Introduction

Niger lies on the southern edge of the Sahara desert and is classified by the United Nations as one of the poorest countries in the world.

Most of its 15 million people are subsistence farmers and nomadic pastoralists.

They suffer from recurrent drought, crop failure and lack of pasture for their cows, sheep and goats.

They are never far from hunger.

According to the UN World Food Programme (WFP), the failure of seasonal rains in 2009 and 2010 forced nearly eight million people – half the population – to rely on food aid.

Following another poor harvest in 2011, WFP was planning to provide food aid to 3.3 million people – nearly a quarter of the population - in 2012.

Niger’s growing population and increasingly erratic climate have increased pressure on the environment.

Much of the country’s agricultural and grazing land has become degraded.

There is very little irrigation away from the River Niger, which sweeps through the southwest corner of the country, and almost no mechanised farming.

This landlocked former French colony relies almost entirely on rain-fed agriculture and labour-intensive farming techniques.

For several decades, impoverished farmers have been leaving the countryside to seek work abroad.

Many work as seasonal labourers in other West African countries, returning home to plant their fields in the rainy season.

Others migrate clandestinely across the Sahara to North Africa and onwards to Europe.

The money they send home to their families is a mainstay of Niger’s economy.

Administrative map of Niger

Source: United Nations

According to the World Bank, 61% of all Nigeriens live in extreme poverty on less than one US dollar per day.

Niger was classified 186th out of the 187 countries listed in the UN Human Development Index for 2011 – just ahead of the bottom placed Democratic Republic of Congo.

The government depends on foreign aid to meet nearly half its spending.

It has been difficult for democracy to take root in such a poor and fragile society, but since April 2011, Niger has enjoyed a return to elected civilian government.

The country has experienced four military coups since independence in 1960 and has endured long years of military rule.

However, the latest military takeover in February 2010 ended 11 years of authoritarian rule by President Mamadou Tandja and paved the way for fresh elections and a more liberal democratic regime.

Tandja, a former military officer, was elected head of state in 1999. He was re-elected for a second term in 2004.

But Tandja provoked a political crisis in 2009 when he attempted to change the constitution to allow him to serve a third successive term in power.

He ignored a key ruling against his plans by the constitutional court, dissolved parliament and attempted to rule by decree.

The military junta which assumed power following Tandja’s overthrow held presidential and parliamentary elections in January and March 2011 and returned Niger to civilian government.

Veteran opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou was elected head of state in a two-stage presidential poll which was widely praised as free and fair.

He assumed power in April 2011.

Corruption flourished under Tandja and remains a serious problem.

Niger was rated 134 out of 183 countries listed by Transparency International in its 2011 Corruption Perception Index.

President Issoufou attempted to punish several high-ranking individuals accused of corruption during the Tandja regime shortly after he came to office.

This move may have been a factor behind a failed coup attempt against him in July 2011.

Niger is the world’s fifth largest producer of uranium. This highly radioactive metal is the country’s main export.

The uranium mines are situated near Arlit in the desert north. All the mines in production in early 2012 were controlled by French and Chinese interests.

The uranium mines are situated close to the main trade route across the Sahara. This runs north from Agadez through Arlit to Tamenrasset in southern Algeria.

A long-running rebellion by the nomadic Tuareg people has caused insecurity in northern Niger for decades.

Despite a series of peace deals over the years, the Tuareg rebellion has continued to simmer away with occasional flare-ups. There have been frequent attacks on road traffic and military units in northern Niger and occasional raids on the Arlit uranium mines.

Banditry and smuggling, especially the transport of clandestine African migrants heading for the Mahgreb and Europe, are rife.

Since 2001 an Islamic fundamentalist guerrilla movement that operates in several countries in the Sahara desert has emerged as a new threat to security in Niger.

This group is known as Al Qaeda in the Mahgreb (AQIM). It grew out of an Islamist rebel movement in southern Algeria. In recent years AQIM has extended its attacks to targets in Niger, Mali and Mauritania.

In September 2010 seven expatriates working for the French uranium mining firm Areva were kidnapped near Arlit by AQIM. More than a year later, four Frenchmen among those taken hostage were still being held prisoner.

In January 2011 two French men were kidnapped by AQIM at gunpoint in a restaurant popular with foreigners in the capital Niamey. They were subsequently killed during a botched rescue attempt by French and Nigerien forces.

The desert-dwelling Tuareg people have been demanding autonomy ever since Niger’s independence from France.

In the 1970s and 80s many Tuaregs received military training from the government of Colonel Muammar Gadaffi in Libya. They subsequently took up arms against the government of Niger.

The most recent Tuareg rebellion took place from 2007 to 2009. That uprising saw the Tuareg rebels in Niger join forces with their counterparts in neighbouring Mali.

