Status of West Africa: Spring 2011

Each Monday we will post a brief update related to missionary trends in particular world regions. This Monday is focused on West Africa. We will revisit West Africa again August 8. We do not necessarily add information about specific events, but rather about long-term trends: so we are looking for analysis pieces verified by multiple sources.

Western Africa is generally considered to include Nigeria & Niger and all African countries to the West (and south of the Maghreb countries on the North African coast). It includes 16 countries scattered over 20% of Africa’s landmass, with an explosively growing population: from 27 million in 1900 to over 275 million now—its population roughly equal to that of the United States. It is likely to reach 400 million by 2025; by 2050 its population will exceed that of Europe. Over half of this population lives in Nigeria (nearly 1 in 8 Africans is Nigerian). Nearly half of the population are children; 42% (100 million) are urbanized in some 168 megacities mainly along the southern coast. For a fuller breakdown plus maps, see Wikipedia and the January/February 2007 issue of Momentum (over 100 pages long, including thumbnail sketches and several maps as well as in-depth articles).

Major Trendlines in 2010-2011

Natural Disasters: Drought, Famine, Harvest Failure, Flooding: over 10 million impacted

1. The 2010 Sahel Famine (see Wikipedia summary), caused by drought, brought a nutrition crisis in Niger, Chad and other parts of the Sahel. Severe food shortages affected 7.1 million people in Niger alone. West Africa & the United States have a roughly comparable population. The majority of West Africans are farmers; just 2% of Americans are. Yet all of the West African farmers produce far less food annually than do the 2% of Americans who are farmers. Many analysts believe West Africans need to diversify their agricultural practices and will need strategic help and training to do so. The 2010 crisis impacted much of 2010 and 2011, but fortunately harvests look better this year. Niger in particular is on course for its best harvest in 20 years.

2. The food crisis has been worsened by ongoing conflict in the region. Banks are closed, fuel prices are escalating and transport for food is often unavailable.

3. Food doesn’t just bring hunger; worse is malnutrition: people might get enough calories but not enough nutritional food. Under nutrition kills children in the region: prevention measures need as much attention as rescue operations. This is an ongoing issue that is difficult to address in the current climate of conflict.

  • In western Chad, 1 child in 4 under the age of five suffers from acute malnutrition (Independent).
  • In northern Cameroon and in the western Sahel band there has been extremely high child malnutrition as well (IRIN).
  • 300,000 children under 5 in Sierra Leone are malnourished (UNICEF).

4. In late 2010, floods swept across Niger and left over 100,000 homeless, and then spread along the Niger River into the rest of West Africa. In Benin, over 680,000 and 66% of the country’s communes were affected (100,000 homeless). In Togo, 82,000 were affected. In total, 300 were killed and 1.5 million were impacted in West Africa. (See also Wikipedia summary and Christian Post.)

Conflict and Political Turmoil: 1+ million displaced

5. Benin: Pres. Boni Yayi won the March 13 presidential election but his challenger is contesting the result and there have been some youth-based protests dispersed by police. The Africa Union confirmed the win and said the election was free and fair.

6. Burkina Faso: a small protest movement seeking accountability for local police forces might gain some steam from international events in Egypt and Libya. After the death of a student in police custody, thousands of students marched and set buildings on fire. The government closed all the public universities and jailing the policemen responsible for the death.

7. Guinea: The overdue, high-stakes presidential election went better than Ivory Coast, and it was welcomed back into the African Union. It looks like matters may be improving for this poor country.

8. Niger: endured a coup which many felt was a turn for the better. In February 2011 6.7 million voters went to the polls and chose a new president and 133 members of parliament. In March, voters chose between two candidates in a runoff vote. Nigeriens were understandably proud of this pending achievement: “we will give an example to Africa, the world and in particular to Nigeriens.”

9. Ivory Coast: The civil war is catastrophic. It has been overshadowed in mainstream media by the conflict in North Africa, even though it has resulted in four times as many refugees.

