West Africa consists of 16 countries and more than 250 million people. Bordered to the south and west by the Atlantic Ocean, this sub-Saharan region of Africa occupies one-fifth of the continent, or about five million square miles. West African countries include Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Cape Verde, the Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo. All of these countries except for Mauritania are members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The region includes Africa’s largest oil producer, Nigeria, and the world’s leading cocoa producer, Côte d’Ivoire or the Ivory Coast.
West Africa has historically included many ethnic and tribal groups. By 400 B.C. the region was home to flourishing agricultural and trade industries, exporting goods such as cloth, leather and gold. City-states became more centralized states, like the Ghana Empire, which helped develop the West African economy from the eighth century onwards.
In the 1400s, European traders and settlers first arrived in West Africa. They established the African slave trade, destroying the region’s population and economy. Today, descendants of West Africans and the slave trade are a significant population in Latin America, South America, North America and the Caribbean.
During the 19th century, a series of violent struggles in the region resulted in the French and British defeat of local kingdoms. By 1900, most of the West African empires had been supplanted by European colonial rule. Senegal, Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, Niger and the Ivory Coast were united into French West Africa, while Britain colonized Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Portugal controlled Guinea-Bissau, and Germany ruled Togo until World War I. The former United States colony of Liberia was the only West African territory to maintain its independence during the colonial era.
After World War II, nationalism increased in West Africa. Ghana became the first sub-Saharan colony to become independent in 1957. By 1974, West Africa was entirely autonomous, but faced a new set of challenges: economic instability, political corruption, famine and civil war.
Cross-Border Civil Wars
Recent civil wars in West Africa not only decimated their countries of origin, but also had roots and results in the larger region. Conflict has often crossed borders, spreading between different nations.
The first Liberian civil war, which began in 1990, involved troops from Nigeria and Burkina Faso supporting opposing rebels. The Liberian war was also tied to conflicts in the Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone. Foday Sankoh, who trained alongside Liberian rebel leader Charles Taylor in a Libyan camp, formed the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) with other Libyan-trained rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone. In 1991, he sparked a civil war against the Sierra Leonan ruling elite, which soon became a fight to control the country’s diamond fields. Sankoh’s RUF was known for its brutality and use of child soldiers.
By the mid-1990s, hundreds of thousands of Liberian refugees had fled to Guinea, which borders Sierra Leone, and the Ivory Coast. Guinean rebels, who were waging war against then-President Lansana Conte, formed alliances with the RUF in Sierra Leone. They were also believed to have received training in Liberia.
In 1997, a military coup deposed the Sierra Leone president. The RUF began a violent campaign against the president’s suspected allies, hacking off the hands of many of their victims. Refugees from Sierra Leone, including RUF supporters, fled to already overcrowded camps in Guinea and Liberia. Sierra Leonan and Liberian forces attacked the Guinean refugee camps, resulting in the deaths of countless civilians and alleged rebels.
By 2003, the Liberian and Sierra Leonan wars had ended, leaving their countries in shambles, and an armed rebellion had split the Ivory Coast in two.
In early 2008, post-conflict nations in West Africa retain an uneasy peace. Problems that caused the civil wars—tribal conflicts, poverty, government corruption—persist. After the Liberian civil wars, which raged for nearly ten years and left more than 200,000 dead, the country ushered in a new presidential administration with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. But Liberia still faces mounting challenges, and reconstruction has been slow.
The Sierra Leone civil war, which ended three years prior to Liberia’s, left 50,000 dead. Former soldiers are now in need of employment, while diamond exports, often illicit, have helped sustain the country’s economy. Initial optimism among post-conflict Sierra Leonans has since faded. Free primary school education has arrived, but jobs, health clinics and even basic infrastructure remain scarce. Life expectancy rates in Sierra Leone are among the world’s lowest: 39 years for men, 42 for women.
Fighting has ended in the Ivory Coast, but despite multiple peace deals, the country remains divided and tense. The north, controlled by rebels, is separated by United Nations and French peacekeepers from the government-held south.
As in Liberia, the future of West Africa remains uncertain. Debt, weak government and budgetary concerns plague much of the region, as does widespread youth unemployment—60 percent of West Africa’s population is under the age of 20. Due to historic, cultural and ethnic reasons, borders remain porous, leaving a potential for cross-border conflict.