West African Countries

Map of the 16 countries of West Africa
Map of the 16 countries of West Africa
  • West Africa includes 16 countries and one dependency.
  • Nigeria is the most populous country in both West African and Africa as a whole. Cabo Verde is West Africa's least populous country.
  • About 411 million people live in West Africa.
  • The Nigerian city of Lagos, with a population of approximately 9 million, is the largest city in Africa.
  • 3 West African countries, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, are landlocked.

West Africa is a subregion of the continent of Africa, according to the United Nations Geoscheme. It is bordered to the west and south by the Atlantic Ocean, to the north by the subregion of North Africa, and to the east by the subregion of Middle Africa. There are 16 countries and one dependency in West Africa. The subregion contains two island territories, the independent country of Cabo Verde, and the British dependency of St. Helena. The northern portion of West Africa consists of the Sahel region, which is the semi-arid land that separates the Sahara Desert in the north from the savannas to the south. Half of the countries of West Africa are situated in the Sahel, while the other half are located in the savanna region, close to the Atlantic Ocean. Three of West Africa’s countries, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, are landlocked countries.

Countries Of West Africa

Demographics Of West Africa

Lagos, Nigeria
Aerial view of Lagos, Nigeria. It is West Africa's biggest city.

Of the estimated 1.369 billion people who live on the African continent, approximately 411 million live in West Africa. Just under half the West African population lives in urban areas. Among these urban areas is Africa’s largest city, Lagos, which is located in Nigeria, and has a population of about 9 million residents. Lagos has nearly three times as many people as West Africa’s second largest city, Abidjan, the capital of Cote d’Ivoire, which has approximately 3.67 million residents. The third and fourth largest cities in West Africa, Kano and Ibadan, are also located in Nigeria, and have estimated populations of 3.62 million and 3.56 million respectively.

It is actually no coincidence that several of West Africa’s largest cities are located in Nigeria. In fact, it makes perfect sense since Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa. The country has a total population of over 210 million people, which also makes it the 7th most populous country in the world. Thus, more than half of West Africa’s entire population lives in Nigeria. In contrast, West Africa’s next most populous country, Ghana, has just 31 million people, which is almost seven times less than the population of Nigeria. Cabo Verde, with a population of approximately 556,000, is West Africa’s least populous country, though even its population dwarfs that of the British overseas territory of St. Helena, which has just over 6,000 residents.

Ethnic Groups

Like the rest of Africa, West Africa is extremely diverse in terms of the different peoples, cultures, languages, and religions that call the subregion home. There are a multitude of ethnic groups in West Africa. Two of the largest are the Hausa and Fulani. The Hausa, who number around 20 million, are found mostly in northwestern Nigeria and southern Niger, though there are also Hausa living in other West African countries, like Togo, Benin, and Ghana. The Hausa language is the most widely spoken language in West Africa. In fact, whereas there are 20 million people who are ethnic Hausa, there are 22 million people who speak the Hausa language, and another 17 million who speak it as a second language. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Hausa had several independent city-states that competed with each other.

Panoramic view to Bkonni village of Hausa people in Tahoua, Niger. Editorial credit: Homo Cosmicos / Shutterstock.com

The Fulani, also called the Fula, live in many of the same areas as the Hausa, which is why it is common for the two groups to intermingle. In fact, the Fulani population roughly equals the Hausa population, numbering at about 20 million. They are the world’s largest group of nomadic people. Nigeria’s current president, Muhammadu Buhari, is a member of the Fulani ethnic group. Indeed, the Fulani are known to be one of the strongest and most influential ethnic groups in Nigeria, which has a total of 250 ethnic groups. Some of the other large ethnic groups in Africa’s most populous country include the Yoruba, who live in the southwest of the country, and the Igbo, who live in the southeast. The Igbo once attempted to form their own independent state in southeastern Nigeria, triggering a bitter civil war that resulted in the deaths of about a million people between 1967 and 1970.

Children of the Mossi ethnic group tending the cattle in Burkina Faso. Editorial credit: Hector Conesa / Shutterstock.com

Most other West African countries also have a myriad of ethnic groups within their borders, although there are some cases in which one or two ethnic groups are dominant, at least in terms of numbers. In Burkina Faso, for example, members of the Mossi ethnic group make up about half of the country’s population, whereas the other half of the population is comprised of several smaller ethnic groups. In fact, the name “Burkina Faso” is a Mossi phrase that means, “Land of the Incorruptible People.” In Benin, the Fon are the largest ethnic group. Indeed, before Benin adopted its current name, it was called Dahomey, and was originally a Fon kingdom.


Children learning English in a school in The Gambia. Editorial credit: Lars Fortuin / Shutterstock.com

In addition to the multitude of local languages spoken in West Africa, European languages are also used, at least in an official sense, as all the countries of the subregion were formerly possessions of European powers. Thus, English is spoken in former British colonies, like Ghana and Nigeria, while French is spoken in countries of West Africa that were once controlled by France, such as Mali, Niger, Benin, Togo, Cote d’Ivoire, and Senegal. In fact, most of the countries in West Africa have not given official status to indigenous languages.   


Mosque in Mali
A mosque in Djenne, Mali.

In terms of religion, most inhabitants of the Sahel region in West Africa practice Islam, but Christianity is the most prevalent religion in the savannas close to the Atlantic Ocean. Thus, most of the people in the southern parts of Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana, and Cote d’Ivoire practice Christianity, though some also adhere to traditional African religions. Liberia is the only country in West Africa with an overwhelmingly Christian population. The divide between Christianity and Islam has sometimes caused conflict in the African subregion.

Economy Of West Africa

All the countries of West Africa are considered developing countries. Some countries in the subregion are among the poorest countries in the world. They include Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Niger. The poverty in West Africa cannot, however, be attributed to a lack of natural resources. Indeed, the subregion is teeming with natural resources that have the potential to make many West African countries rich. Nigeria and Ghana, for example, have an abundant supply of oil. Benin, Burkina Faso, and Mali have large gold deposits. Liberia has a plentiful supply of timber, and Senegal has rich fishing grounds. Nigeria has the highest GDP in both West Africa and Africa as a whole, while the Gambia has the lowest in the subregion.

West African Countries

RankCountryPopulationTotal Area in km2
2Burkina Faso20,321,380274,200
3Cabo Verde549,9304,033
4Ivory Coast25,716,540322,463
15Sierra Leone7,813,22071,740

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