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How many countries in Africa? How hard can the question be?

Comments 18

Africa is one continent but how many countries? we were asked. The answer is more complicated than you might think but, simply put, there are 55 states that are recognised by either the AU or the UN or both.

Researched by Ruth Becker

“How many countries does the continent have in its entirety?” asked a message sent to us by a group of information security advocates.

The sender, @Infosecafrica, noted that Africa’s regional political organisation the African Union has 54 members but had seen a report claiming the continent is home to 57 countries.

So how many countries does Africa have? The AU claims to represent all African countries. So are there 54 or 57? How hard – we thought – can the question be?

The AU does have 54 members

Working out how many members there are of the African Union is indeed quite easy.

As set out on this list, it has 54 members. Three of them – Guinea-Bissau, Central African Republic and Egypt – though still members are suspended, or “under political sanction” following coups.

So is that the answer? Africa comprises 54 countries, all members of the AU.

Well no, because not all Africa’s countries are in fact AU members.

Morocco is not a member

Morocco, to start with is clearly a country, clearly part of Africa, and is a member of the United Nations’ Africa group. But it is not a member of the AU.

Morocco withdrew from the AU’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Union, in 1984 after the OAU approved the membership of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic – aka the Western Sahara – a country (or Morocco would say a territory) that Morocco refuses to recognise.

So is the answer to the question – Moroccan objections aside – fifty-five? This would comprise all the AU members, including the Saharan Republic, plus Morocco.

And what about Somaliland?

Well it seems the most reliable figure, unless of course you consider Somaliland a country.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a country is “a nation with its own government, occupying a particular territory” – which “Somaliland” does, having declared independence from Somalia in 1991, set up a government and controlled its territory from its capital Hargeisa ever since.

More than two decades on from its declaration, it is treated by many nations and organisations as a country in all but name, but it is not recognised as such by its neighbours.

And the same is true for other territories with less de facto claim to nationhood.

Not just an African phenomenon

While it might seem a quirk not to be able to say, for sure, how many countries there are on the continent, the disagreement over numbers is not limited to Africa.

In Asia, there is disagreement about whether Taiwan, which split off from China in 1949, is an independent nation, or not. Worried by threats of retaliation from Beijing if it were to declare formal independence, it has not done so. But from its capital, Taipei, it maintains its own, democratically-elected, government and currency and runs itself independently of China; a country in all but name.

And in Europe, while most powers recognise Kosovo as an independent state, Serbia, its neighbour, does not. So in Europe too, there is uncertainty about how many countries there are.

Conclusion: fifty-five recognised states

The best answer to @Infosecafrica’s question that we have come up with is to say there are 55 states that are internationally recognised and members of either the AU or the UN or both. Fifty-three of these belong to both the AU and UN lists. Morocco is not part of the AU but is a member of the UN. The Saharan Arab Democratic Republic is part of the AU.

In addition, while there are various other territories that claim independence, there is also one de facto state, as described under the normal definitions of what makes a country, which is Somaliland. It is not, however, a recognised state. Any advance on that, let us know.

Edited by Peter Cunliffe-Jones

© Copyright Africa Check 2012. You may reproduce this report or content from it for the purpose of reporting and/or discussing news and current events, subject to providing a credit to "Africa Check a non-partisan organisation which promotes accuracy in public debate and the media. Twitter @AfricaCheck and www.africacheck.org".

Comment on this report

Comments 18
  1. By Stephen

    Somaliland has the most clean-cut case for International recognition of its independence. Which is that Somaliland upon its independence from the British Voluntarily merged with Somalia Italian to create the Somali Republic (AKA Somalia). Somalia imploded in the early nineties, can became a failed state, which is what it is currently. So in short Somaliland’s independence is based on the failed unified state of Somalia, thus has gone back to its default position. Unlike other nations who sought independence Somaliland is actually better functioning then the state it is breaking away from. Mogadishu is currently under AU trusteeship.

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  2. By Daniel Keevy

    Western Sahara is a thorny issue. Although it is a member of the AU, it lacks the international recognition that is usually required for a state to be thought of as a state. To complicate matters, several African countries have also withdrawn their recognition of the Sahrawi Republic.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_status_of_Western_Sahara#mediaviewer/File:SaharaSupport.png

    The issue at hand is one of supporting self-determination, while avoid talk of cessation. But to get back to the topic, I think a broad count like 55 doesn’t really work, because of the special circumstances. If the question is how many countries, we should be looking at international recognition. South Sudan is now an excellent example of that.

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  3. By Resie Dona

    What about Puntland, which is a self governed independant state of Somalia. It claims to be a country same as Somaliland claims. Does this run the number of countries to 59.

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  4. By Bile luck

    Somaliland We can’t call an independent country or even a country who has its own government because all governmental management of somaliland involves at the aid of somali federal government so forget about to be an independent country

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  5. By Youssef

    Western Sahara is not a country and in not recognised as such by UN. Western Sahara is geographically southern of kingdom of Morocco.

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  6. By Michelle Riley

    Thank you for providing this information, and for making it easy to locate on the web.

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  7. By Arjun Ramkhelawon

    Ok thank you Africa Check.
    55 it is then!

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  8. By Africa Check

    Hi Arjun
    Thanks for your query. Our conclusion is 55 recognised countries, Mayotte not being one of them. Others such as Somaliland can make a claim to be a de facto state, but it is not internationally recognised.
    Africa Check

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  9. By Arjun Ramkhelawon

    Well setting aside member countries being recognised (or not) by the UN or the AU, how many countries IN ALL form part of the continent? I mean i got 58 –in all– including Morocco, Western Sahara, South Sudan AND Mayotte?
    Is Mayotte a country or just an island among the Comoros? Wikipedia describes it as a ‘department and region’…

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  10. By Africa Check

    David, our conclusion is that there are 55. It is possible to quibble but on standard definitions, our conclusion is 55.

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  11. By david cole

    Still don’t know how many contries in africa

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  12. By Africa Check

    Hi Thad. Yes, South Sudan is included in our calculations. Including South Sudan, Western Sahara and Morocco, we conclude there are 55 countries in Africa, recognised by either the UN or the African Union or both.

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  13. By Thad Smith

    Does the Republic of South Sudan add one more state to your three counts for the number of countries in Africa?

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  14. By Chezza

    Gosh, how complex. I can now understand why the question prompted such an involved response. Take care all.

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  15. By Africa Check

    South Sudan does not appear on our slightly out of date map, but it is included in the 54 African Union member states. It is one of those counted in our list.

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  16. By caroline

    what about South Sudan?

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