New Internationalist

Niger

Issue 162

new internationalist
issue 162 - August 1986

COUNTRY PROFILE

Niger
[image, unknown] WHEN you arrive in Niamey today, you see an elegant, modem Sahelian city. The sand-coloured walls and graceful designs for Government offices tell you that this country has some money. So do the large hotels where you can sit and watch the camels bringing in the firewood over the Niger river. You can't help noticing the building sites around the city either - but it's only when you look closer that you see the cranes are not in use and the piles of bricks have weeds growing on them.

Niger is at the end of a uranium boom. The world demand for nuclear power during the Seventies gave a massive and unexpected boost to the economy of one of the poorest countries in the world. Niger has more than a million square kilometres of desert, considered useless by everybody except the nomadic Tuareg, until uranium deposits were found deep in a northern mountain range at Arlit.

Niger had seemed scarcely viable to the French, its former colonial rulers. When it became independent in 1960, its people staggered on by exporting ever-increasing quantities of groundnuts. But by the end of the Seventies, Niger had become the eighth largest producer of uranium. President Kountché declared defiantly 'We will sell our uranium to the devil if we have to.' The mineral was soon providing 80 per cent of Niger's export earnings, and the Government took out large short-term commercial loans on the strength of this continuing demand, which they used to finance an ambitious development strategy.

It was as if the country's military rulers knew that the money was not going to last. They combined their increased resources with a strict military order and discipline: wells were sunk, dams were built. Hedge-growing and tree-planting schemes were started to push back the desert. Seedlings sprout in odd patches of soil waiting to be moved to the front line when big enough. New trees also provide firewood - Niger's main fuel - although the search is on for renewable energy sources.

Everybody worked. The system was undoubtedly top-down and hierarchical, but it achieved its immediate aims. Niger became the only Sahelian country to grow the amount of food its population needed, at a time when its neighbours were going through the humiliating exercise of calling for ever larger quantities of food aid.

But the empty building sites tell the story of what happened as the world price for uranium fell. Niger's debt servicing burden shot up as the short-term loans fell due, and per capita income has fallen by about 30 per cent since 1980. All the European and Middle Eastern businessmen who flew into the magnificent Gaweye hotel have flown out again: now you only find the desert crossers with their two-week-old beards, and the television crews coming to see how another country has survived the drought.

Leader: President General Seyni Kountché

Economy: GNP per capita $240 (1983) (USA $11,490)
Monetary unit: CFA franc (Franc de Ia Communauté Financière Africaine)
Main exports: Uranium, groundnuts

People: 6.3 million (1984)

Health: Infant mortality: 140 per thousand (1980) (USA 11 per 1,000)
Percentage of population with access to drinking water 41 per cent (urban) 32 per cent (rural) (1980)

Culture: Religion: Muslim, animist, a few Christian
Language: French is official language

Sources: World Bank Report 1985; State of the World's Children 1986


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Wealth centred in Niamey

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Virtually self-suffient in food

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Traditional Islamic and rural society

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[image, unknown] Hierarchical, military-dominated rule.

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Male 14%, female 6% (1980)
Few children in school

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Some political prisoners

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45, very low
(USA 74 years).
Little primary health care

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