officially Republic of Niger, French République du Niger
Country, western Africa, on the southern edge of the Sahara.
Area: 459,286 sq mi (1,189,546 sq km). Population (2005 est.):
12,163,000. Capital: Niamey. More than half the people are Hausa; there
are also Songhai-Zerma and Kanuri. Languages: French (official), Hausa,
Arabic. Religions: Islam (predominantly Sunni); also traditional
beliefs. Currency: CFA franc. A landlocked country, Niger is
characterized by savanna in the south and desert in the centre and
north; most of the population lives in the south. The Niger River
dominates in the southwest and the Aïr Massif (a mountainous region) in
the north-central part of the country. Niger has a developing economy
based largely on agriculture and mining. It is a republic with one
legislative body; its head of state and government is the president,
assisted by the prime minister. There is evidence of Neolithic culture
in the region, and there were several precolonial kingdoms. First
explored by Europeans in the late 18th century, it became part of French
West Africa in 1904. It became an overseas territory of France in 1946
and gained independence in 1960. The first multiparty elections were
held in 1993. Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara led a military coup in 1996, but
after his assassination in 1999 the country returned to democratic
Official name République du Niger (Republic of Niger)
Form of government multiparty republic with one legislative house
(National Assembly )
Head of state and government President assisted by Prime Minister
Official language French
Official religion none
Monetary unit CFA franc (CFAF)
Population estimate (2008) 14,731,0001
Total area (sq mi) 459,286
Total area (sq km) 1,189,546
1Estimate of UN World Population Prospects (2006 Revision).
officially Republic of Niger, French République du Niger
landlocked western African country. It is bounded on the northwest by
Algeria, on the northeast by Libya, on the east by Chad, on the south by
Nigeria and Benin, and on the west by Burkina Faso and Mali. The capital
is Niamey. The country takes its name from the Niger River, which flows
through the southwestern part of its territory. The name Niger derives
in turn from the phrase gher n-gheren, meaning “river among rivers,” in
the Tamashek language.
Niger extends for about 750 miles (1,200 kilometres) from north to
south and about 930 miles from east to west. It tends to monotony in its
features, is intersected by numerous depressions, and is dominated by
arid highlands in the north. Rainfall increases as one proceeds
southward so that the country divides naturally into three distinct
zones—a desert zone in the north; an intermediate zone, where nomadic
pastoralists raise cattle, in the centre; and a cultivated zone in the
south. It is in this southern zone that the greater part of the
population, both nomadic and settled, is concentrated.
The highlands of the north are cut by valleys (kori) of the Aïr
Massif, which is an extension of the Ahaggar (Hoggar) Mountains of
Algeria, and consists of a range running north to south in the centre of
Niger, with individual mountain masses forming separate “islands”: from
north to south these are Tazerzaït, where Mount Gréboun reaches an
altitude of 6,379 feet (1,944 metres); Tamgak; Takolokouzet;
Angornakouer; Bagzane; and Tarouadji. To the northeast is a series of
high plateaus, which form a bridge between the Ahaggar Mountains of
Algeria and the Tibesti Mountains of Chad. From west to east these are
the plateaus of Djado, Mangueni, and Tchigaï.
The sandy regions of the Nigerian Sahara extend to either side of the
Aïr. To the west the Talak region includes the Tamesna area in the north
(where fossil valleys are filled with moving sand dunes) and the Azaoua
area in the south. East of the Aïr is the Ténéré region, covered partly
by an expanse of sand called an erg, partly by a stony plain called a
The plateaus of the south, which form a belt about 900 miles long,
may be divided into three regions. To the west is the Djerma Ganda
region. Its large valleys are filled with sand, while dallol (fossilized
valleys of rivers that formed tributaries of the Niger in ancient times)
descend from the Aïr and the Iforas Massif of neighbouring Mali. The
central region consists of the rocky Adar Doutchi and Majia areas; it is
the region of the gulbi (dried-up valleys of former tributaries of the
Sokoto River) and the Tegama—a tableland of sandstone, ending, toward
the Aïr, at the Tiguidit scarp. To the east the underlying rock
reappears in the Damagarim, Mounio, and Koutous regions, to the north of
which is the region of Damergou, consisting of clays. In the Manga
region, in the east, traces of ancient watercourses appear on the sandy
Drainage and soils
It is convenient to make a distinction between the ancient
hydrographic system, which allowed agriculturalists, fishermen, and
pastoralists to live in the Aïr region about 5,000 or 6,000 years ago,
and the present simple system, which forms the basis of the marked
difference between the northern and southern parts of the country. The
present system includes to the west the Niger River basin and to the
east the basin of Lake Chad; between the two occur vestiges of the older
system, such as the dallol and the gulbi.
