On August 3rd, 2020 Niger, sharing the name with a river on its territory, celebrates 60 years of independence from France, which sent military missions there in the late 1890s, but only in 1922 declared it a formal colony within French West Africa, a federation of eight colonial possessions.
Like most Sub-Saharan countries, Niger’s modern history is marked by great political instability. The first postcolonial leader, Hamani Diori (1916-1989), was forcefully removed from power after 14 years.
Nigeriens had to wait until April 1993 to see their first democratically elected head of state, Mahamane Ousmane (born 1951). Unfortunately, he was deposed in a military coup d’état in January 1996.
After the return to democracy and the approval by referendum of a new Constitution for the Seventh Republic in 2010, former opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou (born 1951) won the presidential elections in 2011 and 2016.
Niger is currently plagued by home-grown Muslim terrorists and armed groups from neighboring Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Nigeria. It also had to deal with two Tuareg rebellions from 1990 to 1995 and 2007 to 2009.
Since 2008, the government in the capital Niamey has been relying on mighty China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) for oil and gas production to increase its revenues. Besides that, to combat the local ISIS branch, the US has been operating a drone base near the desert town of Agadez, also a hub for Africans heading north to Europe.
A landlocked, arid state of 1.267 million square kilometers on the edge of the Sahara, Niger has one of the hottest climates worldwide. Its northern four-fifths are desert and only the southern savanna is suitable for livestock and limited agriculture.
Periodic droughts and locust infestations, overgrazing, soil erosion, deforestation, desertification and water contamination also affect even basic farming negatively.
Therefore, only about 3% of the land can be cultivated with subsistence crops like millet, sorghum and rice by about 90% of the total labor force. The production of peanuts, formerly the most important agricultural export, has declined in recent years.
More than 99% of its inhabitants are Muslims and 80% analphabets. The average life expectancy is less than 60 years. Radio remains a key news source, as only around 10% of all citizens have internet access. Although Niger in 2003 passed the first law in Western Africa that targeted slavery as a specific crime, the deep-rooted problem lingers.
Though Niger’s biggest issue is the highest total fertility rate (TFR) in the world, averaging close to seven children per woman, who first gives birth when only 18 years old. There are 67.7 deaths per 1,000 live births and about 1/3 of all infants are underweight. Despite this, a very conservative society desires an even higher TFR.
As a result, in 2018 the contraceptive rate stood at meager 11%. In consequence, 70% of the populace is under the age of 25. These large family sizes lead to the inheritance of smaller and smaller parcels. Declining rainfall and the resultant shrinkage of arable land prevent increased food production as well.
Niger’s almost complete lack of economic development in the last decades means widespread poverty and a GDP per person of just 1,200 US dollars. One of the world’s least-developed nations with minimal public services, in 2019 it was ranked last on the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index.
Wildlife, such as elephants, hippopotamus, giraffes and lions, is threatened because of poaching, habitat destruction and recently the exploitation of natural resources, even in the W National Park which Niger shares with Benin and Burkina Faso.
All in all, 60 years after achieving nationhood, Niger’s future looks particularly bleak on a continent that as a whole struggles with modernity and looks mostly unprepared for the challenges of the 21st century.