West Africa

17 Feb 2023

Western Africa is comprised of 16 countries: Nigeria, Niger, and all African countries to the West (and south of the Maghreb countries on the North African coast). These together cover over 20% of Africa’s landmass: northern deserts bordering the Sahara, central savannas and grasslands, and southern coasts dusted with rainforests.

While many countries around the world have seen fertility crashes, Western Africa has one of the fastest growing populations in the world: from 69 million in 1900 to over 456 million now, it exceeds the United States. By 2050, its population of 766 million—over half of Africa’s continental total of 1.4 billion—and will exceed that of Europe. Over half of this lives in Nigeria (nearly 1 in 8 Africans is Nigerian). West Africa is young: nearly half the population are under the age of 15.

A significant portion of West Africa’s growing population live in an urban ‘megalopolis’ stretched along the southern coast of the region. Ten cities that fade into each other along a 400 mile stretch from Abidjan to Lagos will be home to more than 50 million people by 2035. The ports here are a major gateway for the region, and at the same time these populations are at severe risk of flooding due to climate change (ReliefWeb, PlosOne).

West Africa has been ruled by several empires, including the Soninke, Soso, Mali and Songhai. The Portugese arrived in 1445, shortly followed by other European powers. The African slave trade began soon after. Up to World War II, Britain and France controlled much of West Africa, but between 1957 and 1960 most of the countries achieved independence. Unfortunately so far few have achieved political stability or full development.

Wars and “rumors of wars” have been or are being fought throughout the countries around the Sahel. Apart from the open warfare, there are many small clashes caused by ethnic and religious unrest. There is a mix of ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and herder violence throughout the Sahel belt from the West through north Nigeria. As a result of this instability and in spite of its huge population and resources, West Africa contributes just 15% of Africa’s total GNP. The two largest producers are Ivory Coast (which has 14% of West Africa’s economy) and Nigeria (which produces 40%, mostly through the sale of oil).

To complicate matters, disease is rampant in the region, and ten of the West African countries have serious HIV/AIDS epidemics. Maternal mortality in West Africa—women dying while giving birth—is one of the highest in the world (The Conversation). Criminal activity is also rife. The drug trade has a growing influence, as Latin American drug lords courier shipments to Europe through West Africa (Economist). Slavery and human trafficking remain issues. All of this together has caused significant internal displacement, movement of refugees, and at the same time caused many outsiders to leave the region. Without the likes of journalists, aid workers, and diplomats, little news of trends and events in West Africa leaks out, apart from occasional reports of attacks and violence.

Regardless, Western Africa will, by dent of population alone, be one of the major sources of Christian workers and one of the needy mission fields at the same time. Christianity first came to Western Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries, brought by missionaries in the coastal and inlands mission movements. Today Western Africa is divided between Islam in the north and Christianity in the south, with a belt of ethnoreligionists and syncretists in between. Many participate in secret occult societies.

West Africa is about a third Christian, 48% Muslim, and 15% ethnoreligionist. Three countries are majority Christian, and five have significant Christian minorities. In terms of absolute numbers, the vast majority of West Africa’s Christians are found in Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast, together numbering about 100 million. Nigeria is divided between southern Christians and northern Muslims, with religious conflict erupting where the two meet. About a third of Western Africa has little or no access to the Gospel. African mission societies are sending hundreds of workers throughout the west and north and have plans to rapidly increase their numbers. The Islamization of some countries and provinces, as well as the general desire to enforce some kind of peace on warring factions, has led to some restrictions on religious activity. These restrictions are not so severe as in other places, but do pose an obstacle to the spread of church planting. A larger problem is violence from extremists.

Over 8 million believers (or about 2% of the total population of the region) are part of rapidly multiplying movements in the region, meeting in over half a million house churches. While a few of these movements have been published, most keep themselves well out of sight. Many movements are comprised of numerous small groups of some hundreds or thousands in each of various languages.