10. Nigeria is set for elections starting on April 1. There is tension over possible violence. Nigeria has continued to battle unrest in the Niger Delta. Communal violence in the centre and north continued unabated.

11. Senegal claims it has foiled a coup attempt (Washington Post).

12. Ethnic conflicts continue to simmer.

  • Fulanis in Ghana. ECOWAS, The Economic Community of West African States, promotes the free movement of peoples and goods within the 16-nation community.  Thus nationals of any of the 16 nations are permitted to cross each others borders and stay for 90 days without a visa. Unfortunately there continues to be conflict between nomadic Fulani (from Niger, Chad and Mali) and the neighboring states, with accusations of Fulani attacks on peasant farmers in Ghana. The Fulanis in turn say it is farmers who spark the conflict  (see Daily Guide Ghana, UNHCR).

13. There is a growing if small threat from Al Qaeda-related groups in the Maghreb, impacting West Africa (Economist). These groups can have an outsized effect on already unstable governments. See also a report about hostage-taking in Niger.


14. Much of West Africa’s people—particularly those living in rural areas—are still miserably poor. UNEP offers a series of maps examining the relationship between the rural poor population and land use in West Africa.

15. IRIN: Extreme poverty is part of the factor that continues to drive some Africans to attempt to migrate to Europe. It is difficult to make money in West Africa. Often people lose money each day just trying to operate businesses. But increasingly studies are showing that “sociocultural aspects are playing an increasingly important role.” There is a social recognition that comes from living and working abroad.


16. Oil from West Africa is vital to the world: the demand-vs-supply ratio is so tight right now that if Nigerian oil goes offline it can cause prices of gasoline to instantly spike. Guerrilla groups have tried doing just that. A hint at the potential for corruption: the US SEC wants oil and mining companies to reveal payments made to foreign governments, but top companies want exemptions in West Africa—because to reveal the payments in the United States would make the companies criminals in some West African nations which have passed anti-transparency laws that forbid just such disclosures.

17. China has been increasing its efforts to build business ties in West Africa: with Togo, Nigeria (where it is working to build one of Africa’s largest free trade zones in Lagos), Niger, Guinea Bissau and others. We might consider a medium-term future scenario of Chinese businessmen (who happen to be Christians) coming to do business in Africa and interacting with Muslim Africans… with what impact?

Technology & Connectedness

18. Efforts are being made to connect West African business centers and universities (especially Nigeria and Ivory Coast) to the rest of the world:

  • The World Bank has proposed an underwater fiberoptic cable to bring an “Internet revolution” to Liberia and Sierra Leone (Christian Science Monitor).
  • UNESCO partnered with West African nations to launch a $12 million project that would improve the information & communications technology capacity of eight African universities, equipping them with fiberoptic connections and at least 200 computers with high speed connections and a regional virtual library (AllAfrica).
  • The first large-scale commercial data centers have been launched in Accra by a company simply identifying itself as “West African Data Centers” (Timbutku Chronicles).

Structures of Sin

19. US consumption of cocaine has been cut in half over the last two decades, but European demand has doubled and even tripled. West Africa has become a well-known trade route for cocaine from Latin America. In 2010 over US$1 billion worth of the drug was seized in Gambia (Economist).

20. Slavery is an ongoing problem. ABC News: Children continue to be sold as slaves. eradicating child slavery in West Africa (PDF). BBC (1999): on West Africa’s child slave trade (which continues to this day). Africa Recovery: Child labor is rooted in Africa’s poverty. In 2001, UNICEF estimated about 200,000 children a year were victims of child trafficking in West Africa.

Internal Displacement, Refugees, and Migration

21. Fighting in the Ivory Coast has sent numerous waves of migrants into nearby countries. As of April there were 80,000 Ivorians in Liberia, many being sheltered and fed by local villagers. This is difficult since it is the end of the harvest period when household food stocks are dwindling.

22. Many migrant workers from West Africa who were in Libya have been unable to escape home since their home countries are “too poor or unorganized to send assistance.” (Voice of America) Further, if Qaddafi falls, there could be a substantial negative impact on West African countries: they would see an influx of refugees (including mercenaries) and the “fire sale” of Libyan-controlled businesses in their nations (Christian Science Monitor).