To the west the Niger River crosses about 350 miles of Niger’s
territory. Because of the change in river flow, which occurs because of
the dispersal of its waters in its interior delta region in Mali, it is
only in January and February that it flows past Niamey in flood. At
other times the river is fed by certain temporary watercourses that flow
in from the right bank. These are the Gorouol, the Dargol, the Sirba,
the Goroubi, the Djamangou, the Tapoa, and the Mékrou; the last two flow
through the “W” National Park (so called because the Niger flows through
the area in the form of a W). On the left bank, proceeding eastward,
appear the dallol, the vestiges of the older watercourses. Generally
running from north to south, they constitute zones of dampness, although
a few still contain waters that flow toward the Niger. The best known
are the Bosso, the Foga, and the Maouri wadis. Other vestiges consist of
the kori, which run down from the Aïr and from former tributaries that
had their sources in the Iforas Massif, and which flowed to a confluence
at what is now the Ti-m-merhsoï Wadi. No waters flow through the kori
now, but water is still to be found beneath their sands. Other remnants
of the old system are formed by the gulbi, through which water still
flows annually, occasionally causing damage.
To the east is situated the basin of Lake Chad, a large, shallow
lake, which at its highest contemporary level has an area of
approximately 9,650 square miles; of this, Niger possesses about 1,100
square miles. Its extent is considerably reduced during the dry season.
The Komadougou Yobé River, which flows into Lake Chad from the west,
forms part of the frontier between Niger and Nigeria. Its water level,
which begins to rise in August, from January to May consists only of
some stagnant pools.
In addition to the drainage system described, it may be noted that
rainwater collects in several basins, so that some permanent lakes or
pools also exist; these are found at Keïta and Adouna in the Adar
Doutchi region, at Madaroumfa in the Maradi gulbi, and at Guidimouni to
the east of Zinder. The water table in some areas can also be tapped to
produce artesian wells.
The soils fall into three natural regions. In the Saharan region in
the north the soil is infertile, except in a few oases where water is
found. In the region known as the Sahel, which forms a transitional zone
between the Sahara and the region to the south, the soils are thin and
white, being covered with salty deposits resulting from intense
evaporation that forms an infertile surface crust. The third region (in
the south) is cultivated. In this area the soils are associated with
extensive dunes or uplands or with basins or depressions. Some of the
soils in the latter, such as those in the Niger basin and in the gulbi,
are rich. Black soils occur in the Kolo basin. Throughout the region,
however, and above all on the plateaus, less fertile lateritic (leached
iron-bearing) soils occur.
Niger extends southward from the tropic of Cancer, and the northern
two-thirds of its territory lies in dry tropical desert. In the southern
part of the country the climate is of the type known as Sahelian, which
is characterized by a single, short rainy season. In January and
February the continental equivalent of the northeast trade winds, the
harmattan, blows southwestward from the Sahara toward the equator.
Typically dust-laden, dry, and desiccating, the harmattan hinders normal
living conditions on the southern fringe of the desert. From April to
May the southern trade winds blowing from the Atlantic reach the equator
and are diverted toward the Sahara where they meet with the harmattan—an
encounter that results in violent line squalls and that signals the
beginning of the rainy season. The rains last from one to four months,
according to the latitude; August is the rainy month everywhere except
in the far north, where the rainfall is unpredictable.
