Encyclomedia West Africa

West Africa

Written by Ujamaa Team

West Africa is the westernmost region of Africa. The United Nations defines Western Africa as the 16 countries

West Africa is the westernmost region of Africa. The United Nations defines Western Africa as the 16 countries of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, the Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo, as well as the United Kingdom Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. The population of West Africa is estimated at about 381 million people as of 2018, and at 381,981,000 as of 2017, of which 189,672,000 are female and 192,309,000 male.

Area5,112,903 km2 (1,974,103 sq mi) (7th)
Population381,202,440 (2018 est.) (3rd)
381,981,000 (female: 189,672,000; male: 192,309,000 (2017 est.)
Density49.2/km2 (127.5/sq mi)
DemonymWest African
Time zonesUTC+0 to UTC+1
Major Regional OrganizationsEconomic Community of West African States (ECOWAS; established 1975)
Largest cities Lagos, Nigeria
Abidjan, Ivory Coast
Accra, Ghana
Abuja, Nigeria
Kano, Nigeria
Ibadan, Nigeria
Kumasi, Ghana
Port Harcourt, Nigeria
UN M.49 code011 – West Africa
202Sub-Saharan Africa
002 – Africa
001 – World

List of countries

Benin
Burkina Faso
Cabo Verde (Cape Verde)
Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast)
The Gambia
Ghana
Guinea
Guinea-Bissau
Liberia
Mali
Mauritania
Niger
Nigeria
Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha (United Kingdom Overseas Territory)
Senegal
Sierra Leone
Togo

Genetic background

Map of early diversification of modern humans, with haplogroup L2 entering West Africa.

Studies of human mitochondrial DNA suggest that all humans share common ancestors from Africa, originated in the southwestern regions near the coastal border of Namibia and Angola at the approximate coordinates 12.5° E, 17.5°S with a divergence in the migration path around 37.5°E, 22.5°N near the Red Sea.

A particular haplogroup of DNA, haplogroup L2, evolved between 87,000 and 107,000 years ago or approx. 90,000 YBP. Its age and widespread distribution and diversity across the continent make its exact origin point within Africa difficult to trace with any confidence, however, an origin for several L2 groups in West or Central Africa seems likely, with the highest diversity in West Africa. Most of its subclades are largely confined to West and western-Central Africa.

Africans bearing the E-V38 (E1b1a) likely traversed across the Sahara, from east to west, approximately 19,000 years ago. E-M2 (E1b1a1) likely originated in West Africa or Central Africa.

Due to the large numbers of West Africans enslaved in the Atlantic slave trade, most African Americans, Afro Latin Americans and Black Caribbeans are likely to have mixed ancestry from different regions of western Africa. 60% of African-Americans (in the study) were of the E1b1a haplogroup, within which 22.9% were particularly of the E-M2 haplogroup; they also possessed numerous SNPs (e.g., U175, U209, U181, U290, U174, U186, and U247).

History

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-Africa, and extra-Africa 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 entire region; and fifth, the post-independence era, in which the current nations were formed.

Prehistory

Archaeological evidence from central Mali indicates that West African peoples had independently invented pottery in the region by that period (by at least 9400 BCE). It is believed that local peoples at that time had begun to become more settled and to use pottery to store and cook indigenous grains (including pearl millet).

At Gobero, the Kiffian, who were hunters of tall stature, lived during the green Sahara between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago. The Tenerian, who were a more lightly built people that hunted, fished and herded cattle, lived during the latter part of the green Sahara approximately 7,000 to 4,500 years ago.

Sedentary farming began in, or around the fifth millennium B.C, as well as the domestication of cattle. Though there is some uncertainty, some archaeologists believe that iron metallurgy was developed independently in sub-Saharan Africa (possibly in West Africa). Archaeological sites containing iron smelting furnaces and slag have been excavated at sites in the Nsukka region of southeast Nigeria in what is now Igboland: dating to 2000 BC at the site of Lejja (Eze-Uzomaka 2009) and to 750 BC and at the site of Opi (Holl 2009). Smelting furnaces appear in the Nok culture of central Nigeria by about 550 BC and possibly a few centuries earlier. 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 caused 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, iron, and leather goods, which were then exchanged for salt, horses, textiles, and other such materials. Local leather, cloth, and gold also contributed to the abundance of prosperity for many of the following empires.

