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GEOG 314: Regional Geography of West Africa with special reference to

Physical Features
West Africa is one of the major geographical regions of Africa. It lies between the
Gulf of Guinea in the south and the southern boundaries of the Sahara in the north.
It is bounded in west by the Atlantic Ocean and in the east by the Mandara
Adamawa-Cameroon Highlands. It covers an area of nearly 6.5 million km 2 or about
two-thirds the size of the United States of America. The northern boundary is less
clearly defined and is generally considered to follow the southern limit of the Sahara
Geological Structure: The geological structure of the West Africa sub-region is
made of some parts that were folded more than 1500 million years ago, and some
around 1200 million years ago. The part that experienced folding earlier is called
regions of cratons and contains most of the sub-regions gold, diamonds, asbestos
and iron. The other part that experienced folding relatively recently are called
regions of orogenesis and contain most of the sub-regions copper, lead, zinc, and
West African Coast: The coast varies in character with the seafloor increasing in
depth very slowly off-shore. Generally, the coastline of West Africa is low and sandy,
and its smoothness is as a result of sand bar deposition, especially along the coast
of Togo, Benin and Nigeria. There are very few natural harbours (notable example is
the Freetown Harbour). There are smooth cliffs at Cape Palmas and Cape Three
points as a result of the sea cutting steadily farther inland.
The Coastal Plain: The coastal plains are not extensive and cover only a relatively
small part of the sub-region; they are narrowest in the south-west but most
extensive in Gambia, Senegal and Mauritania. The coastal plains are hindered inland
by plateaus. But there are interior lowlands below the plateaus, such as the
drainage basin for Lake Chad.
The Plateau: As one moves further inland/northwards from the coastal plain, is the
Plateau of West Africa. The surface of the plateaus varies in height / not uniform.
There are wide flat surfaces bounded by steep slopes, which are barriers to
transport systems. The plateau reaches maximum height on its Western and
Eastern extremes. In the west for instance is Futa Jallon plateau and in the east is
the Jos plateau. Parts of the plateau have been cut-through by rivers such as Niger
and Oti in Ghana.

The Highlands: The plateaus are separated in some places by isolated highlands,
some of which are volcanic peaks like Guinea Highlands, Bamenda and Cameroon
Mountains, the Akuapim-Togo range, the Cameroon-Adamawa highlands.
Importance of Relief in West Africa: Generally the relief features promote
human sustenance and development.

Serves as source of streams and rivers

Induces rainfall

Provides rocks for construction and related activities

Provides minerals from different ecological profiles.

avenues for transportation routes

Tourists centres.

Challenges of Relief: Can impede development especially

transport network
cause flooding,
other natural disaster such as earth quakes

Climatic Characteristics (Temperature and Rainfall)

Temperature: Most parts are hot throughout the year. Only a few places have a
mean temperature of the coolest month below 20 0C. Daily temperature is lowest
during the rainy seasons due to cloudy conditions and highest during the dry
Rainfall: there are variations in rainfall. The coastal area receives very heavy
rainfall esp. from Sierra Leone to southeastern Nigeria (except for a small area
around Accra). Moving inland from the Gulf of Guinea, the rainfall decreases in
amount, as the rain-bearing winds get further from their source of moisture. Along
the Gulf of Guinea coast, rainfall is generally spread out over the whole year but
there tends to be two periods of particularly heavy rainfall, separated by two rather
drier periods.
The position of the Inter-Tropical-Convergence-Zone (ITCZ) explains why there are
variations in the amount and seasonal distribution of rainfall. The ITCZ is the zone
where the south-westerlies and the northeast trade winds meet. These two seasonal
winds dominate the climate of the region. Between June and July, the ITCZ is
situated about 170N and 200N, and most parts in West Africa come under the
influence of the moist South-Westerlies and so receive rainfall. Between December