Niger lies in one of the hottest regions of the world. Temperatures
rise from February to May and drop during the “winter” rainy season,
rising again somewhat before falling to their annual minimum averages in
December or January. During May (the hottest month), afternoon
temperatures are high everywhere, ranging from a low of about 108° F
(42° C) at Nguigmi on Lake Chad to 113° F (45° C) at Bilma and Agadez,
both in the northern desert. In January, afternoon temperatures average
more than 90° F (mid-30s C) at most stations but at night may drop to
freezing level in the desert. The daily range is greater in the desert
north than in the south and is also more extreme during the dry season.
Rainfall varies according to location as well as season. The 10-inch
isohyet (line on a map connecting points having equal rainfall) follows
a line from near Tahoua to Gouré, in effect marking the northern limit
of nomadic pastoral life, for the rainfall permits a sparse vegetation
to grow. To the extreme south the 30-inch isohyet marks the southern
limit of this zone, after which the southern agricultural zone begins.
In the course of the same rainy season a most irregular spatial pattern
of rainfall may occur, while from one year to another the total amount
of rainfall may also vary; in addition, the rainy season itself may
arrive early or late, thus jeopardizing crops.
Plant and animal life
The vegetation of the desert zone clusters around the oases; it
includes the date palm and cultivated corn (maize). Animal life, which
must be able to endure hunger and thirst, includes the dromedary.
In the Sahel zone, where the doum palm and the cram-cram (Cenchrus
biflorus, a prickly grass) appear, the vegetation has a short life cycle
and is principally used for grazing. Animal life includes the ostrich
and the gazelle.
In the cultivated zone the vegetation includes acacia trees, doum
palms, and palmyra palms, as well as baobabs. Wildlife, which has
partially disappeared, includes antelope, elephants, and warthogs;
giraffes are found in the Zarmaganda and Damergou regions, and
hippopotamuses and crocodiles on the banks of the Niger. The extreme
southwest is a savanna region where baobabs, kapok trees, and tamarind
trees occur. Animal life is preserved in the “W” National Park, where
antelope, lions, buffalo, hippopotamuses, and elephants may be seen.
The southern part of Niger’s territory is situated in the vast
region of Africa known as the Sudan, in which, in former times, large
political states arose, such as Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, as well as the
Hausa states, the empire of Sokoto, and Bornu. The northern part of
Niger remains the domain of the Tuareg. The country comprises a
multitude of traditional regions, the names of which remain despite the
establishment of contemporary administrative divisions. All these
regions have a fluctuating political, economic, and geographic
significance: the Hausa regions, for example, have been cut in two and
divided between Niger and Nigeria. Most regions, moreover, have been and
remain zones where contact takes place between different peoples—between
the Hausa and the Tuareg in the Adar Doutchi region, for example;
between the Tuareg and the Kanuri in the Damergou region; and between
Hausa and Zarma (Zerma, Djerma) in the Aréoua area.
About one-fifth of the population live in towns. The rural population
comprises nomads and sedentary peoples. There are some 10,000 villages,
of which approximately half have only a few hundred inhabitants; there
are practically no villages in the desert zone. Fulani (Peul) herdsmen,
who breed horned cattle and oxen, and the Tuareg, who raise goats,
sheep, and dromedaries, tend to travel over the northern region during
the winter. They meet together to permit the cattle to lick the salty
soil of the In Gall region during August and September but move
southward during the dry season. Both Fulani and Tuareg live in tribal
groups, in temporary or portable shelters, and gain their subsistence
from their livestock. The Fulani subsist above all on milk in various
forms; the Tuareg live on meat and dates.
Sedentary peoples, such as the Hausa, the Songhai-Zarma, and the
Kanuri, who inhabit the Niger and Chad basins, live largely by
agriculture. They raise millet, rice, corn, peanuts (groundnuts), and
cotton. They also work as blacksmiths and shoemakers, while on the banks
of Lake Chad and the Niger the Buduma and Sorko peoples are fishermen.
Sedentary peoples live in dwellings that vary from those made of straw
to those made of banco (hardened mud), although the Wogo people live in
tents of delicate matting.
There is a tendency among the nomads to settle down, and the already
sedentary peoples are expanding the lands under cultivation toward the
north. Rural life, above all in its sedentary form, tends to slow its
pace during the long dry season; it is at this time of year that
migration to the towns or other countries occurs.
