How many countries are there in Africa?

The UN membership roster contains 54 African states, and that of the African Union contains 53. While the AU list includes suspended members, it does not include a count for Morocco, who has decided to stay out of the AU. Thus AU’s implied total can also be said to be 54. Of these, 48 states are found on the actual continent, while 6 are island nations.

However, Africa is about to get a brand new country. Within less than two weeks, South Sudan will hold a referendum on whether or not to secede from the rest of Sudan. If it does secede, which currently seems likely, it would mean that the new total will soon be 55, right? Well, no, because the current total of 54 is true only to some degree.

Before I go on: what’s a country, anyway? I’m going to be somewhat untechnical here and use ‘country’, ‘nation’ and ‘state’ pretty much interchangeably. More precisely, I’ll count as a country any defined territory with a sovereign and accepted (or at least obeyed) government/leadership, a seemingly stable and functioning governing infrastructure, plus a set of recognised and enforced laws by which the territory is governed.

So how many are there, then?

53 or 54 = official totals

For a long time, the standard answer has been either 53 or 54, depending on whether one counts the Sahrawi Republic or West Sahara as a country or not. The Sahrawi Republic was briefly independent in the 1970s, but has since then been controlled by Morocco, who currently occupies roughly three quarters of the entire Sahrawian territory. There have been negotiations and plans for either full independence (demanded by the Sahrawi leadership) or merely some degree of autonomy (the Moroccan standpoint). But nothing seems to be happening. Nonetheless, the Sahrawi Republic is recognised as a country by many other countries, as well as the UN and the AU, both of whom have accepted the Sahrawi Republic as a member state (which, incidentally, is also the reason why Morocco refuses to be a member of the AU).

Either way, the current official total of 54 (or 53 if you’re Morocco) is not the full story, irrespective of how one counts Sahrawi. Both numbers have in fact been obsolete for many years due to the break-up of Somalia in the 1990s.

56 (or 57) = another total

As has been widely reported in news bulletins for several years now, Somalia broke up during the 1990s. Yet most international bodies, such as the UN and the AU, still regard and count Somalia as a single country, with its recognised successor being the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia seated at Mogadishu.

However, the Transitional Federal Government governs only small parts of what used to be Somalia. Other parts of the territory are controlled by others, such as Somaliland and Puntland, two unrecognised countries with fully functioning governments and administrations. In most respects, they look very much like regular countries, except they lack international recognition. Nonetheless, there is no reason not to count Somaliland and Puntland as de facto countries, since they act as sovereign polities independently of the Transitional Federal Government. Other putative states have either dissolved (as did the Northland State), been overtaken by others (e.g. Maakhir overtaken by Puntland and Jubaland overtaken by al-Shabaab; see below), or have recognised the authority of the Transitional Federal Government (as has Galmudug).

As the fight for some areas is still ongoing, it is difficult to make a reasoned assessment about the entire territory of former Somalia, let alone its future. This concerns in particular the southern parts, an area that is currently controlled by al-Shabaab, an organisation or movement labelled “terrorists” by some Western analysts. While Somaliland and Puntland can be counted as de facto sovereign countries, the al-Shabaab-controlled territory appears less like a functioning country. Be that as it may, the area is at least independently ruled, even though the political infrastructure seems less clear and formalised than we’d normally expect of a country. Still, I suppose it could potentially be counted as a “country” (of some sort) bringing the total to a possible 57.

57 (or 58) = current de facto total

As mentioned above, the current total, whatever one considers it to be, will soon be added with a new member, namely, South Sudan. At the moment, South Sudan has the same status as Somaliland and Puntland. That is, it is a sovereign territory with its own government and administration, albeit lacking proper international recognition. So even if it were not to achieve independence, we could still count it as a de facto African country.

Hence with South Sudan, be it recognised or not, we reach a total of 57 de facto African countries (or 58 if al-Shabaab were to be included).

63 (or even 64) = other potential totals

To most of the totals above, we could potentially add another six, namely, Spain, France, the UK, Portugal, Malta, and Yemen. Each of these countries rule over territories that lie on the African Tectonic Plate.

Spain controls Spanish North Africa and the Canary Islands. Spanish North Africa is the only European-controlled area on the mainland of Africa and consists of the cities Ceuta and Melilla, plus a scattering of tiny islands just outside the Moroccan coast. The areas have been claimed by Morocco, but Spain has persistently refused. France controls Réunion, Mayotte and a small number of uninhabited islands around Madagascar. The UK controls the island territories of St Helena, Ascension & Tristan da Cunha. Portugal controls Madeira, with surrounding small(er) islands. Yemen controls Soqotra, an island just outside the Horn of Africa. And finally, the entire country of Malta lies on the African Plate, even though by tradition it is and has been counted as European.

The territories in question are all governed independently of (other) African countries. They are demarkated on maps by (inter)national borders. However, the governments that rule them are seated outside Africa, either Europe (Spain, France, UK, Portugal, Malta) or Asia (Yemen). Still, the respective territories are geographically African, and therefore the countries that rule them could be counted as African. Were we to do so, the total would run up to 63 (or 64 with al-Shabaab).


