Africa is the world’s second-largest and second most-populous continent, after Asia. At about 30.2 million km² (11.7 million sq mi) including adjacent islands, it covers 6% of the Earth’s total surface area and 20.4% of the total land area. With a billion people (as of 2009, see table) in 61 territories, it accounts for about 14.72% of the World’s human population. The continent is surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea to the north, both the Suez Canal and the Red Sea along the Sinai Peninsula to the northeast, the Indian Ocean to the southeast, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. The continent has 54 states, including Madagascar, various island groups, and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, a member state of the African Union whose statehood is disputed by Morocco.
Africa, particularly central eastern Africa, is widely regarded within the scientific community to be the origin of humans and the Hominidae clade (great apes), as evidenced by the discovery of the earliest hominids and their ancestors, as well as later ones that have been dated to around seven million years ago – including Sahelanthropus tchadensis, Australopithecus africanus, A. afarensis, Homo erectus, H. habilis and H. ergaster – with the earliest Homo sapiens (modern human) found in Ethiopia being dated to ca. 200,000 years ago.
Africa straddles the equator and encompasses numerous climate areas; it is the only continent to stretch from the northern temperate to southern temperate zones.
Africa is the largest of the three great southward projections from the largest landmass of the Earth. Separated from Europe by the Mediterranean Sea, it is joined to Asia at its northeast extremity by the Isthmus of Suez (transected by the Suez Canal), 163 km (101 miles) wide. (Geopolitically, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula east of the Suez Canal is often considered part of Africa, as well.) From the most northerly point, Ras ben Sakka in Tunisia, to the most southerly point, Cape Agulhas in South Africa, is a distance of approximately 8,000 km (5,000 miles); from Cape Verde, the westernmost point, to Ras Hafun in Somalia, the most easterly projection, is a distance of approximately 7,400 km (4,600 miles). The coastline is 26,000 km (16,100 miles) long, and the absence of deep indentations of the shore is illustrated by the fact that Europe, which covers only 10,400,000 km² (4,010,000 square miles) – about a third of the surface of Africa – has a coastline of 32,000 km (19,800 miles).
Africa’s largest country is Sudan, and its smallest country is the Seychelles, an archipelago off the east coast. The smallest nation on the continental mainland is The Gambia.
Geologically, Africa includes the Arabian Peninsula; the Zagros Mountains of Iran and the Anatolian Plateau of Turkey mark where the African Plate collided with Eurasia. The Afrotropic ecozone and the Saharo-Arabian desert to its north unite the region biogeographically, and the Afro-Asiatic language family unites the north linguistically.
The climate of Africa ranges from tropical to subarctic on its highest peaks. Its northern half is primarily desert or arid, while its central and southern areas contain both savanna plains and very dense jungle (rainforest) regions. In between, there is a convergence where vegetation patterns such as sahel, and steppe dominate.
The African Union (AU) is a 53 member federation consisting of all of Africa’s states except Morocco. The union was formed, with Addis Ababa as its headquarters, on 26 June 2001. In July 2004, the African Union’s Pan-African Parliament (PAP) was relocated to Midrand, in South Africa, but the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights remained in Addis Ababa. There is a policy in effect to decentralise the African Federation’s institutions so that they are shared by all the states.
The African Union, not to be confused with the AU Commission, is formed by an Act of Union, which aims to transform the African Economic Community, a federated commonwealth, into a state under established international conventions. The African Union has a parliamentary government, known as the African Union Government, consisting of legislative, judicial and executive organs. It is led by the African Union President and Head of State, who is also the President of the Pan African Parliament. A person becomes AU President by being elected to the PAP, and subsequently gaining majority support in the PAP.
The powers and authority of the President of the African Parliament derive from the Union Act, and the Protocol of the Pan African Parliament, as well as the inheritance of presidential authority stipulated by African treaties and by international treaties, including those subordinating the Secretary General of the OAU Secretariat (AU Commission) to the PAP. The government of the AU consists of all-union (federal), regional, state, and municipal authorities, as well as hundreds of institutions, that together manage the day-to-day affairs of the institution.
There are clear signs of increased networking among African organisations and states. In the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (former Zaire), rather than rich, non-African countries intervening, neighbouring African countries became involved (see also Second Congo War). Since the conflict began in 1998, the estimated death toll has reached 5 million.
Political associations such as the African Union offer hope for greater co-operation and peace between the continent’s many countries. Extensive human rights abuses still occur in several parts of Africa, often under the oversight of the state. Most of such violations occur for political reasons, often as a side effect of civil war. Countries where major human rights violations have been reported in recent times include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Côte d’Ivoire.
Territories and regions
The countries in this table are categorised according to the scheme for geographic subregions used by the United Nations.
|Name of region and
territory, with flag
|Central African Republic||622,984||4,511,488||7.2||Bangui|
|Democratic Republic of the Congo||2,345,410||68,692,542||29.2||Kinshasa|
|São Tomé and Príncipe||1,001||212,679||212.4||São Tomé|
|Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic||266,000||405,210||1.5||El Aaiún|
|Spanish and Portuguese territories in Northern Africa:|
|Canary Islands (Spain)||7,492||1,694,477||226.2||Las Palmas de Gran Canaria,
Santa Cruz de Tenerife
|Madeira Islands (Portugal)||797||245,000||307.4||Funchal|
|South Africa||1,219,912||49,052,489||40.2||Bloemfontein, Cape Town, Pretoria|
|Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha (UK)||410||7,637||14.4||Jamestown|
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