In 2011, the overthrow and killing of Gaddafi in Libya triggered an exodus of refugees and returning migrant workers to Niger. The returnees included thousands of Tuaregs who had served in Gaddafi’s security forces.

The victorious insurgent forces in Libya labelled most Tuaregs and black immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa as mercenaries fighting to defend Gaddafi’s regime.

As the rebels gained the upper hand in the civil war, many of these African migrants fled for their lives – mostly across the southern border into Niger.

About 100,000 Nigeriens who had been living and working in Libya returned home, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

They were joined by tens of thousands of other West Africans heading home across the Sahara desert.

Most of these people made an overland dash to Agadez, the main town in northern Niger. Many of them turned up there destitute, but heavily armed.

In September 2011 several high profile members of the Gaddafi regime also began to arrive in heavily armed convoys accompanied by Tuareg fighters.

The mass return of armed Tuaregs who had formerly fought for Gaddafi presents a new security risk for Niger.

How the government deals with these people will be critical for security in the north.

Language map of Niger

Source: Ethnologue.com

The most common language spoken in Niger is Hausa.

This is the first language of most of the farming communities in southern Niger and is the main lingua franca of the country.

About 60% of Nigeriens speak Hausa as their first language.

Djerma (also spelled Zarma) is widely spoken in southwestern Niger in the area around the capital Niamey. It is the first language of about 23% of the population.

Further north, the nomadic Peul people speak Peul (also known as Fulfulde or Fulani) and the Tuareg speak Tamasheq. Each of these languages is spoken by about 10% of the population.

French is the official language of government, but it is spoken only by a small educated elite.

According to a study carried out by the global French language cultural organisation La Francophonie “La langue francaise dans le monde 2010”, www.francophonie.org/IMG/pdf/Synthese-Langue-Francaise-2010.pdf less than 15% of people in Niger speak French.

Nearly all Nigeriens are Muslims.

People who have received a religious education have some knowledge of Arabic.

The language is also widely understood in northern Niger, where there is much social inter-action with neighbouring Algeria and Libya.

By and large Niger does not suffer from violent ethnic divisions.

However the desert north, where many people have close links with the Arabic culture of North Africa, feels culturally very different to the savannah scrubland of the south, where more than 80% of the population lives.

The southerners are mostly settled in villages and plant crops during the annual rainy season. They look south to the black states of West Africa for inspiration.

The northerners are mainly nomadic pastoralists.

Niger is divided into eight administrative regions – Niamey, Tillaberi, Dosso, Tahoua, Agadez, Maradi, Zinder and Diffa.

Each one is named after the city which serves as its capital.

Most of Niger’s government, business and media activities are concentrated in these eight urban centres.

Niamey, situated on the banks of the river Niger, is the seat of government and the main centre of media production.

But Maradi, Niger’s second city, 650 km to the east is the country’s main commercial hub. It has strong links with nearby Nigeria.

Niger’s imports of food, fuel and manufactured goods mostly come by road from Nigeria.

Some imports also come via Benin from the Atlantic ports of Cotonou and Lome.

Most Nigeriens practise a mix of livestock rearing and agriculture.

In the south, drought-resistant cereals such as millet and sorghum are planted during the rainy season, which usually lasts from June to October.

But many men migrate to other West African countries in search of work during the long dry season when there is little for them to do at home.

Traditionally most have headed for Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire.

Although uranium remains Niger’s main export, other minerals are also being developed.

Gold mining began in 2007 at Mont Samira near the south-western border with Burkina Faso.

Oil production was due to start on a modest scale at Diffa near Lake Chad in the far south-east of Niger in 2012. The Chinese National Petroleum Company was working to develop oil production near Lake Chad in both Niger and Chad.

Four mobile phone companies provide good network coverage in the more densely populated south and west of Niger.

However, there is almost no mobile phone coverage in the desert north and east away from the towns strung out along the main road to Algeria.

One in four Nigeriens own a mobile phone.

At a glance: 

Statistic

Value

Population (World Bank 2011):

15.2 million

Main languages (Rough guide to Niger):

French (official), Hausa (60%), Djerma (23%),
Tamasheq (10%), Peul (10%), Arabic

Per Capita GDP (World Bank 2011):

$1,118

Adult literacy rate (UNESCO 2005):

28.7%

Radio sets in country (CIA World Factbook 2003):

680,000

TV sets in country (CIA World Factbook 2003):

125,000

Mobile phone subscribers (ITU 2010):

3.8 million

Mobile phone penetration rate (ITU 2010):

24.5 %

Mobile network coverage – population (Sahelcom 2012):

65%

Mobile network coverage - land area (Sahelcom 2012):

45%

Internet usage rate (ITU 2010):

0.8%

Ranking in UN Human Development Index 2011:

186 out of 187

Ranking on Reporters Sans Frontieres Index 2010:

104 out of 178