It was approximately in the 15th century that a few towns, such as
Agadez or Zinder, were first established as halting places, or depots,
on the trans-Saharan caravan routes. As commercial routes gradually
developed on the coasts, however, these northern towns lost their former
economic importance, while other centres, such as Birni Nkonni, and
Tessaoua, declined in the course of the 19th century as a result of the
There are four principal towns in Niger. Niamey, the political
capital, has experienced rapid growth. It has a cosmopolitan character
and a transient population. Its characteristic life varies between the
European and African rural styles, including various intermediate steps,
of which the life-style of the évolués (educated Africans) is the most
distinctive. Zinder, for which the African name is Damagaram, is an
older town than Niamey; a Hausa town, it was the capital of Niger until
1926 and has a number of skilled craftsmen, especially leatherworkers
and dyers. The town has experienced some industrial growth and has close
links with Nigeria. Maradi has developed rapidly. The town is situated
in the heart of the peanut-growing region near the Nigerian frontier.
Many European companies have established branches there; the town is
particularly renowned for its red goats, the skins of which are exported
to Europe and the Americas. Tahoua has grown up on the edge of the
desert. There it forms a large livestock market, where pastoralists and
farmers meet. All of the towns remain little more than modest
administrative and commercial centres, but because of the discovery of
uranium ore Agadez has experienced a spectacular growth.
The largest linguistic group is formed by the Hausa, whose language,
also spoken in Nigeria, is one of the most important in western Africa.
A large percentage of the inhabitants of Niger understand Hausa, which
possesses an abundant literature that has been printed in Latin
characters in Nigeria. Songhai is the second most important language; it
is also spoken in Mali, in northern Burkina Faso, and in northern Benin.
In Niger itself it is divided into various dialects, such as Songhai
proper, Zarma, and Dendi. The language of the Fulani is Fula; in Niger
it has two dialects, eastern and western, the demarcation line between
them running through the Boboye district. Tamashek is the language of
the Tuareg, who often call themselves the Kel Tamagheq, or Tamashek
speakers. The language is also spoken in Algeria and Mali and possesses
its own writing, called tifinagh, which is in widespread use. Kanuri is
spoken not only in Niger but also in Cameroon and Nigeria; the tongue is
called Beriberi by the Hausa. While these five languages are the
principal ones spoken in Niger, there is also an important Teda
linguistic group in the Tibesti region. In addition, many of the peoples
of Niger speak Arabic, and a still larger number read and write in that
language; Agadez possesses one of the oldest Arabic schools in Africa.
The use of the Arabic alphabet resulted in Fula and Hausa becoming
written languages; the script is called ajami; a search for more old
manuscripts in ajami is being conducted.
By using Hausa and Songhai, one may make oneself understood from one
end of the country to the other. French, however, remains the official
language, as well as the language of instruction, although it remains
understood only by a small minority. English is taught as the principal
foreign language in secondary schools.
Ethnic groups correspond to the five linguistic groups already
mentioned. The Hausa are the largest group, constituting more than half
of the present population, though the majority of the Hausa people live
in Nigeria. The Hausa occupy the centre of southern Niger as far as
Dogondoutchi. The Songhai-Zarma are found in the southwest; the Songhai
proper live along the Niger, where they are assimilating the Kurtey and
Wogo peoples. The majority of the Songhai people as a whole, however,
live in Mali. The Zarma live on the left bank of the Niger, remaining in
close contact with the Mauri and Arewa peoples. The Fulani, who are
dispersed throughout the country, are mostly nomadic; they are also
found dispersed throughout western Africa. The Tuareg, also nomadic, are
divided into three subgroups—the Iullemmiden of the Azaouak region in
the west, the Asben (Kel Aïr) in the Aïr region, and the Itesen (Kel
Geres) to the south and east of Aïr. The Tuareg people are also found in
Algeria and in Mali. The Kanuri, who live to the east of Zinder, are
divided into a number of subgroups—the Manga, the Dogara (Dagara), the
Mober, the Buduma, and the Kanembu; they are also found living in Chad,
Cameroon, and Nigeria. Apart from the nomadic Teda of the Tibesti
region, who constitute an important minority, the remainder of the
population consists of Arabs, black Africans from other countries, and
Europeans, of whom the greater part are French.