23. Human Rights Watch: there is significant and ongoing trafficking of women for prostitution between the countries in West Africa.

Treatment of Women

24. Women still face significant issues in West Africa, but their lot in life may be improving. 1 in 8 women dies in childbirth (one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world); in Liberia, 85% of the population is unemployed. Yet “women played a leading role in achieving peace in Liberia.”

25. Women in the more rural West African countries typically marry young and have many children, who will take care of them when they are older either by emigrating and sending money or by providing a home. But a 2001 study showed this practice comes at a health cost. And it means that Islam is growing very rapidly simply through the force of demography.

26. Women in West Africa often work longer hours and do harder work than men (IFAD Study). In addition to household work, women often have their own plots which they farm for various crops that contribute to sauces and also can be sold. In polygamous societies, men with more than one wife typically do not help any of the wives with their plots for fear of causing jealousy between them.

27. During the wars in 2008, rape was widely used in the course of conflict in Ivory Coast. “The scale of rape and sexual violence in [Ivory Coast]… has been largely underestimated. Many women have been gang-raped or… abducted and reduced to sexual slavery…” (LA Times). Next door in Liberia 90% of the women have been estimated to have suffered physical or sexual violence; 75% had been raped. We may find when the current round of violence is done in Ivory Coast that the same thing has been repeated.

28. Many of the countries in West Africa have laws against female genital mutilation (FGM) but enforcement varies widely and it still happens.


29. Christianity makes up about 35% of Western Africa, and Islam takes up about 48%. Ethnoreligionists make up about 15%. The vast majority of West Africa’s Christians are in Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast. They number nearly 100 million. However Evangelicals make up a much smaller portion of these.

30. Much of West Africa has become strongly dominated by Islam. The strength of Christianity is confined  to the coastal areas of Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Liberia and Nigeria. Much of the conflict between Islam and Christianity rests along the midpoint of these countries. This makes sense since these are the most populous countries: and much is centered on Nigeria and Ivory Coast, the two richest countries in the region.

31. However, at Cape Town 2010, reported: “Hundreds of imams and mullahs from West Africa have been coming to Christ in the past decade and in turn sharing the Gospel with their peers.” (Christian Post)

32. United Methodist Church interview: “Youth make up 70% of Christian communities in Africa. The future is the goal.” Youth programs and outreach are incredibly important for the future of both West Africa and the church in West Africa.

33. Mission agencies have been impacted by the conflict in Ivory Coast. YWAM has a long history; see their report and analysis: some YWAMers have left for Ghana or Togo but many in Abidjan have elected to remain for the moment.

34. MANI (The Movement of African National Initiatives) is planning a consultation in September to assess the state of the African church in order to advance mission mobilization.

35. At the All Liberia Life Festival (Monrovia, Liberia, March 30, 2011, organized by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association): 91,000 in attendance; 13,749 decisions.


The Countries of West Africa

Benin. Pop. 8.4 million. GDP $1,176 per person. Official language: French. A powerful African kingdom in the 15th century, Benin developed trade ties with Europe during the 16th century and received both Christian missionaries and European slave traders. It became known as the “Slave Coast,” but its economy declined after the abolishment of the slave trade. It became independent in 1960 and endured multiple coups and political instability for three decades. Spiritual revival broke out in the 1990s and Benin is experiencing transformation. Church growth is occurring in all regions of the country, but several unreached peoples remain.

Burkina Faso. Pop. 13 million. GDP $1,284 per person. Official language: French. The base of the Songhai Empire in the 15th and 16th centuries.The French conquered Burkina Faso in 1896 and created a protectorate. Modern Burkina Faso was created first as Upper Volta in 1947. It achieved self- government in 1958 and became a republic. Two years later it was granted full independence. Since then it suffered several coups. It has had a semi-stable government since 1992, but its economy is in shambles. Today it is one of the world’s poorest countries, dependent on subsistence farming. It is enjoying widespread church growth with many Muslim-background believers, but there are many unreached Muslims who have yet to be evangelized. Very few missionaries are working amongst the Muslim peoples of the north.