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 Dhar Tichitt that began in 1600 B.C. followed by Djenné-Djenno beginning in 300 B.C. This was then succeeded by the Ghana Empire that first flourished between the 9th and 12th centuries, which later gave way to the Mali Empire. In current-day Mauritania, there exist archaeological sites in the towns of Tichit and Oualata that were initially constructed around 2000 B.C., and were found to have originated from the Soninke branch of the Mandé peoples. Also, based on the archaeology of the 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.

Three great kingdoms were identified in Bilad al-Sudan by the ninth century. They included Ghana, Gao and Kanem.

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.

13th-century Africa – Map of the main trade routes and states, kingdoms and empires.

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 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.

The Kingdom of Nri was a West African medieval state in present-day southeastern Nigeria and a subgroup of the Igbo people. The Kingdom of Nri was unusual in the history of world government in that its leader exercised no military power over his subjects. The kingdom existed as a sphere of religious and political influence over a third of Igboland and was administered by a priest-king called as an Eze Nri. The Eze Nri managed trade and diplomacy on behalf of the Nri people and possessed divine authority in religious matters.

The Oyo Empire was a Yoruba empire of what is today Western and Northcentral Nigeria. Established in the 15th century, the Oyo Empire grew to become one of the largest West African states. It rose through the outstanding organizational skills of the Yoruba, wealth gained from trade and its powerful cavalry. The Oyo Empire was the most politically important state in the region from the mid-17th to the late 18th century, holding sway not only over most of the other kingdoms in Yorubaland but also over nearby African states, notably the Fon Kingdom of Dahomey in the modern Republic of Benin to the west.

The Benin Empire was a pre-colonial empire located in what is now southern Nigeria. Its capital was Edo, now known as Benin City, Edo. It should not be confused with the modern-day country called Benin, formerly called Dahomey. The Benin Empire was “one of the oldest and most highly developed states in the coastal hinterland of West Africa, dating perhaps to the eleventh century CE”. The Benin Empire was governed by a sovereign Emperor with hundreds of thousands of soldiers and a powerful council rich in resources, wealth, ancient science and technology with cities described as beautiful and large as Haarlem. “Olfert Dapper, a Dutch writer, describing Benin in his book Description of Africa (1668) “. Its craft was the most adored and treasured bronze casting in the history of Africa. It was annexed by the British Empire in 1897 during the invasion and scramble of Africa.

European contact and slavery

West Africa circa 1875

Portuguese traders began establishing settlements along the coast in 1445, followed by the French, British, Spanish, Danish and Dutch; 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.

Colonialism

French 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. Leaving, however, an effect on the development of the states.

Part of the West-African regions underwent an increase in the numeracy level throughout the 19th century. The reason for such growth was predetermined by a number of factors. Namely, the peanut production and trade, which was boosted by the demand of the colonial states. Importantly, the rise of the numeracy was higher in the regions which were less hierarchical and had less dependent on the slave trade (e.g. Sine and Salum). Whereas areas with the opposite trends illustrated opposite tendencies (e.g. central and northern Senegal). Those patterns were further even more stimulated with the French colonial campaign.

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 the First World War due to the Treaty of Versailles. Only Liberia retained its independence, at the price of major territorial concessions.

Postcolonial eras

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 brutal conflicts, including:

  • Nigerian Civil War
  • First Liberian Civil War
  • Second Liberian Civil War
  • Guinea-Bissau Civil War
  • Ivorian Civil War
  • Sierra Leone Rebel War

States

Geopolitical States of West Africa; * Benin * Burkina Faso * Cape Verde * Ivory Coast * The Gambia * Ghana * Guinea * Guinea-Bissau * Liberia * Mali * Niger * Nigeria * Senegal * Sierra Leone * Togo

Geopolitically, the United Nations definition of Western Africa includes the preceding states with the addition of Mauritania (which withdrew from ECOWAS in 1999), comprising an area of approximately 6.1 million square km. The UN region also includes the United Kingdom Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha in the south Atlantic Ocean.

Area

In the United Nations scheme of African regions, the region of Western Africa includes 16 states and the United Kingdom Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha: Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal and the Niger are mostly in the Sahel, a transition zone between the Sahara desert and the Sudanian Savanna; Benin, Ivory Coast, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Togo and Nigeria compose most of Guinea, the traditional name for the area near the Gulf of Guinea; Mauritania lies in the Maghreb, the northwestern region of Africa that has historically been inhabited by West African groups such as the Fulani, Soninke, Wolof, Serer and Toucouleur people, along with Arab-Berber Maghrebi people; Cape Verde is an island country in the Atlantic Ocean; and Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha consists of eight main islands located in four different parts of the Atlantic. Due to Mauritania’s increasingly close ties to the Arab World and its 1999 withdrawal from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), in modern times it is often considered, especially in Africa, as now part of western North Africa.