More than 95 percent of the population adhere to the Sunnite branch
of Islām. Although the Annaawaa group of Hausa have always refused to
accept Islām, as have a group of Fulani, the Wodaabe—who distinguish
themselves from other Fulani for this reason—Islām remains the religion
of the majority of both Hausa and Fulani. Christianity (Roman
Catholicism and Protestantism) remains a religion of the towns,
particularly of Niamey. There are several Christian missions in the
Songhai and Arewa areas. Christianity is primarily a European religion,
although it is also practiced by some black Africans from other
countries. The traditional animist religions of the black Africans
continue to manifest themselves in strength.
The economic system is based upon planning but accords an important
role to private enterprise. The three main policy objectives are the
maintenance of national unity, the elevation of the living standards of
the population, and the attainment of economic independence. The private
sector of the economy consists partly of a multitude of small
enterprises and partly of enterprises belonging to large French or
international companies. The government, through the agency of the
Development Bank of the Republic of Niger, which is funded partly by aid
from abroad, has promoted the establishment of many companies, including
real estate, road transport, air transport, and agricultural processing
Niger is encouraging economic links between African countries. Apart
from its membership in the Organization of African Unity, Niger is a
member—together with Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Burkina Faso, and Togo—of the
Conseil de l’Entente, a regional cooperative group, as well as of the
Organisation Commune Africaine et Mauricienne, another group of
French-speaking African states.
Salt is traditionally exploited in the Kaouar and Aïr regions, as
well as in the dallol, and in the Manga district. Natron (hydrated
sodium carbonate) is extracted locally. Cassiterite (an ore of tin) is
mined at open workings in Aïr. Small quantities of gold are obtained by
panning in the Sirba River. Limestone and an important deposit of gypsum
have been located at Malbaza and in the Ader Doutchi and Majia region.
Niger’s known reserves of uranium rank among the most important in the
world. Apart from tungsten in the Aïr region, traces of copper, lignite
(a brownish black coal), molybdenum, zinc, phosphates, and titanium have
been found and are the subject of further prospection. A reserve of iron
ore, with an iron content of about 50 percent, has been located in the
Say region; and petroleum deposits have been discovered in the Lake Chad
The exploitation of plant resources has long been practiced but on a
small scale. The doum palm and the palmyra palm provide wood for
construction, while the palms of the Manga oasis produce dates. Small
amounts of kapok (a silky down from the kapok tree, used for insulation,
life jackets, and so forth) and of gum from the acacia gum tree are
exported. Skins of ostriches, crocodiles, and snakes are used for making
handicrafts that are exported to Europe. Fish from the Niger River and
Lake Chad are exported southward to the coastal countries.
Agriculture and agricultural products constitute the largest sector
of Niger’s economy in terms of the number of persons employed and the
percentage of gross national product (GNP). Millet and sorghum, the main
food crops, are grown in the south, as are cassava and sugarcane. Rice
is grown in the Niger River valley. Peanuts are the most important cash
crop; other important crops include cotton and pulses.
Livestock is an important sector of the agricultural economy and is a
major export. Cattle, sheep, and goats are raised for meat, milk, and
Niger’s ability to remain self-sufficient in food and livestock
production is closely linked to rainfall, and periods of drought have
resulted in shortfalls requiring imports and food aid. To increase
production and avoid cereal shortfalls, the government has invested in
irrigation projects and an “off-season growing program” of small-scale
production and irrigation operations.
Niger is one of the world’s leading producers of uranium, which is
mined at Arlit, Akouta, and Tassa. Extraction at the Arlit site is
undertaken by the French-controlled Société des Mines de l’Aïr (SOMAIR).