In sum, then, the current total of de facto African countries is at least 57, which includes the unproblematic 53 plus Sahrawi, Somaliland, Puntland, and South Sudan. Of these, Sahrawi enjoyes international recognition and South Sudan is likely to do so soon. The total of 57 could potentially be boosted to 58 if we were to regard the al-Shabaab-controlled areas as constituting a country.

To either of these two totals, we can then make six further additions consisting of areas controlled by non-African governments, giving us a potential grand total of either 63 or 64.

  recognised: 54 = The Official 54, incl. 48 mainland and 6 island nations
  de facto: 57 = The Official 54 plus South Sudan, Somaliland, Puntland
      ( 58 if al-Shabaab is included )
  potential: 63 = The above 57 plus Spain, France, the UK, Portugal, Malta, Yemen
      ( 64 if al-Shabaab is included )

Personally, I’m going with 57.


Mobile phones for literature, or m4Lit

A new form/genre of literature has emerged, namely, stories intended to be read on mobile phones, also known as m-novels.

Leveraging the popularity of mobile phones, the m4Lit project has launched the first mobile novel of its kind, or m-novel, in South Africa. Kontax, which follows the adventures of a group of teenage graffiti artists, is made specifically for mobile phones, and is available in both English and isiXhosa. It is being released chapter by chapter on a daily basis, with the first chapter already out.

m4Lit’s press release states:

The m4Lit pilot project aims to explore whether teens are interested in reading stories on their cellphones, whether and how they write using their cellphones, and whether cellphones might be used to develop literacy skills and a love of reading. Enter Kontax, an m-novel written on commission from the Shuttleworth Foundation by prize winning ‘mobilist’ Sam Wilson. Kontax is an m-novel made for mobile – and from 30 September readers will be able to access the dynamic teen narrative from their WAP-enabled cellphones, or from their computers. Every day another exciting chapter in the mystery plot will be told, with 21 chapters rolling out over 21 days. Teen readers will be invited to interact with Kontax as it unfolds on their cellphones: they can vote on and discuss the progressing plot, leave comments, download wallpapers and finally submit a written piece as part of a competition, with airtime prizes available for winning submissions.

You can read more about it at the m4Lit project blog, or you can read the still-ongoing novel itself, titled Kontax and written by Sam Wilson.

I guess it won’t be long before we can read a whodunit mystery on twitter.

The Sudan has been hit by an asteroid

Earlier today, an asteroid entered the Earth’s atmosphere and burnt up over the Sudan. It was merely two meters across, but still, cool stuff. Apparently it was detected only yesterday (!). Let’s hope they manage to catch the bigger ones sooner.

Here’s a blog item about it.

New home for WebAL

After long and tough negotiations in a dimly lit room at the back of bar, with cigar smoke lingering in the air, lots of arm waving, shouting, and a few cold drinks, WebAL (Web resources for African languages) has finally found a new home at:

It is now in the competent hands of Guy de Pauw, Gilles-Maurice de Schryver and David Joffe. The new WebAL will be done in wiki style, something that I should have done myself ages ago, but it takes good men to do something good. The new format will be a tremendous boost for WebAL’s continued existence.

While working on WebAL over the past 5 years, I got a lot of help and encouraging emails, even though I would have appreciated a free weekend at some fancy Cape Town lodge more; all expenses paid, of course. Nah, just kidding! All your contributions, suggestions and emails have been quite rewarding and satisfying.

Now go over there and download some grammar books to read.

Web resources for African languages

For a few years now, I have been maintaining a set of web pages collecting links to web accessible materials on African languages, the WebAL. Since I keep track of stuff like that for my own benefit, it has been little additional trouble transforming data that to a web format useful also to others.

However, I feel I’ve done what I can with it, and as much as it pains me, I can’t quite devote the time it deserves anymore. The web accessible material on African languages keeps growing almost by the day, and it would be benefitial to many people if something like the WebAL pages could continue to exist.

Thus I’m now looking for someone who might be willing to take over the maintenance of WebAL — and do whatever they want with it. I’m sure my archaic HTML tagging needs updating, if nothing else.

Drop me a mail if you’re interested, or know of someone who might be. (And just to clarify, I’m interested only in serious proposals. For instance, a move to a university site, or similar, would be preferable.)

African languages and descriptional density

I have recently been having some fun with bibliographical data. Specifically, I have tried to determine a simple way to calculate the "descriptional density" for various African languages, especially with regard to grammar descriptions.

Descriptional density (a concept I’ve invented myself, I think) aims to determine how well-described any given language is in terms of existing grammar books and dictionaries. For instance, if a given language has only one grammar book written about it, and another language has fourteen grammar books written about it, then obviously the latter language is more well-described than the former. In other words, it’s descriptional density is higher.

There are no doubt many factors that should be taken into account when calculating something like descriptional density, such as number of publications or titles, size of description, number of authors involved, number of varieties described, availability of the grammar(s), and so on. However, many such factors are difficult to operationalize in simple ways. For instance, the size of a grammar book is not always related to its inherent usefulness, quality or even comprehensiveness. The availability of an item is difficult to determine easily (at least as a numerical value). Indeed, there are seemingly only two factors that can be handled without stumblig onto major difficulties, and still get a reasonably informative result: number of titles or works (W) and time span (T). These can be worked into a formula as follows:

DD formula

In general, one grammar book equals a W value of 1. However, many grammar books appear in second, third, fourth, etc., editions. It seems unintuitive to give a second edition the same weight as a first edition. After all, it is still essentially the same book, albeit with some minor or major revisions. Hence it seems convenient to distinguish primary works (W1) from secondary works (W2). While primary works are given a value of 1, secondary works are given a value of 1/3 (a third).

T (time span) represents the number of years spanning between the publication of the first and the latest grammar. For instance, my bibliography includes 135 primary works (grammar books) for Swahili. The earliest of these was published in 1850, and the latest in 2006. This gives a time span of 156 years. In order for this number not to inflate the calculations unnecessarily, it needs to be whittled down a bit, which is why I use the square root of the actual time span in the formula.

By adding the total number of primary works (W1), with a third of the total number of secondary works (W2), and the square root of the time span (T), we get a total index value representing the descriptional density (DD) for any given particular language.

Here, then, is a list of fifteen of the largest Bantu languages spoken in Africa, ranked according to their DD (descriptional density) values:

    Swahili 173.49 135 + 78 156
    Zulu 70.53 42 + 48 157
    Kikongo 67.29 45 + 11 347
    Chewa/Nyanja 51.11 31 + 26 131
    Xhosa 42.15 20 + 27 173
    Shona 41.63 26 + 15 113
    Setswana 39.08 20 + 18 171
    Lingala 37.29 23 + 11 113
    Sesotho 31.45 16 + 9 155
    North Sotho 25.91 14 + 3 119
    Luba-Kasai 25.82 13 + 7 110
    Kirundi 24.23 12 + 7 98
    Kinyarwanda 21.54 9 + 9 91
    Sukuma 20.87 11 + 1 91
    Kikuyu 17.31 7 + 2 93

Notice how the ranking only roughly corresponds to the actual number of grammar descriptions (whether we look at primary works only or primary and secondary works jointly). By taking time span into account, we get a bit more sophisticated picture of how well-described any given language is. As already mentioned, I have only looked at grammar descriptions. For a more comprehensive look, I need to look also at dictionaries, but that is a project for another sleepless night.

You can read more details about this here.

There are no ethnic conflicts in Africa

Why is it that people persist in labelling African conflicts “ethnic”?

Virtually any African conflict is immediately labelled “ethnic” (or worse, “tribal”) without any deeper consideration of the actualities involved. The rioting in Kenya following the elections in late 2007 were referred to as ethnic. The Rwandan Genocide is still often referred to as an ethnic conflict, even though there were no ethnic groups involved. But hey, it’s Africans. And they’re fighting. Ergo it must be ethnic/tribal.

It is true, of course, that some people invoke ethnicity as some sort of justification when making decisions (political or otherwise), or when applying simplistic (often post-hoc) explanations to otherwise complex social issues. Politicians are usually guilty of the former, journalists of the latter.

But, the fact that there are ethnic groups in Africa (like anywhere else in the world, incl. Europe) does not justify labelling African conflicts ethnic. Ethnicity is/was not a causing (or even relevant) factor in Rwanda, nor in Kenya, nor in Sudan, nor anywhere else in Africa. When it comes to conflicts, ethnicity is, and always has been, a pseudo-issue.

Conflicts in Africa, just like everywhere else in the world, have their roots in issues dealing with access to power and resources, not people’s ethnicities. It would be much more apt to use labels like “political” or even “social” instead, in as much as any single label can be valid.

Labelling African conflicts ethnic is not only wrong. It is evil. It perpetuates harmful misconceptions about African conflicts in particular, and Africa and Africans in general. It makes most people think of African conflicts as if they are some sort of spontaneous, inexplicable outbursts of violence born out of age-old “ethnic rivalries”. This image stems from old colonial desires to impose “proper” law and order in Africa. Fighting is just something they do down there. They can’t help it. It’s part of their culture. Why else would people refer to the conflicts as “ethnic”?

By comparison, the different sides in the Northern Ireland conflict divide themselves (largely) along religious lines. You have the Protestant on one side, and you have the Catholics on the other. Does that make the Northern Ireland conflict a religious conflict? Is religion a key factor in the conflict? Is religion a causing factor? Does the Northern Ireland conflict become more understandable if we think of it as a religious conflict? No, of course it doesn’t. There are religious components involved, sure, but religion is not causing the conflict, nor is it a particularly important factor. It would be simplistic and irresponsible to reduce the Northern Ireland conflict to a matter of religion.

Similarly, African conflicts cannot be reduced to a matter of ethnicity. Ethnicity is not a causing factor. It’s intellectually irresponsible to single out ethnicity as an all-important factor in African conflicts. It’s not. It’s about politics, power, resources. Referring to African conflicts as ethnic is just as inaccurate and irresponsible as labelling the Northern Ireland conflict religious.