West Africa is a collage of 16 nations the size of continental USA but with 40 million more people. It contains tropical coasts, low mountains, inland grassland plateaus, and part of the formidable Sahara Desert.
West Africa’s best feature is her people, not her washboard plateau geography. It is not a popular tourist destination. Most people live as farmers or partial farmers, while those seen as entrepreneurs are the government workers and traders and exporters of cocoa, cotton, and foods. Gold, minerals, and precious stones are rare.
Following several historic empires (Gana, Mali, Songhay, Ashanti, Benin), West Africa faced two waves of colonization: the Muslim colonization of the Sahel, and the 19th-century Anglo-French rivalry over all of West Africa. Between 1957 and 1976, sixteen colonies became independent nations, although their economies are still deeply dependent on regional and global treaties.
West Africans are noble and face profound struggles. As vibrant multi-ethnic nations, they grapple with the rapid influx of imported technology, the imposition of Western ‘human rights freedoms,’ and the growth of assertive Muslim, Christian, and occult movements.
Rapidly growing cities integrate thousands of migrants every day. They compete for limited educational opportunities, inadequate employment, and impoverished housing. The rising cost of medicine and the fear of renewed outbreaks of plagues, droughts, or malnutrition weigh on parents. The internet informs them that their continent is lagging behind other parts of the world in industrialisation, professional services, and innovative research.
Multiparty democracy has yet to triumph over one-man tribal or military rule. National economies are routinely dominated by global powers such as China, the European Union, or Arab oil-states. West Africa is a dumping ground of cheap and second-hand products from stronger economies that supress local entrepreneurship and innovation and cause ongoing cycles of dependency on foreign aid.
Apart from the small missionary Ahmadiyya sect and Shia Muslims in Northern Nigeria, West African Islam is Sunni. West African Islam’s uniqueness is that its fight against European colonialism caused it to flourish.
There are four main types of Islam in West Africa. First, there is a conservative tribal Islam widespread among peoples such as the Fulani, Tuareg, Hausa, Wolof, etc. In rural areas, many practice Folk Islam. This is led by itinerant marabout (holy men) and imams who are practitioners in the occult. Women especially seek help from the jinn spirit powers.
Third, Sufi mystic brotherhoods strongly influence politics. The Qadariyya Sufis from Baghdad spread to Mali, promoting conservative political Islam and mystic worship at saints’ tombs. Tijaniyyah Sufis from Morocco split from the Qadariyya in order to engage in jihad against French colonialism. Due to the success of Fulani jihadists, the Tijanis are now the largest Sufi movement in West Africa. In Senegal, the Mouride Sufis dominate.
In the last few decades, militant-jihad interpretations of Islam have returned to West Africa. Three jihadi groups dominate: Boko Haram in NE Nigeria, North Cameroon, the Lake Chad region, and SE Niger; The Jamaat Nusrat and al-Qaeda affiliates in Mali and Burkina Faso; and Islamic State in the Mali Sahara and in Burkina Faso.
Islam is dominant in the grassland regions bordering the Sahara, whereas Christianity dominates coastal regions. Cities have Muslim, Christian, and mixed quarters. Overall, the strength and growth of Islam and Christianity are similar. The kingdom of God in West Africa is among the most expressive in the world. Pentecostals are joining missions to Muslims and are emphasizing power encounters.
The number of overseas missionaries has declined but is still significant. The most effective promotion of the Gospel is through radio, internet, Christian schools, and compassion ministries, especially in offering refuge to believers from Muslim backgrounds.
Opposition varies from the coastal to the inland regions.
While most Muslims resist militant interpretations, they strongly denounce Christianity in the mosques and on radio. The strongest opposition comes from families and tribal communities. Where sharia law prevails, conversion leads to violence, criminal charges, or expulsions. Where militants dominate, martyrs are many. Yet, more Muslims are responding to Christ than ever before.