The second major mining concern, the Compagnie Minière d’Akouta
(COMINAK), is owned partly by the government of Niger and partly by
foreign interests. The Tassa mine opened in 1986 and is operated by
SOMAIR. The uranium industry was seriously affected by the fall in
uranium prices in the early 1980s. Development of additional sites is
dependent upon an increase in world uranium prices.
Some manufacturing industries have been established, mostly at
Niamey. They produce chemicals, food products, textiles, farm equipment,
and metal furniture. There are many small craft industries in the
Imported petroleum, supplemented by locally mined coal, is used to
generate about half of Niger’s electricity, and the remaining amount is
imported from Nigeria. The Office of Solar Energy has produced solar
batteries, which are used in the country’s telecommunications network,
and peanut shells have been experimentally used to supplement
hydrocarbon fuels since 1968. Wood is the traditional domestic fuel.
While the economically active zone of Niger runs from east to west
across the southern part of the country, the principal lines of
communication run southward toward the coast. The two ports used by
Niger—Cotonou in Benin and Lagos in Nigeria—are each more than 600 miles
away, and Niger possesses no railroad. Traditional systems of transport
and communication are still largely relied upon. These include camel
caravans in the northern Sahel region, canoes on Lake Chad and the
Niger, and individual travel on horseback or on foot. Only a small
tonnage of goods is transported.
Trucks maintain transport communications between Maradi and Zinder in
Niger and Kano in Nigeria, and between Niamey and Parakou in Benin. A
road completed in 1981 connects the uranium-producing centres of Arlit
and Akouta to Nigerian transport links. The principal west–east road
axis enters the country from Gao in Mali, runs on the banks of the Niger
as far as Niamey, and then continues eastward to Nguigmi on Lake Chad.
From this central route, roads branch off southward. Toward the north,
routes running via Tahoua and Tânout converge near Agadez, linking Niger
to Algeria via Tamanrasset.
Air Niger is responsible for domestic air services linking the
country’s airports, including those of Tahoua, Maradi, Zinder, Agadez,
Diffa, and Arlit. Niamey has an international airport.
Administration and social conditions
Under the constitution of 1999, Niger is a republic. The president
is head of state and is elected to a five-year term by popular vote. He
appoints the prime minister and the Council of Ministers. Legislative
power is vested in the unicameral National Assembly; members are
popularly elected and serve five-year terms. Niger’s judicial system
comprises the High Court of Justice, Supreme Court, Constitutional
Court, and Courts of First Instance.
For administrative purposes, Niger is divided into seven départements
(departments)—Agadez, Diffa, Dosso, Maradi, Niamey, Tahoua, and
Zinder—each of which is administered by a prefect. Each department is
further divided into several districts, with each district led by a
Education in Niger is free, but only a small proportion of children
attend school. Primary and secondary schools and teacher-training
colleges are the responsibility of the Ministry of National Education.
Other ministries are responsible for technical education. Niger has one
of the lowest adult literacy rates in western Africa, and literacy
programs are conducted in the five principal African languages. Niamey
has a university, and the Islamic University of Niger opened at Say in
Health and welfare
The general state of health in the country is poor, and health care
facilities are inadequate, especially in rural areas. The infant
mortality rate, about 125 per 1,000 live births, is one of the highest
in western Africa. Health services concentrate on the eradication of
certain diseases in rural areas, as well as on health education.
Campaigns have been successfully waged against sleeping sickness and
meningitis, and vaccinations against smallpox and measles are
administered. Other diseases, however, such as tuberculosis, malaria,
and leprosy, remain endemic. Antituberculosis centres are located at
Niamey, Zinder, and Tahoua. The lack of finances and shortage of trained
personnel remain the principal obstacles to the improvement of health
Niger forms part of the vast Sahelian cultural region of western
Africa. Although the influence of Islām is predominant, pre-Islāmic
cultural traditions are also strong and omnipresent. Since independence,
greater interest has been shown in the country’s cultural heritage,
particularly with respect to traditional architecture, handicrafts,
dances, and music. With the assistance of the United Nations
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, a regional centre for
the collection of oral traditions has been established at Niamey. An
institution prominent in cultural life is the National Museum at Niamey.
This discussion focuses on Niger from the 14th century. For a
treatment of earlier periods and of the country in its regional context,
see western Africa, history of.