and January, ITCZ is situated not far from the Gulf of Guinea. Rainfall occurs over
the Gulf of Guinea coastlands due to the influence of the south-westerlies. But the
rest of the region comes under the dry influence of north-east trade wind.
Major Climatic Regions in West Africa
These regions conform broadly to patterns of vegetation, soil and fauna.
Equatorial Climate: Characterized by heavy rainfall and a dry season that is either
short or absent. Temperatures are high, averaging about 25 0C. Both annual and
diurnal (daily) temperature ranges are very low. Examples of places with equatorial
climate include Monrovia and Calabar
Tropical monsoon : This covers nearly all of Southern West Africa and on the
westward coast into Senegal. It has no definite boundary northwards as it merges
gradually into Savannah where the dry season becomes longer. Average annual
rainfalls amounts are over 2000mm. Temperatures are high all year round averaging
Dry central coastal climate: This has low seasonal and daily temperature ranges.
A seasonal change occurs between wet tropical air masses and dry tropical air
masses. As a result, there is a very wet season and a very dry season.
Savannah climatic zone: This is the most extensive in West Africa. It usually
occurs in areas where the dry season is longer than four months. During this season
the NorthEast Trade (harmattan) winds blow from the sub tropical high pressure
over the Sahara Desert. The most northerly parts experience that for more than
nine months of the year. Wet season is between July to September. Temperatures
show increasing ranges as one moves north in the region.
Desert climates: Desert climates have little and unreliable rainfall. Tropical
continental air masses are dominant, with the exception of short periods in summer
when brief incursions of moist tropical maritime air bring the possibility of rain.
Upland climate: This is a generally cool zone. The Fouta Jallon and Guinea
Highlands are areas found in this climatic zone. Climates change rapidly on
mountains, becoming colder at higher altitudes.
Importance of Climate to the Region: Climate is conducive for agriculture,
which is a major source of livelihood for many. However , climate change is posing
challenges for the region.
Soil Types: Soils in West Africa have been surveyed and mapped under different
classification systems. The Soil Taxonomy System developed by the US Dept. of
Agriculture and considered to be effective have classified the main soil groups in
West Africa as follows:

Alfisols: Characterised by a light colour in the upper horizon, low organic matter
content and high clay content. They are located mainly in the subhumid to semiarid
areas ranging from the forest mosaics to segments of the savannah. Alfisols support
a wide range of both cash and food crops such as cocoa, rubber, maize, cassava,
Aridisols: Poorly developed with little chemical weathering, infrequent leaching
and low organic content. Salinization is widespread resulting in the concentration of
mineral salts at the surface. Irrigated aridisols may become infertile as a result of
salinization or waterlogging. Nomadic grazing is extensive and crops such as date
palm, sorghum and millet are grown on certain parts.
Ultisols: Mostly found in moist and subhumid climatic areas under forest conditions
and woodlands. Have high levels of chemical weathering and therefore low to
moderate organic content infertile. Found mostly in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra
Leone and suitable for rubber, coffee and banana plantations (due to the application
of modern management techniques).

Tropical rainforest: Occurs along much of the Gulf of Guinea coast but there is a
gap in forest around Accra, because of the unusually low rainfall in that area. Has
many different species. The very tallest, emergents -grow up to 50 meters in height.
Its the habitat for numerous birds and insects. Below the emergents are three
layers of plant all competing for sunlight. The top layer or canopy forms an almost
continuous cover which absorbs over 70 percent of the light and intercepts 80
percent of the rainfall. The second layer or under-canopy consists of trees growing
up to 20metres. The lowest, or shrub layer, consist of shrubs and small trees which
are adapted to living in the shade of their taller neighbours. North of the tropical
rainforest is the deciduous forest where trees shed leaves during part of the year.
There are mangrove swamps along the coast -particularly extensive in the Niger
Savannah Zone: The savannah includes a series of transitions between the
rainforest and the desert. The trees in the savannah zone are xerophytic or drought
resistant. Long roots, twisted trunks and the bark is usually thick to reduce moisture
loss and provide protection from frequent bush fires. The baobab tree and acacia
are two of the most common trees found in the savannah. The nature of the
vegetation in this zone varies according to the amount of rainfall received and the
length and severity of the season. Close to the forest edge, is Guinea savannahrainfall is moderate and the dry season is not too severe. It consists of a mixture of
trees and tall grasses which shed their leaves during the dry season, and the
grasses wither and die. Northwards is the Sudan savannah zone where grasses
are shorter and there are fewer trees as compared to the Guinea savannah. The

Sahel savannah is the most northerly of the savannah zone. Grasses in the Sahel
are very short and widely spaced. Thorny bushes are common. Mali and Niger have
a large percent of their land in this zone.
Desert: Plant life is very scanty with the few adapted to stand very dry conditions.
They usually have very small leaves to reduce water loss by transpiration and long
roots to reach down to water deep below the surface. Grass is virtually absent from
the desert. e.g. northern Mali, Niger and eastern Senegal.