Cities

Major cities in West Africa include:

  • Abidjan, Ivory Coast
  • Accra, Ghana
  • Bamako, Mali
  • Banjul, The Gambia
  • Conakry, Guinea
  • Cotonou, Benin
  • Dakar, Senegal
  • Freetown, Sierra Leone
  • Lagos, Nigeria
  • Lomé, Togo
  • Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

Culture

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 these empires.

Traditional architecture

A street and airport in the famous town of Timbuktu, Mali, showing the Sudano-Sahelian architectural style of the West African interior

The main traditional styles of building (in conjunction with modern styles) are the distinct Sudano-Sahelian style in inland areas, and the coastal forest styles more reminiscent of other sub-Saharan areas. They differ greatly in construction due to the demands made by the variety of climates in the area, from tropical humid forests to arid grasslands and deserts. Despite the architectural differences, buildings perform similar functions, including the compound structure central to West African family life or strict distinction between the private and public worlds needed to maintain taboos or social etiquette.

Clothing

A man in the Boubou (or Agbada), a traditional robe symbolic of West Africa

In contrast to other parts of the continent south of the Sahara Desert, the concepts of hemming and embroidering clothing have been traditionally common to West Africa for centuries, demonstrated by the production of various breeches, shirts, tunics and jackets. As a result, the peoples of the region’s diverse nations wear a wide variety of clothing with underlying similarities. Typical pieces of west African formal attire include 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-long, woven smocks or tunics (known as fugu in Gurunsi, riga in Hausa) – worn over a pair of baggy trousers—is another popular garment. 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 one of the wearer’s hands—coincidentally, reminiscent of Romans’ togas. The best-known of these toga-like garments is the Kente (made by the Akan people of Ghana and Ivory Coast), who wear them as a gesture of national pride.

Cuisine

Jollof rice or Benachin, one of many Pan–West African dishes found only in West Africa

Scores of foreign visitors to West African nations (e.g., traders, historians, emigrants, colonists, missionaries) have benefited from its citizens’ generosity and even left with a piece of its cultural heritage, via its foods. West African cuisines have had a significant influence on those of Western civilization for centuries; several dishes of West African origin are currently enjoyed in the Caribbean (e.g., the West Indies and Haiti); Australia; the USA (particularly Louisiana, Virginia, North and South Carolina); Italy; and other countries. Although some of these recipes have been altered to suit the sensibilities of their adopters, they retain a distinct West African essence.

West Africans cuisines include fish (especially among the coastal areas), meat, vegetables, and fruits—most of which are grown by the nations’ local farmers. In spite of the obvious differences among the various local cuisines in this multinational region, the foods display more similarities than differences. The small difference may be in the ingredients used. Most foods are cooked via boiling or frying. Commonly featured, starchy vegetables include yams, plantains, cassava, and sweet potatoes. Rice is also a staple food, as is the Serer people’s sorghum couscous (called “Chereh” in Serer) particularly in Senegal and the Gambia. Jollof rice—originally from the Kingdom of Jolof (now part of modern-day Senegal) but has spread to the Wolofs of Gambia—is also enjoyed in many Western nations, as well; Mafé (proper: “Tigh-dege-na” or Domodah) from Mali (via the Bambara and Mandinka)—a peanut-butter stew served with rice; 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. 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. Dishes such as taguella, eghajira, etc. are popular among the Tuareg people.

Recreation and sports

Supporters of ASEC Mimosas

The board game oware is quite popular in many parts of Southern

Africa. The word “Oware” originates from the Akan people of Ghana. However, virtually all African peoples have a version of this board game.[75] The major multi-sport event of West Africa is the ECOWAS Games which commenced at the 2012 ECOWAS Games. Football is also a pastime enjoyed by many, either spectating or playing. The major national teams of West Africa, the Ghana national football team, the Ivory Coast national football team, and the Nigeria national football team regularly win the Africa Cup of Nations. Major football teams of West Africa are Asante Kotoko SC and Accra Hearts of Oak SC of the Ghana Premier League, Enyimba International of the Nigerian Premier League and ASEC Mimosas of the Ligue 1 (Ivory Coast). The football governing body of West Africa is the West African Football Union (WAFU) and the major tournament is the West African Club Championship and WAFU Nations Cup, along with the annual individual award of West African Footballer of the Year.

