Country profile

Where is Niger? Niger’s Ténéré Desert could well be the world’s most beautiful. Dreamy dunes of orange sand rise to over 200 metres in these southern swathes of the Sahara, often topped by distant glimpses of the majestic mountains of Aïr and Ténéré. Two-thirds of Niger is desert and most of its people make their way in the more fertile south watered by the great river which gives the country its name.

Yet the desert helps define Niger in more ways than one. In the mid-1970s the country was hit hard by the merciless drought which gripped the whole of the Sahel. In the mid-1990s Niger is most likely to be mentioned in international news for the ongoing rebellion of the nomadic Tuareg people who make up ten per cent of the population.

Dubbed the ‘Kurds of Africa’ for the way they span national boundaries, rendering them a minority wherever they live, the Tuareg have been fighting the central government since May 1985. A peace accord was signed last year but broke down within three months, though the Tuareg cause will have been greatly damaged by the death of its historic leader, Mano Dayak, in a plane explosion over the Ténéré Desert on 15 December 1995.

The other thing for which Niger might receive unwelcome international recognition is its current status as the country with the worst infant and child mortality in the world. Most countries have vastly improved their rates of child survival over the last three decades. Niger made improvements too but has sunk in the last few years to reach exactly the same appalling level of child deaths as it suffered at independence from France in 1960.

As this suggests, the needs of the poorest have hardly been met by the country’s governments – neither that of the first President Diori Hamani nor those spawned by the succession of coups d’état which began with his toppling in 1974. The most recent of these coups was on 27 January this year, when Colonel Ibrahim Baré Mainassara took power at the head of a National Salvation Council (he was promoted to General in May). The coup at least put an end to the interminable dispute between the previous president and prime minister, who came from opposing political camps and had resisted all attempts at mediation despite the constitutional paralysis.

Like most other countries in Africa, Niger has been pursuing stringent economic adjustment policies, especially since the devaluation of the French African franc (CFA) at the insistence of France and the IMF in January 1994. These harsh economic measures have resulted in considerable hardship for ordinary people and provoked a series of strikes by the Federation of Trade Unions of Niger.

Niger is unquestionably one of the poorest countries in the world but its future does not have to be bleak. Its mineral potential is vast and large oil deposits have recently been discovered in the east.

It had an all-too-brief economic boom in the 1970s when the West invested in nuclear power and bought the uranium found under Niger’s desert. ‘We will sell our uranium to the devil if we have to,’ said then-President Kountché, and Niger is still the world’s second-largest producer of uranium after Canada. Any wealth that arises from these mineral resources should be invested in human-development initiatives that will allow many more of Niger’s children to survive beyond their first year: the current levels of infant mortality are nothing short of an outrage.

Themon Djaksam


LEADER: General Ibrahim Baré Mainassara

ECONOMY: $270 (Canada $19,970).
Monetary unit: CFA franc.
Main exports: uranium concentrates; live animals; vegetables; hides and skins; cotton. Around 65% of exports go to France. Uranium accounts for about 75% of export earnings.
Main imports: capital goods; oil and oil products; food; textiles; paper. Around 32% of imports come from France.
Mining and industry only involve 10 per cent of the official workforce.

PEOPLE: 8.9 million. Most people live in the more fertile part of the country.

HEALTH: Infant mortality 191 per 1,000 live births - by some distance the worst record in the world (Japan 4 per 1,000).

CULTURE: The Hausa are the largest ethnic group, with 53% of the population. The Songhai account for 22% and the Fulani and the Tuareg for 10% each.
Religion: Mainly Muslim but there is a Christian minority as well as traditional beliefs.
Languages: French is the official language but Hausa, Jerma and Tamacheq (the language of the Tuareg) are also widely spoken.

Sources: State of the World’s Children 1996, UNICEF; The World: A Third World Guide 1995/96; Africa Review 1996; information supplied by the author.

Previously profiled August 1986


[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The devaluation of the CFA franc in 1994 hit ordinary people hard.
1986 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown]
At just 12%, Niger has the lowest literacy rate in the world.
1986 [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Likely to remain heavily dependent on aid for the foreseeable future.
1986 [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Slight signs of relaxation now that post-coup ban on political parties has been lifted.
1986 [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown]
Very timid signs of improvement despite Islamic religious leaders’ opposition to a more modern role.
1986 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown]
46 years, the world’s seventh-lowest (France 77 years).
1986 [image, unknown]


[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The way that General Baré Mainassara abolished the Independent National Electoral Commission and then conducted the presidential election of July 1996, declaring himself the outright winner in the first round, will hardly have encouraged optimism about democratic progress.

NI star rating

[image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown]

[image, unknown] Issue 284 Contents

[image, unknown] NI Home Page

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996