According to the United Nations, West Africa is composed of 16 independent countries and one overseas territory owned by another country. Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso make up the large desert nations of West Africa. Coastal nations include Nigeria, Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea and Senegal, among several smaller countries.
Guinea-Bissau, Gambia, Sierra Leone, and Liberia are some of the smaller nations along the coast of West Africa. Togo and Benin are two long, narrow countries situated between Nigeria and Ghana. The Cape Verde Islands are located off the coast of West Africa. A long-time colony of Portugal, the Cape Verde Islands gained their independence in 1975. Saint Helena, a tiny island hundreds of miles off the West African coast, is an overseas territory of the United Kingdom.
The United Nations also considers Mauritania, the northern neighbor of Senegal, part of West Africa. The U.N.'s inclusion of Senegal is somewhat controversial, as the nation has historically been grouped with the Maghreb nations of North Africa. Like the nations of North Africa, Mauritania has a large Arab population, and many of its residents follow Islam.
Some maps include Nigeria's southern neighbors as part of West Africa. These nations include Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, the Central African Republic, Congo and Gabon. Likewise, the independent island nation of Sao Tome and Principle is also occasionally grouped in with West Africa.