Cote d’Ivoire. Pop. 17 million. GDP $1,600 per person. Official language: French. The majority people are the Akan at 42.1%, followed by the Voltaiques at 17.6% and the Northern Mandes at 16.5%. Others include the Krous 11%, Southern Mandes 10%, and the Lebanese. Cote d’Ivoire is one of the most prosperous of Africa’s tropical nations. Ongoing conflict and outright civil war has been fought. The north is predominantly Muslim; the south, Christian. There is freedom of religion; both Islam and Christianity tend to be syncretized with traditional African religions in local expressions; there is religious tension.

Cape Verde. Pop. 421,000. GDP $6,418 per person. Official language: Portuguese. The population is comprised of 71% Creole (mulatto), 28 % African, and European. Once uninhabited, the Portugese discovered and colonized these islands, developing them into a center for the African slave trade. Cape Verde gained its independence in 1975 and since the establishment of multi-party elections in 1990 boasts one of Africa’s most stable democratic governments. Roman Catholicism mixed with indigenous beliefs is the main religion of the island. Most Protestants come from the Church of the Nazarene. There is also a Muslim population of around 12,000.

The Gambia. Pop. 1.6 million. GDP $2,002 per person. Official language: English. After a number of political upheavals since gaining its independence from the UK in 1965, Gambia has experienced civilian rule through democratic elections for the past decade. 85% of the people live in rural villages which vary in population but are mostly under 5,000; few have electricity; most of the population are farmers; socity is polygamous; half live on less than US$150 per year. Gambia is home to the Mandinka, who make up the majority people group, the Fula,Wolof, Jola, Serahuli, and others. 90% of Gambians practice Islam, 9% Christianity, and 1% tribal religions. Despite the Muslim majority, there is freedom of religion.

Ghana. Pop. 22 million. GDP $2,643 per person. Official language: English. The product of the merging of the former British colony the Gold Coast and the Togoland trust territory, it was the first sub-Saharan African country to gain its independence in 1957. In 1981 a ban was placed on political parties due to a number of coups. This ban was lifted when a new constitution guaranteeing multi-party politics was drafted in 1992. People groups of Ghana include Akan, Moshi-Dagomba, Ewe, Ga, Gurma, and Yoruba. 63% of the people practice Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, 16% Islam, and 21% indigenous religions.

Guinea. Pop. 9.6 million. GDP $2,035 per person. Official language: French. It gained independence from France in 1958. Since then it has had only two presidents, the second president brought to power through a military coup following the death of the first. A neighbor to Sierra Leone and Liberia, Guinea has experienced instability due to the spillover of unrest from those two countries. People groups include Peuhl, Malinke, Soussou, as well as smaller ethnic groups. Islam is the dominant religion with 85% of the population as its adherents. 8% of the population practices Christianity, 7% indigenous religions.

Guinea Bissau. Pop. 1.5 million. GDP $736 per person. Official language: Portuguese. Rice is the staple food in this poor, largely subsistence economy.The main cash crops are groundnuts, cashew nuts and palm kernels, but timber is the only significant industry. Since 1997 the country has been recovering from internal conflicts which cut economic output by up to one-third and damaged much of the country’s already limited infrastructure. In the short term, Guinea-Bissau continues to rely on large quantities of foreign aid, of which it is among the highest per capita recipients in the world. Some 45% of the people practice ethnic religions, with Muslims and Christians numbering 40% and 13% respectively.

Liberia. Pop. 3.0 million. GDP $1,003 per person. Official language: English. The country was first settled by freed American slaves in 1822. Civil war ravaged it for 14 years until August 2003 when a comprehensive peace agreement was reached. Since then the United Nations mission in Liberia has maintained a large presence, although the security situation remains volatile. 95% of Liberians are indigenous Africans, including Kpelle, Bassa, Gio, Kru, Grebo, Mano, Krahn, Gola, Gbandi, Loma, Kissi, Vai, Dei, Bella, Mandingo, and Mende. The rest are Americo-Liberians, descendents of US immigrants, and Congo people, descendents from former slaves in the Caribbean. 40% practice Christianity, 40% indigenous beliefs, and 20% Islam.

