West Africa


  1. Regional Characteristics
  2. Countries
  3. References
  4. Questions

Regional Characteristics

Located in sub-Saharan Africa, West Africa is defined by a series of elongated countries that border the Atlantic Ocean, with an exception of Burkina Faso. The countries are small in area compared to the other parts of Africa. Western Africa makes up the largest population cluster in sub-Saharan Africa. Most of the population lives in the southern coastal area, along the Atlantic, a result of European trading that led to economic development beginning in the 1200s.

The area consists of plateaus with coastal plains. The coastal areas have a tropical climate while the northern areas transition to savannas. The countries to the north that extend across the southern Sahara tend to be very large, mostly steppe, and contain a lot of deserts. While the remaining West African countries tend to be smaller, elongated and have wetter environments.

West African agriculture is based on cash crops for exports in the coastal trade areas. There are many different sorts of exports that come out of Western Africa. The most common crops are peanuts, sorghum, cotton, rice, cassava, coffee, and livestock.  One of the most important crops for countries like Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana is cacao, which is grown in the fertile soil of the wet areas.  The countries of West Africa have incomes to a large extent derived from the sale of their products on the international market.

The Europeans developed the coastal areas for trade. The people living along the coasts became the middlemen in trade, especially in the slave trade. They experienced changes of the colonial period in education, religion, urbanization, agriculture, politics, and health. The people living in the interior experienced less change, which resulted in divisions among people. All of the countries, except Liberia, experienced colonial control.  The Portuguese settled in Guinea-Bissau. Togo was a German settlement.  The British colonies were Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Gambia. The French colonized the remainder of West Africa, except Liberia, which remained independent. No coastal or interior railroad transportation system was developed, so the countries are not interdependent economically.  Railroads were developed but they ran perpendicular to the coastal areas to transport goods and minerals to be exported.

The population distribution is coastal corresponding to the major economic regions. The southern half of the region is home to the majority of the people. Total population of the area is 210 million. Nigeria is the largest country with 123.3 million. The next most populous country is Ghana with 19.5 million people.  Smaller countries include Senegal, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Togo and Benin.

West African culture is expressed in architecture, arts, music and dance.  There are more than one thousand languages.  In Nigeria over 250 languages are used so all school instruction takes place in English.  Muslim and Christianity are the primary religions, although there are many different religions practiced.  Many people use the barter system to buy and sell goods at the markets in rural areas.


At 123.3 million, Nigeria is the largest country in Western Africa having 59 percent of the entire population of sub-Saharan Africa. The country has two distinct climates. A tropical climate dominates along the coast that brings heavy rainfall and high humidity. In the north there are dry, dusty winds that come from the Sahara. English is the official language of Nigeria, but the most commonly used language is Hausa, a lingua franca in West Africa. Nigeria gained independence in 1960 and established a federal political system that divided the country into three areas based on culture. The Yoruba, located in the southwest, are people with a long history of urbanization and agriculture. Their capital, Lagos, was the first capital and now has a population of 12 million people. The Ibo people, with a population of 20 million, live in the southwest around Port Harcourt. They are less urbanized, more densely populated, and were less affected by the changes colonialism brought. The third area is the north where the Muslim population is separated from the rest of the country by location and traditional conservatism. At least 45 percent of Nigeria's population practices the Muslim religion. The federal system failed and led to a civil war from 1967 to 1971 between ethnic groups. Today, Nigeria has a large Muslim population in the north and Christians in the south. In recent years, the relationship between these two groups has worsened. Nigerian society is being torn in two directions and the breakdown of this country would be tremendous tragedy. The country's economy is dependent on the oil reserves located in the Niger delta around Port Harcourt. Oil accounts for 90% of Nigeria's exports. Nigeria is a member of OPEC but does not have control of oil prices, which have a large impact on its economy. Those who control the oil subjugate the people.