Geographical Regions of West Africa

The region diversified in terms of relief, climate, soils and vegetation. Different
zones based mainly on the climatic and vegetation belts which run east-west across
the sub-region. There is also a North and South difference with a transition zone
(Middle Belt) which runs latitudinally and roughly through the middle of the region
from east to west
The Climatic and Vegetation Zones
Strand and sandbank vegetation zone: Found on pure sand, just above high
water. Usually showered by sea-spray and is always enveloped in moist, salt-laden
air. This type of vegetation is well developed on the sand-bar coast of Senegal and
the Gulf of Guinea. Herbs, shrubs and grasses are rare. On inward margins poor
trees are seen.
The high forest regions: The West African mangroves are precisely the same
species as those found along the coast of America, but differ from those of East
Africa and Indo- Malaysia.
Fresh-water swamp forest is wide spread in the Niger Delta, along fresh-water
lagoons, rivers and inland swamps. There is an outer fringe of sudd or floating
grass, papyrus swamps, mostly found in Nigeria and some other creeks. Species of
Raphia and other palms are found inward. This fringing vegetation rarely exceeds
40 feet in height.
Lowland Rain Forest is dense with the highest trees sometimes reaching about
200 feet. The trees are highly varied in species, height, and age. Girths of over a
yard are common and the trees are typically straight and slender, with few or no
branches below the crown. Most barks are thin and smooth, with buttresses
extending outwards sometimes from the base of the trunk. There are at least three
tiers or layers of this forest with trees between 60 and 120 feet. The uppermost tier
usually has a discontinuous canopy but the lowest is a more or less continuous one.
Woody climbers are characteristic features. There are the climbers hanging above in
great lengths and loops festoons). Numerous epiphyte, mosses and lichens as well
as ground herbs are found. Most famous tropical timber is found here in Ivory Coast,

Ghana and Nigeria. The zone of cultivation of most cash crops such as cocoa, palm
trees, rubber and coffee.
Semi- Deciduous or Dry Forest: Found in the equatorial semi-seasonal climatic
zone where there are up to four months with less than one inch of rain, lower
relative humidity and drier soils. The flora and features are similar to the rest of the
lowland rain forest, but has fewer species and canopies may be more open. Shrubs
and smaller trees, make woody undergrowth and are mainly evergreen. Deciduous
trees may predominate only in the upper storey. e.g. Obeche, Wawa or Samba,
Danta, Iroko. Felling of trees (deforestation) has modified the semi-deciduos forest
resulting in depleted forest, the secondary forest and derived savannah
The Savannah Woodlands: Described as grassland with dispersed trees and
shrubs. Sub- divided into the Guinea, Sudan and Sahel Savannahs. Guinea
Savannah is found between about 80 and 130 N, and coincides roughly with
Southern Savannah climatic zone. Rainfall averages 40-55 inches annually. There
are four to five months of the year having less than 1 inch of rain and critical
relative humidity may drop to 14 percent. There is also a Presence of grass
averaging 5 to 10 feet or more. Trees are fire resistant, even though burnt year after
year. The broad-leaved deciduous trees have short boles (stem or trunk), are mostly
40-50 feet high and occur in clumps. Usually have twisted gnarled stems and corky
bark, and so are useless for timber.
Sudan Savannah: North of the Guinea savannah. Annual rainfall averages about
22-40 inches, there are seven almost rainless months. Relative humidity in early
afternoons of dry season may drop to 8 percent. Trees always occur singly, with an
average of 25-50 feet in height and have wide-spreading crowns. Egs. Locust bean,
Shea tree, Acacia, Kapok and Baobab. Most trees have small leaves, to prevent
excessive transpiration, though there are a few broad-leaved ones.
Trees also lose all their leaves in the dry season, with the exception of Acacia albida.
Grass shoots up only before the rains; it is shorter (3-5 feet), less tussock but more
feathery than in the zones to the south. Its very good zone for grazing.
Sahel savannah: Occurs in southern Mauritania, north-central Senegal, Mali,
southern Niger and the extreme north-east of Nigeria. Has at least 8 dry months.
Trees average about 15-30 feet in height, are deciduous, and finely divided in their
leaf structure. They have spreading and deeply penetrating roots, which fit the
loose sand. The trees are also thorny. E.g. Acacia tree (about 6-12 feet in height).
Grasses are short, discontinuous, and wiry and tussock, but much is used by cattle
and sheep. Fires are less serious because there is the absence of dense tree cover,
high grass cover and population to start them.
Montane vegetation: The high areas of West Africa have different vegetation from
the coastal and inland lowland. Altitude may modify vegetation because of changes

in humidity and cloudiness, rainfall, amount of sunlight, level of temperatures and