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Niger



Atlas Niger

Country (long form)
Republic of Niger
Capital
Niamey
Total Area
489,191.43 sq mi
1,267,000.00 sq km
Population
10,075,511 (July 2000 est.)
Estimated Population in 2050
28,457,437
Languages
French (official), Hausa, Djerma
Literacy
13.6% total, 20.9% male, 6.6% female (1995 est.)
Religions
Muslim 80%, remainder indigenous beliefs and Christians
Life Expectancy
41.43 male, 41.11 female (2000 est.)
Government Type
republic
Currency
1 Communaute Financiere Africaine franc (CFAF) = 100 centimes
GDP (per capita)
$1,000 (1999 est.)
Labor Force (by occupation)
agriculture 90%, industry and commerce 6%, government 4%
Industry
uranium mining, cement, brick, textiles, food processing, chemicals, slaughterhouses
Agriculture
cowpeas, cotton, peanuts, millet, sorghum, cassava (tapioca), rice; cattle, sheep, goats, camels, donkeys, horses, poultry
Arable Land
3%
Exports
uranium ore 65%, livestock products, cowpeas, onions (1998 est.)
Imports
consumer goods, primary materials, machinery, vehicles and parts, petroleum, cereals
Natural Resources
uranium, coal, iron ore, tin, phosphates, gold, petroleum
Current Environmental Issues
overgrazing; soil erosion; deforestation; desertification; wildlife populations (such as elephant, hippopotamus, giraffe, and lion) threatened because of poaching and habitat destruction
Telephones (main lines in use)
13,000 (1995)
Telephones (mobile cellular)
0 (1995)
Internet Service Providers (ISPs)
1 (1999)

History
The first recognisable empire in the region was the Kanem-Bornu Empire that flourished between the 10th and 13th century, and again briefly in the 16th. This was about the same time that the Hausa clans were moving from Nigeria into Niger, followed quickly by the Djerma, descendants of the Songhaï. Sultans from these clans carved out empires for themselves, making a killing on the lucrative trade routes, with gold and by providing an endless supply of subjects for the slave trade. Niger remained the exclusive province of the sultans until 1898, when the French stormed the country with all the subtlety and finesse of a sledgehammer, and added yet another name to their list of colonised countries. A strange economic turnabout occurred at the end of the 19th century when drought caused a bullish market for salt and the seasoning became, quite literally, worth its weight in gold.

By the end of the 1950s, when colonisation started to get a bit whiffy on the ideological nose, de Gaulle offered a sop to the West African colonies in the form of self-government in a French Union, or independence, knowing full well that independence would spell economic disaster for countries propped up by French-owned infrastructures. Although the original vote was for self-government, the next two years saw a lot of political argument between the government and a number of disenchanted parties agitating for full independence. When Niger finally gained full independence in 1960, Hamani Diori was elected president unopposed, and, with help from a sympathetic French administration, remained in political power until the droughts of '73 and '74. The droughts that affected most of the sub-Sahel countries knocked Niger for six years and, even today, the country has not fully recovered from its effects. When food stockpiles were found in the homes of Diori's ministers during the drought, it marked the end of Diori's rule. A bloody coup ensued and Senyi Kountché, a military officer, was put in the driver's seat.

It was good timing for Kountché. Shortly after coming to power Niger discovered uranium, becoming the fifth largest uranium producer in the non-socialist world. This unexpected windfall brought with it a heady illusion of wealth, and it was champagne, caviar, big dreams, and new buildings all round, although generally this was true only for the entrepreneurs and go-getters. The poor remained poor. The dream came crashing down in the early '80s when global opposition to uranium mining caused a collapse in world demand, and the uranium-fueled boom went bust. The ex-pats with money were branded illegal aliens and sent home, and the streets began to fill with ex-entrepreneurs fallen on hard times, and one-time businessmen begging for small change.

Kountché's honesty saw him avoid the bloody coups of former times and he continued on for another five years or so before dying in the saddle. Colonel Ali Saibou took over the reins with promises of democracy and reform, but it soon became obvious that this was just empty rhetoric, and little was had in the way of genuine reform. In the late '80s and '90s the cities were crippled by mass student demonstrations and workers' strikes, but even more debilitating for the government was the rebel Tuareg movement in the countryside, centred around Agadez. In 1990 the Tuareg launched an all out assault on the government over a string of empty promises and an even emptier cookie jar. Drought, desertification, modernisation, and urban change had all combined to threaten the traditional Tuareg way of life and, after many years of negotiation, the government had promised financial aid and assistance to preserve the Tuareg culture, but the aid was never forthcoming and the money earmarked for the Tuaregs disappeared. Rebel warfare, banditry, violent clashes, and general lawlessness continued unabated for over a year.

In 1991, at a specially convened conference, Saibou was stripped of his power, a new constitution was drafted, and an interim government was elected to run the country until the multiparty elections of 1992. Mohamane Ousmane, the winner of this election, set about restoring good relations with the Tuareg, but the Tuareg remained understandably suspicious and intransigent after so many false promises. Finally, in 1993 a kind of peace was brokered between the two sides, but the peace remained highly-strung. In 1996 Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara took over as president, and the country reverted to its pre-treaty shambolic state, with workers' strikes, threatened military actions, political unrest, banditry, widespread poverty, and Tuareg rebellions breaking out all over the place.

In April 1999, Nigerien politics reached Machiavellian heights when President Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara was gunned down by his own bodyguard, Daouda Malam Wanke, an event that the Prime Minister was to optimistically label an 'unfortunate accident'. Shortly after the 'unfortunate accident' an interim government was formed, headed by the very same Daouda Malam Wanke. This brutal act of political expediency alienated the French who threatened to withdraw aid unless Niger rethought its position on 'election procedures' and 'unfortunate accidents' and tried using ballot boxes rather than bullets. Wanke quickly set about a return to democratic rule with peaceful elections in October and November 1999, at which Tandja Mamadou was elected with over 59% of the vote. In the 83-seat National Assembly (only one of whose MPs is a woman), Mamadou forged a coalition majority with supporters of former President Ousmane.

The current government seems to be functioning smoothly and moderately, and so far the nation can take pride in the impressively swift transition from military to democratic rule. However, civil unrest among students and soldiers in particular are ever-present, and the economic situation is a constant worry. Negative GDP growth since 1990, a heavy reliance on imports, shrinking arable land and falling uranium export prices have all helped to impoverish Niger. Over 60% of the population lives on less than US$1 a day, and in 2002 Niger still languished in second-to-last place on the UN's Human Development Index; it is hoped that World Bank loans and IMF aid and debt relief amounting to US$300 million, announced in 2000, will improve matters. Even so, the task that confronts the government is enormous, and many people are looking to tourism as a potential economic saviour.