West Africa)
  32. ^ Muslim Societies in African History (New Approaches to African History), David Robinson, Chapter 1.
  33. ^ Spread of Islam in West Africa (part 1 of 3): The Empire of Ghana , Prof. A. Rahman I. Doi, Spread of Islam in West Africa. http://www.islamreligion.com/articles/304/
  34. ^ Emmanuel Kwaku Akyeampong. Themes in West Africa's History, p152. James Currey Publishers, 2006. ISBN 0-85255-995-X
  35. ^ Robert O. Collins. African History: Western African History, p153. Markus Wiener Publishers, 1990. ISBN 1-55876-015-6
  36. ^ John S. Mbiti. Introduction to African Religion, p19. East African Publishers, 1992. ISBN 9966-46-928-1
  37. ^ William J. Duiker, Jackson J. Spielvogel. World History: To 1800, p224. Cengage Learning, 2006. ISBN 0-495-05053-9
  38. ^ WIPSEN
  39. ^ "WIPSEN EMPOWERS WOMEN…To fight for their rights" (article). Ghana Media Group. December 11, 2010. 
  40. ^ November 2009 MEDIAGLOBAL
  41. ^ "Ozfam International 2012, Food crisis in sahel". Retrieved 18 May 2012. 
  42. ^ "World Vision 2012, About the West Africa drought and hunger crisis". Retrieved 18 May 2012. 
  43. ^ "Usaid 2011, West africa". Retrieved 18 May 2012. 

External links[edit]

Search Wikimedia Commons
 Wikimedia Commons has media related to: