UPDATE: Morocco rejoined the Africa Union in January 2017, 32 years after leaving the union’s predecessor, the OAU. The African Union now has 55 members. This includes Western Sahara, which Morocco does not recognise as an independent country. – 31/07/2017
“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. One of them – the Central African Republic – though still a member is suspended, or “under political sanction” following a coup.
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: 55 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
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