Republic of Niger

POPULATION: 19.11 million (2014)

AREA: 489,189 sq. mi. (1,267,000 sq. km)

LANGUAGES: French (official); Hausa, Dejerma, others

NATIONAL CURRENCY: CFA franc

PRINCIPAL RELIGIONS: Muslim 80%, Christian 10%, Traditional 10%

CITIES: Niamey (capital), 420,000 (1994 est.); Zinder, Maradi, Tahoua, Dosso, Agadez, Arlit

ANNUAL RAINFALL: Varies from 20 in. (500 mm) in the south, to 4 in. (100 mm) at Agadez, to almost 0 in. in the far north.

ECONOMY: GDP $8.169 billion (2014)

PRINCIPAL PRODUCTS AND EXPORTS:

  • Agricultural: millet, sorghum, peanuts, beans, cotton, cowpeas, onions, livestock
  • Manufacturing: cement, brick, textiles, chemicals, food processing
  • Mining: uranium, coal, iron ore, tin, phosphates

GOVERNMENT: Independence from France, 1960. Republic with president elected by universal suffrage. Governing bodies: National Assembly (legislature); cabinet and prime minister appointed by president.

HEADS OF STATE SINCE INDEPENDENCE:

  • 1960–1974 President Hamani Diori
  • 1974–1987 Lieutenant Colonel Seyni Koutché
  • 1987–1993 Colonel (later General) Ali Saïbou, president after 1989
  • 1993–1996 President Mahamane Ousmane
  • 1996–1999 President (Brigadier General) Ibrahim Baré Mainassara; Major Daouda Mallam Wanke, provisional president in 1999
  • 1999– President Mamadou Tandja

ARMED FORCES: 5,300

EDUCATION: Compulsory for ages 7–15; literacy rate 14%

Republic of Niger

A large, landlocked country in north central Africa, Niger is one of the most thinly populated nations on the continent. The SAHARA DESERT covers most of the country, leaving only a small portion of the land suitable for permanent settlement. To make matters worse, longterm drought has devastated Niger’s agriculture. A poor economy, combined with political mismanagement, has made Niger one of the world’s poorest countries.

GEOGRAPHY AND ECONOMY

Niger is a mostly barren country, dominated by the desert and semidesert that make up some 80 percent of its total area. Mountain ranges in the center of the country rise to a height of about 6,600 feet, but most of the remaining terrain is flat plains and plateaus covered by rocks and sand dunes. The NIGER RIVER crosses the southwestern corner of the country.

The vast majority of the nation’s people live on a thin strip of land along Niger’s southern border. Known as “useful Niger,” it is the only part of the country with enough rainfall to allow agriculture. The main staple crops are the grains millet and sorghum, and peanuts are a major cash crop. In addition, livestock raising is an important activity in this region. Niger’s economy relies heavily on the production of uranium ore, which makes up half of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) and 80 percent of its exports. However, the price of uranium dropped steeply in the 1980s and has not recovered. The collapse of the uranium market and the longstanding drought have contributed to a staggering foreign debt and terrible poverty.

HISTORY AND GOVERNMENT

Before the arrival of Europeans, Niger was controlled by a succession of different kingdoms and empires. Most of these were Muslim states, and Islamic religion and culture became strongly established throughout the country.

Precolonial and Colonial History

The Songhai people established the earliest centralized state in Niger in the A.D. 600s. By the 1400s the Songhai Empire dominated the western portion of Niger, while the kingdom of BORNU controlled most of the eastern part of the country. At about the same time, the sultanate of the Aïr gained prominence in the north. During the 1600s the Djerma peoples migrated from the north, and the HAUSA rose to a position of power in the southwest. Meanwhile, the nomadic TUAREG peoples joined together in the northern desert region.

In the 1800s the FULANI swept through the region and established the Empire of Sokoto after conquering much of northwestern Africa. Also known as the Sokoto Caliphate, the empire incorporated many Muslim and non-Muslim kingdoms, although the Tuareg and several sultanates maintained their independence. In the early 1900s, a British force from Nigeria conquered the Sokoto Caliphate. The French moved into Niger at the same time, forming alliances with some sultanates and attacking the Tuareg. Despite fierce resistance, the Tuareg were finally defeated. Niger became a French colony in 1922. After 38 years of French rule, Niger gained its independence in 1960.

Modern History

Niger’s first president, Hamani Diori, stifled all political opposition and ruled the country as a single-party state. Diori’s inability to improve conditions, along with the effects of drought, led to a military coup in 1974. The new ruler, Colonel Seyni Kountché, suspended the constitution and restored order, but several coups were attempted during his rule. General Ali Saïbou took over as president in 1987. Under Saïbou, Niger adopted a new constitution, allowed political opposition and protests, and moved for the first time toward a multiparty democracy.

After a period of transition in which Niger was ruled by a National Conference, elections were held in 1993. The new president, Mahamane Ousmane, faced considerable opposition and a chaotic political and economic situation. Among the difficulties he faced was an armed rebellion of the Tuareg in the north. In 1996 Ousmane was overthrown by General Ibrahim Mainassara, who was elected president later that year.

Mainassara achieved some successes during his rule, notably the disarming of two groups of guerrillas that had opposed the government for years. However, Niger’s continuing economic problems resulted in strikes, rebellions, and growing instability. Mainassara’s reelection in 1999 was marked by fraud and violence and led to widespread protests and unrest.

On April 9, 1999, Mainassara was shot and killed by his presidential guard. The guard’s commander, Major Daouda Mallam Wanke, assumed the presidency and announced that there would be no investigation of Mainassara’s death. Many countries expressed outrage and threatened economic sanctions unless democracy was quickly restored.

Under pressure, Wanke scheduled elections for the fall of 1999, and Tandja Mamadou was chosen president. Tandja’s party also gained a majority of seats in the national assembly, giving the new president some hope of maintaining a stable government. However, bringing order and a measure of prosperity to this desperately poor country promises to be a difficult task.

PEOPLE AND CULTURES

Niger contains many ethnic groups, including the Hausa, Zerma-Songhai, Dendi, Tuareg, and Fulani. The first three of these are agricultural peoples, while the last two are pastoralists. These groups all share many Muslim beliefs and practices, although many have kept certain elements of pre-Islamic culture as well.

Under French rule, Nigerois who spoke Zerma achieved positions in the colonial government, and they continue to dominate Niger’s political life. The Tuareg and Fulani, however, have struggled. The nomadic lifestyle of the Tuareg was disrupted by the French takeover, and the Tuareg have benefited little from Niger’s commercial economy or from Western education.

Social and economic differences tend to be more important in Niger than differences between ethnic groups. Before the colonial era, sharp distinctions existed between nobles and commoners, herders and farmers, warriors and producers. Under French rule, people in the same classes held similar positions in the workforce, government, and military. As a result, people of similar social and economic backgrounds tend to share common interests regardless of ethnic group. (See also Colonialism in Africa, Deserts and Drought, French West AfricaIslam in Africa, Sudanic Empires of Western Africa.)