One of the central themes of the history of Niger is the
interaction between the Tuareg (and also Tubu) nomads of the vast
Saharan north and the sedentary agriculturalists of the south—that is,
the interaction between opposed yet complementary ways of life and
civilizations. Among the agriculturalists the main ethnic groups are the
Songhai-Zarma in the west, the Hausa in the centre, and the Kanuri in
the east. The Hausa have always been the most numerous. They constitute
nearly half of the total population of Niger.
In the 14th century (possibly also earlier and later) the
Tuareg-controlled kingdom of Takedda, west of the Aïr Massif, played a
prominent role in long-distance trade, notably owing to the importance
of its copper mines. Copper was then used as a currency throughout
western Africa. Archaeological evidence attests to the existence of
communities of agriculturalists, probably Songhai-speaking, in this
region, which is now desert, at the time of the kingdom of Takedda.
Takedda was succeeded at an unknown date by the sultanate of Agadez.
For many centuries the southeastern third of present-day Niger
constituted one of the most important provinces of the Kanuri empire of
Bornu. The might of Bornu was based on the control of a number of
salt-producing sites and of long-distance trade, notably along the
string of oases between Lake Chad and the Fezzan via Kawar.
The great drought of about 1735–56—the prelude to the present dry
cycle, which set in about 1880—had an adverse effect upon the natural
environment. This may explain why both the communities of
agriculturalists west of Aïr and the oases between Lake Chad and Kawar
disappeared. It may perhaps also explain in part why the Tuareg were
able to extend their control over a fair portion of the sedentary south.
At the time of the colonial conquest, the disparate regions the
French molded into an entity known as Niger may be best described as an
assemblage of peripheral borderlands. As borderlands, however, these
regions had played a significant role as zones of refuge—the west after
1591 and the Moroccan conquest of the Songhai empire and the Hausa
region much later, after the 1804 Fulani jihad in central Hausaland
(i.e., present-day northern Nigeria). In both cases the refugees were
people who had lost in the military conflicts, as well as the religious
struggles, of their respective homelands. Thus both regions became
bastions of “traditionalism” in the face of partly alien conquerors
attempting to impose Islam.
The French conquest began in earnest only in 1899. It nearly met
with disaster owing to the local population’s determined resistance
against the notorious expedition in 1899 led by the French officers
Captain Paul Voulet and Captain Charles Chanoine. It was only in 1922,
after the severe drought and famine of 1913–15 and the Tuareg uprising
of 1916–17, that the French felt safe enough to establish a regular
administration under civilian control. By then the power of the Tuareg
had been broken.
As elsewhere, the peace in French West Africa (pax gallica) meant,
among other things, the rapid spread of Islam, a steep demographic
increase, and, although exclusively among the Hausa, the extension of
cash crop cultivation. The Songhai-Zarma, on the other hand, responded
to the French tax demands by engaging themselves as seasonal labourers
in the coastal regions.
Through the reforms of 1946, France’s African subjects were in theory
granted full citizenship. Thus Niger, along with the other colonies
(renamed “overseas territories”) in black Africa, was represented in the
French parliament. Consultative-legislative assemblies were also set up
locally. These reforms secured the ascent of a tiny new elite, the
so-called évolués—i.e., those who had been trained in French schools.
Many were descendants of former slaves, and most were Songhai-Zarma.
Indeed, the people of the west had proved to be far more open to
European influence than, for instance, the Hausa.
At least until 1954–55 the French administration (headed for 12 years
by Governor Jean Toby) remained firmly in control of the political
situation. The first local executive was established in 1957. Its head,
the left-wing trade unionist Djibo Bakary, advocated a no vote in the
referendum of 1958, but 72 percent of the votes cast were in favour of a
continued link with France. Nevertheless, under Bakary’s successor, his
cousin and fellow Songhai-Zarma Hamani Diori, independence was
proclaimed on Aug. 3, 1960.
