We examine the influence of climate, soil properties and vegetation characteristics on soil organic carbon (SOC) along a transect of West African ecosystems sampled across a precipitation gradient on contrasting soil types stretching from Ghana (15°N) to Mali (7°N). Our findings derive from a total of 1108 soil cores sampled over 14 permanent plots. The observed pattern in SOC stocks reflects the very different climatic conditions and contrasting soil properties existing along the latitudinal transect. The combined effects of these factors strongly influence vegetation structure. SOC stocks in the first 2 m of soil ranged from 20 Mg C ha−1 for a Sahelian savanna in Mali to over 120 Mg C ha−1 for a transitional forest in Ghana. The degree of interdependence between soil bulk density (SBD) and soil properties is highlighted by the strong negative relationships observed between SBD and SOC (r2 > 0.84). A simple predictive function capable of encompassing the effect of climate, soil properties and vegetation type on SOC stocks showed that available water and sand content taken together could explain 0.84 and 0.86 of the total variability in SOC stocks observed to 0.3 and 1.0 m depth respectively. Used in combination with a suitable climatic parameter, sand content is a good predictor of SOC stored in highly weathered dry tropical ecosystems with arguably less confounding effects than provided by clay content. There was an increased contribution of resistant SOC to the total SOC pool for lower rainfall soils, this likely being the result of more frequent fire events in the grassier savannas of the more arid regions. This work provides new insights into the mechanisms determining the distribution of carbon storage in tropical soils and should contribute significantly to the development of robust predictive models of biogeochemical cycling and vegetation dynamics in tropical regions.