West Africa is a region of the African continent. In geographical terms, West Africa is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the west and south, the Sahara Desert on the north. Its eastern border is defined as either the Benue Trough, or the line running from Mount Cameroon to Lake Chad. According to the United Nations, West Africa consists of 17 countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Cote d'Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, St Helena, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo. Twelve of these nations are on the UN's list of least developed countries in the world.
West Africa covers an area of about one-fifth of the continent, or 6,140,000 sq km. The northern part of the region is a semi-arid terrain, south of the Sahara Desert. The southern part is covered by savannahs. The total population of West Africa exceeds 250 million. The most populous country is Nigeria with 155 million inhabitants (2009). The most wide-spread religion in the region is Islam, although there are Christian communities in Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone. Traditional African religions are also quite common. Despite the wide variety of nations, West African countries have similar traditions and culture in terms of music, festivals and clothing. The similarities in their cultural heritage are mainly due to the common history.
The first known human settlers arrived in West Africa around 14,000 years ago and inhabited the modern territories plus parts of the Sahara, which over the centuries has turned to desert and grown in area. The early population lived predominantly in small communities and tribes, trading with one another. In around 800 CE, the first empire was created, the Ghana Empire. It spread over modern-day Mali and Mauritania and introduced Islam to the population. In the 13th century it was succeeded by the Mali Empire, which covered the area around the whole of the Niger River and which continued until around 1600. The Mali Empire influenced the culture of most of today's West Africa in terms of language, laws and traditions. In the 17th century and afterwards, West Africa was subject to colonization by European powers and exploitation by the slave trade. France colonized the whole of West Africa, except for Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, which were British colonies, and Guinea-Bissau, which was claikmed by the Portuguese.
Liberia is unique in the world history. The country was established as a colony for freed African-American slaves and was declared independent in 1842. Most of the rest of the colonized West African countries gained independence between 1957 and 1965; Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde became independent in the 1970s. Since independence, West African countries have been struggling with poverty and famine. Figures published by the UN in 2007 show that the mortality rate of children aged under 5 in West Africa is among the highest in the world - from 100 per 1,000 population in Togo to 261 in Sierra Leone. In Burkina Faso, only about one-third of the children complete primary education. The level of health care is extremely low and on average there are 0.05 physicians per 1,000 people in West African countries. In Liberia, Sierra Leone and Mauritania, the number of doctors is 0.01 per 1, 000. The average life expectancy in these countries in about 56 years, compared to 80 in the developed countries.
In terms of income West Africa ranks among the bottom of the world lists again. Despite the region's rich mineral wealth, in 2005, the GDP per capita ranged from $383 in Liberia, $569 in Guinea-Bissau and $756 in Gambia to $8,477 in Nigeria. These figures mean that people in Liberia, Guinea-Bissau and Gambia live on between one and two dollars a day. Nigeria is West Africa's strongest economy. It is the leading African oil producer. Cote d'Ivoire, another relatively stable economy, is the largest cocoa producer, which contributes to an annual GDP of $1,680 per capita. All West African countries, except for St Helena and Cote d'Ivoire are members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).