Photo by Giacomo Pirozzi / PANOS

The top tourist destination in Niger until the late 1980s, the city of Agadez – located in the dead centre of the country – is today no more than a shadow of its former self. The travel agencies and boutiques selling objets d’art that once proliferated there have mostly shut down. Western tourists who used to be drawn to the Ténéré, one of the most vast and beautiful deserts in the world, come no longer, due to the recurrent rebellions in the region.

Flag of Niger

The first armed rebellion between 1990 and 1995 was led by the Tuaregs – the dominant ethnic group in that area – and there has been renewed conflict since February 2007. The Tuareg rebel leaders declare that they have taken up arms again because the terms of peace accords signed in 1995 have not been met and local people have seen no benefit from the sale of uranium extracted from their region.

This new conflict, which the Government dismisses as being the work of armed bandits, has had repercussions for other regions in Niger. Anti-tank mines have wounded and killed civilians in the cities of Tahoua, Maradi and Niamey, and in December 2008 two UN diplomats were abducted by a local incarnation of al-Qaeda, which finally set them free in April 2009.

This kidnapping served further to tarnish the world’s image of Niger, already negative thanks to recurrent natural disasters like drought and the 2005 famine that affected more than three million people. To the lingering food insecurity is added poor access to healthcare, especially for women and children: Niger has the highest lifetime risk of maternal death in the world, and the 11th highest under-five mortality rate.

The politics of this former French colony, which gained its independence in 1960, have been plagued by military coups ever since the country’s first president, Hamani Diori, was deposed in 1974. The military kept a firm grip on the country until Africa’s wave of democratic change reached Niger in 1993, but two further coups have interrupted the democratic process since.

Colonel Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara, who deposed President Mahamane Ousmane in 1996, was beaten to death in April 1999 by members of his own presidential guard. Democracy was eventually restored after a nine-month transition.

But a new threat has now appeared with the decision of President Mamadou Tandja, head of state since 2000, to change the constitution so as to allow himself to stay in power beyond his second and last four-year term of office, which expires at the end of this year. The political opposition, civil society organizations and trade unions are on a state of alert. The international community is threatening to impose sanctions on Niger in the event that Tandja refuses to step down.

Sanctions would be a disaster for ordinary people in Niger, since the functioning of the state still depends to a large extent on financial resources supplied by the international community via the country’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) – effectively what the IMF and World Bank came up with as an alternative when its structural adjustment programmes so manifestly failed. The first phase of the PRSP from 2003 to 2007 did not significantly impact on the poverty affecting 63 per cent of Nigériens – 59 per cent live on less than a dollar a day. Niger has significant reserves of uranium, gold, oil and coal that are attracting numerous foreign investors, and the Government needs to handle the money that derives from this properly. But aid remains vital for the moment.

‘A country like Niger, ranked 174th [of 179] in UNDP’s Human Development Index, cannot be developed by reducing poverty,’ says Youssouf Mayahi, an economist at Niamey University. ‘Development will come through the eradication of poverty, pure and simple.’

Issa Ousseini

Map of Niger