Music

The talking drum is an instrument unique to West Africa.

Mbalax, Highlife, Fuji, Afrobeat, and Afrobeats are modern musical genres of West Africa and its diaspora. Traditional folk music is also well-preserved. Some types of folk music are religious in nature such as the “Tassou” tradition used in Serer religion.

Griot artists

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

Griot artists and praise-singing is an important musical tradition related to the oral history of West African culture. Traditionally, musical and oral history as conveyed over generations by griots are typical of West African culture in Mande, Wolof, Songhay, Serer and, to some extent, Fula areas in the far west. A 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. Like Praise-singers, the griot’s main profession was musical acquisition and prowess, and patrons were the sole means of financial support. 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, Mamadou Diabate, Rokia Traore and Toumani Diabate.

In other areas of West Africa, primarily among the Hausa, Mossi, Dagomba and Yoruba in the area encompassing Burkina Faso, northern Ghana, Nigeria and Niger, the traditional profession of non-hereditary praise-singers, minstrels, bards and poets play a vital role in extending the public show of power, lineage and prestige of traditional rulers through their exclusive patronage. Like the griot tradition, praise singers are charged with knowing the details of specific historical events and royal lineages, but more importantly need to be capable of poetic improvisation and creativity, with knowledge of traditional songs directed towards showing a patron’s financial and political or religious power. Competition between Praise-singing ensembles and artistes are high, and artists responsible for any extraordinarily skilled prose, musical compositions, and panegyric songs are lavishly rewarded with money, clothing, provisions and other luxuries by patrons who are usually politicians, rulers, Islamic clerics and merchants; these successful praise-singers rise to national stardom. Examples include Mamman Shata, Souley Konko, Fati Niger, Saadou Bori 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.

Film industry

Nollywood of Nigeria is the main film industry of West Africa. The Nigerian cinema industry is the second largest film industry in terms of the number of annual film productions, ahead of the American film industry in Hollywood. Senegal and Ghana also have 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.

Religion

The 13th-century Great Mosque of Djenné is a superb example of the indigenous Sahelian architectural style prevalent in the Savannah and Sahelian interior of West Africa. It is listed a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Islam is the predominant religion of the West African interior and the far west coast of the continent (70% of West Africans) and was introduced to the region by traders in the 9th century. Islam is the religion of the region’s biggest ethnic groups by population. 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. Ethnic intermarriage and shared cultural icons are established through a superseded commonality of belief or community, known as ummah. Traditional Muslim areas include Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, Guinea, Niger; the upper coast and inland two-thirds of Sierra Leone and inland Liberia; the western, northern and far-eastern regions of Burkina Faso; and the northern halves of the coastal nations of Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Ivory Coast.

African traditional

Voodoo altar with several fetishes in Abomey, Benin

Traditional African religions (noting the many different belief systems) are the oldest belief systems among the populations of this region and include Akan religion, Yoruba religion, Odinani, and Serer religion. They are spiritual but also linked to the historical and cultural heritage of the people. Although traditional beliefs vary from one place to the next, there are more similarities than differences.

Christianity

Christianity was largely introduced from the late 19th century onward when missionaries from European countries brought the religion to the region. West African Christians are predominantly Roman Catholic or Anglican; some Evangelical churches have also been established. Christianity 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.

Demographics and languages

West Africans primarily speak Niger-Congo languages, belonging mostly, though not exclusively, to its non-Bantu branches, though some Nilo-Saharan and Afro-Asiatic speaking groups are also found in West Africa. The Niger–Congo-speaking Yoruba, Igbo, Fulani, Akan and Wolof ethnic groups are the largest and most influential. In the central Sahara, Mandinka or Mande groups are most significant. Chadic-speaking groups, including the Hausa, are found in more northerly parts of the region nearest to the Sahara, and Nilo-Saharan communities, such as the Songhai, Kanuri and Zarma, are found in the eastern parts of West Africa bordering Central Africa. The population of West Africa is estimated at 381 million people as of 2018. In Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, the nomadic Tuareg speak the Tuareg language, a Berber language.

Colonial languages also play a pivotal cultural and political role, being adopted as the official languages of most countries in the region, as well as linguae franca in communication between the region’s various ethnic groups. For historical reasons, Western European languages such as French, English and Portuguese predominate in Southern and Coastal subregions, whilst Arabic (in its Maghrebi varieties) spreads inland northwards.

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