Independence and conflict
After independence was proclaimed, Diori set up a single-party
dictatorship and ruled until he was toppled in a coup in 1974. There
followed a military dictatorship headed first by Seyni Kountché (until
his death in 1987) and then by Ali Seibou. Mahamane Ousmane of the
Social Democratic Convention became president in the country’s first
multiparty presidential elections in 1993. Meanwhile, a Tuareg rebellion
that had begun in the northern part of the country in the early 1990s
gained momentum until a cease-fire agreement in 1995 ended much of the
fighting. Ousmane was ousted in 1996 during a military coup led by Col.
Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara. After a brief period of military rule,
Maïnassara was elected president in elections marred by anomalies.
Maïnassara’s administration was not well-received, and in 1999 he was
assassinated during a coup that was followed by a nine-month
transitional government led by Maj. Daouda Malam Wanké and the National
Reconciliation Council (Conseil de Reconciliation Nationale; CRN).
Later that year a new constitution was promulgated and elections were
held, leading to the subsequent return to democratic government under
President Mamadou Tandja of the National Movement for a Developing
Society (Mouvement National pour une Société de Développement; MNSD).
At the beginning of the 21st century, increasing demand for the
adoption of Islamic Sharīʿah law was the root of much conflict between
Islamic activists and Nigeriens who were not in favour of the strict
religious code. Niger struggled to maintain its fragile peace as well as
to improve its dismal economic situation. Tandja’s leadership was widely
credited with bringing political stability to Niger, and he was
reelected in 2004.
The issue of slavery—still prevalent in Niger and other West African
countries despite the fact that it is illegal—was brought to the
forefront in 2008 when the Economic Community of West African States
(ECOWAS) Court of Justice found the Nigerien government guilty of
failing to protect a woman from slavery by not enforcing the country’s
antislavery laws. Activists hailed the verdict as a historic human
rights victory and hoped that the ruling would encourage the enforcement
of antislavery laws not only in Niger but also in other West African
countries bound by the ECOWAS ruling.
2009 constitutional crisis
Under the two-term limit prescribed in the constitution, Tandja
was scheduled to step down from office in December 2009. However, in the
period leading up to the 2009 presidential election, the issue of a
third term for Tandja was a source of contention between the president
and the other branches of government. Tandja’s goal was to extend his
rule for another three years, during which time a new constitution would
be drafted that would move the country from a semi-presidential republic
to a full presidential republic; he also cited the need for his
continued leadership because of various economic development projects
that were not yet complete. To extend his rule, Tandja requested that a
referendum be held to change the constitution to allow for the
three-year extension of his term, which the National Assembly refused to
approve. He then took his request for the referendum to the country’s
Constitutional Court, but on May 26 the court issued a non-binding
ruling that the referendum would be unconstitutional without the
approval of the National Assembly; later that day Tandja dissolved the
legislative body (new legislative elections were later scheduled for
August 20). In early June Tandja created a committee to draft a new
constitution, which would provide for the three-year extension of his
rule and would remove presidential term limits. On June 5 a presidential
decree called for a referendum on this new constitution to be held on
Tandja’s actions elicited widespread discontent in the country as
well as in the international community. Strikes and demonstrations were
held to protest against the upcoming referendum. A coalition of many
political parties and civil groups, calling themselves the Front for
Defence of Democracy (FDD), challenged the presidential decree before
the Constitutional Court, and the resulting court ruling on June 12
annulled the presidential decree, declaring that the referendum could
not be held without the approval of the now-dissolved National Assembly;
this ruling, unlike the court’s previous one, was legally binding.
Tandja requested that the Constitutional Court rescind its ruling, but
it was upheld by the court on June 26. Tandja responded later that day
by announcing that he had assumed emergency powers and declaring his
intent to rule by decree. Three days later he dissolved the
Tandja was not swayed by the increasing criticism of his actions, the
accusations that he was circumventing the democratic process, or the
pressure from international donors (some of whom threatened to withhold
economic aid unless the democratic process was restored). The referendum
was held as scheduled on August 4, although opposition leaders urged
voters to boycott it. Official results indicated that more than 92
percent of the voters approved the referendum, and Tandja would thus be
able to remain in power for an additional three years after the
scheduled end of his term in December 2009.