The Republic of Benin borders Nigeria on the east. It gained independence in 1960 under the name of Dahomey, and was renamed in 1975 as Benin. The population is only about 6.4 million. The official language is French, but most speak an African language. Most of Benin's population is engaged in agriculture of some kind, whether it is for cash crops or to feed their families. The average salary is only $380.00 per year.

On the western side of Benin lies a small country, Togo. Togo is also a republic. It was a German colony until W.W.I when Germany lost all of its African territories.  They have a tropical climate, which secures the crops of cassava, coffee, yams, and sorghum. About 78 percent of the labor force works in agriculture. Togo is a leading producer of phosphates.

Ghana, west of Togo, was once called the Gold Coast. As a British colony it was the first black nation in sub-Saharan Africa to gain independence in 1957. The population of Ghana is 19.5 million. The most important export is cacao, which is grown by many small-scale farmers. Following cacao, the most common exports are coconut oil, tobacco, citrus fruits, and a variety of other commodities. Gold and diamonds are also exported from Ghana. Compared to other African countries, Ghana is well developed in manufacturing. The establishments are usually small businesses like sawmills, printing companies, and furniture building. There are a few large scaled operations that produce mostly beer, cigarettes, and nails. The GNP per capita is $390.00 a year.

Burkina Faso, formally known as Upper Volta, is the only country that does not have an Atlantic border. Burkina Faso is known to have rich deposits of manganese, gold, copper, and iron ore. There is little water supply in this country so irrigation is not possible. Only about 10 percent of the land is cultivated, and 37 percent is pasture. There is a large rural population in Burkina Faso. The population is 11.9 million. The country has many types of wild animals; elephants, hippopotamuses, and crocodiles are the most commonly seen.

The Ivory Coast, or Cote d’Ivoire, borders Ghana to the east. It gained independence from France in 1960. The economy developed lower-middleclass income based on the cash crops of coffee and cocoa. The land has rich soil that favors agriculture and the dense forests that are found there. The population of Ivory Coast is 16 million. At least three million of those are immigrant workers and their families. The former president of Ivory Coast built an extravagant capital, which includes a replica of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. This creation caused public resentment and great economic strain on the country.

Liberia, located west of the Ivory Coast, was never colonized. Freed slaves returning from America founded the area in the early 1800's. Due to a civil war in the 1990's over political control, Liberia's rubber plantations and iron mines ceased to function. As a result of the ensuing political and economic turmoil, 10 percent of the entire population died. A majority of the population is indigenous Africans who make up more than 15 ethnic groups. The largest are the Kpelle and Bassa. The descendants of the emancipated slaves who migrated from the United States makes up no more than 5 percent of the population. The overall population of Liberia is only 3.2 million people.

Sierra Leone is an independent nation that borders Liberia on its eastern side. Its population is 5.2 million people with a natural increase of only 2.6 percent. A bulk of the population is engaged in subsistence farming. Minerals are the country's principle export. The staple food crop of Sierra Leone is rice. Imports of rice are still needed because they cannot grow a sufficient amount for themselves. Sierra Leone is the world's leader of rutile, a titanium ore, which produces half of all earnings.

Guinea, from the former French Empire, is one of the least developed countries in West Africa. It lies just west of Sierra Leone. The population of Guinea is 7.5 million.  The ethnic make up of Guinea is very diverse. About 85 percent of the people are Muslim, the remainder follow traditional beliefs. The official language is French but the country has eight national languages. Mineral wealth makes Guinea potentially one of the strongest in Africa. More than 25 percent of the known world reserves of high-grade bauxite ore, used for the making of aluminum, are found here. Large amounts of iron ore also exist along with diamonds, gold, petroleum, cobalt and platinum. Guinea has great potential with all of its natural resources, but manufacturing facilities are lagging.

Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony, is a small country to the west of Guinea. Its population is only 1.2 million people. Most of these people are subsistence farmers. For their staple crop they grow mostly rice, cassava, and maize. For export, peanuts and cashew nuts are the most dominant. Cattle ranching are very common in the interior of Guinea-Bissau. Manufacturing is limited to the processing of raw materials and production of basic goods. The official language is Portuguese, but Creole, a mixture of Portuguese and African, is most common.

Senegal lies west of Guinea-Bissau. Senegal's development is due to the cash crops coffee and cocoa. Its economy is dependent on the export of peanuts and phosphates and on its fishing industry. The overall population is 9.5 million people with a natural increase of 2.8 percent. French is the official language. About 90 percent of the people are Sunni Muslim. Senegal has a growing industrial sector that is one of the largest in Western Africa. Nevertheless the economy is still driven by the one single crop of peanuts.

The last of the countries in Western Africa is Gambia. Senegal surrounds this country; with only it's western side on the Atlantic Ocean. Gambia has a population of only 1.3 million with an increase of only 2.4 percent. The people of Gambia are mostly Muslim. The official language is English, but each ethnic group has it's own language. About three fourths of the people live in rural villages. The main natural resource is the Gambia River. The country's soil is mostly poor and sandy, except in the swamps.   The land is ideal for peanuts, which the economy depends on.


    Bradshaw, M. (1997).  A World Regional Geography: The New Global Order.  Madison, WI: Brown and Benchmark.
    Rowntree, L., Lewis, M., Price, M., & Wyckoff, W. (2000).  Diversity Amid Globalization: World Regions, Environment, Development.  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    2000 World Population Data Sheet of the Population Reference Bureau.  (2000).  Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau.


1. Which of the following is the single most important export of Senegal:   a. bananas   b. peanuts   c. fish   d. maize   e. livestock

2. The population of Western Africa is:   a. 210 million   b. 174 million   c. 182.3 million   d. 85.2 million   e. 198 million

3. What country was founded by freed slaves in the early 1800's:   a. Nigeria   b. Liberia   c. Senegal   d. Gambia   e. Benin

4. Which of the following countries is not located in the West African sub region:  a. Sierra Leone  b. Benin  c. Ivory Coast  d. Liberia  e. Gabon

5. The African country with the largest population is:   a. Nigeria  b. South Africa  c. Kenya  d. Egypt  e. Ethiopia

6. The most stable and prosperous country in West Africa is:   a. Nigeria  b. Ghana   c. Senegal   d. Liberia  e. Ivory Coast

7. Which of the following countries was not a colony of France:   a. Ivory Coast  b. Chad  c. Nigeria  d. Senegal  e. Tunisia

8. The most heavily populated country of the African continent, which comprises a confederation of the Yoruba, Ibo, and northern Moslem peoples is:   a. Zimbabwe  b. Kenya  c. South Africa  d. Nigeria  e. Egypt

9. Nigeria's dominant export commodity, produced in quantities in the zone surrounding the Niger Delta, is:   a. coal  b. oil  c. iron ore  d. coffee  e. bauxite

10. Which of the following is not an export of West Africa:  a. peanuts  b. sorghum  c. cocoa  d. horses  e. livestock

11. Port Harcourt, which contains valuable oil reserves, is located in:  a. Ghana  b. Liberia  c. Ivory Coast  d. Nigeria

12. Senegal completely surrounds this country excluding a small Atlantic coast:  a. Ghana  b. Gambia  c. Guinea  d. Guinea-Bissau

13. The staple food of Sierra Leone is:  a. maize  b. beef  c. rice  d. potatoes  e. beans

14. Most of the farming in West Africa:  a. uses irrigation;  b. is done by migrant workers traveling on the railway system;  c. is sustenance;  d. is washed away by frequent floods.

15. Which of the following is not a major religion in West Africa:  a. Christianity  b. Islam  c. Hindu  d. Native religions

Submitted by Renee O'Doherty on 12-6-96 Resubmitted by Shanda Stick 4-28-97  Resubmitted by Sarah Meland 12-01-00