Mali. Pop. 11.7 million. GDP $1,154 per person. Official language: French. Mali was formed form a merging of the Sudanese Republic and Senegal following independence from France in 1960. Senegal, however, withdrew within a few months. It was ruled by dicatatorship until a coup in 1991 made way for democratic elections, which it has maintained since then. Its ethnic population consists of Mande (Bambara, Malinke, Soninke), Peul, Voltaic, Songhai, Tuareg, Moor, and others. The majority practice Islam with 1% of the total population practicing Christianity.

Mauritania. Pop. 3.1 million. GDP $2,402 per person. Official language: Arabic. Independent from France in 1960, the country is currently under an autocratic regime that seized power in a 2005 coup, promising to restore democratic institutions in two years time. Ethnic tensions exists among the black and Moor communities. 40% of the population are Muar, 30% Moor, and 40% black. Virtually the whole population practices Islam.

Niger. Pop. 12.5 million. GDP $872 per person. Official language: French. Niger also achieved independence from France in 1960. For three decades the country was under military rule until public pressure led to multi-party elections in 1991. Niger subsequently experienced two coups, the first of which took place in 1996 and restored military rule. The second coup restored multi-party democracy. Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world. The majority ethnic group are the Hausa. Niger is also home to the Djerma, Fula, Tuareg, Beri Beri (Kanouri), among others. 80% of the population practices Islam, the remainder either Christianity or indigenous belief

Nigeria. Pop. 131.8 million. GDP $1,188 per person. Official language: English. Nigeria gained independence from the the United Kingdom in 1960 after years of being granted increased autonomy. The military governed it for 16 years until 1999 when there was a peaceful transition to civilian rule. Nigeria, home to more than 250 ethnic groups, has had long-standing religious and ethnic tensions. The most influential of the ethnic groups are the Hausa and Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo (Ibo), Ijaw, Kanuri, Ibibio, and Tiv. Half the population is Muslim, while 40% is Christian. The remainder practice indigenous African religions.

Senegal. Pop. 11.9 million. GDP $1,759 per person. Official language: French. After independence from France in 1960, Senegal was ruled by the Socialist Party until 2000.There have been sporadic clashes between the government and separatist groups since 1982. Despite that it is one of Africa’s most stable countries and has a history of participating in peace keeping efforts. The majority people group are the Wolof, followed by the Pular, Serer, Jola, Mandinka, and Sonnike. 94% of the population is Muslim and 5% Christian, specifically Roman Catholic. The rest practice indigenous African religions.

Sierra Leone. Pop. 6 million. GDP $903 per person. Official language: English. A horrific decade-long civil war devastated the country, with peace only achieved in 2002. Tens of thousands died during the war and one-third of the population was displaced. While the UN peacekeepers left in 2005, the nation contains seeds of volatility due to tensions over upcoming elections, deteriorating political and economic conditions in neighboring Guinea, and insecurity in Liberia. Sierra Leone has twenty African ethnic groups, among whom are the Temne, Mende, and others. It is also home to descendants of freed Jamaican slaves who settled there in the late 18th century. 60% of the population practice Islam, 10% Christianity, and 30% indigenous African religions.

Togo. Pop. 5.5 million. GDP $1,700 per person. Official language: French. Togo achieved independence from the French in 1960. In 1967 the country came under a military rule that has continued until the present day, despite the facade of multi-party elections in the early 1990s. Togo has often come under fire for human rights abuses. It is home to thirty-seven ethnic groups, the largest and most important being the Ewe, Mina, and Kabre.The majority of the population practices indigenous African religions while 29% practice Christianity and 20% practice Islam.

Justin LongStatus of West Africa: Spring 2011