Niger Profile

By Denis Starkey W.F.

Map of Niger

Facts and Figures on Niger


Niger, in West Africa in the Sahel region, is a landlocked country with seven neighbours: Algeria and Libya to the north; Benin and Nigeria to the south; Chad to the east; and Burkina Faso and Mali to the west. In size it is more than 5 times the area of the United Kingdom. Roughly two thirds of the country is desert. In the north the mountain range of the Air region has low rainfall, but sufficient to support the cattle-rearing Tuaregs. Further south, the country changes from semi-desert to savannah. Close to the border with Nigeria, Hausa farmers are able to cultivate groundnuts and millet.

The majority of the population is concentrated in the south-west corner of the country where the main crops are grown: millet, sorghum, maize, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, rice, market gardening products, cattle and sheep rearing. In fact, Niger is quite sparsely populated, the total population being around 8 million, and is made up mainly of nomadic Tuareg and Fulani as well as the more settled Hausa, Zarma and Kanuri peoples. The official language is French and the commonly spoken languages are Hausa, Djerma and Tamasheq (Tuareg).

At one time the economy of Niger relied completely on its agriculture, although drought during recent years has drastically diminished its importance. Only 3% of the total land area is cultivated while 90% of the population is occupied in agriculture. In the meantime, the development of the uranium industry and its significance for export resulted in the neglect of agriculture and the reliance upon this one industry. 5% of the population are involved in this industry. Niger, with an estimated 10% of the world’s uranium reserves, in recent years has seen the collapse of world prices due to two important factors. Firstly, competition from the former Soviet Union and, secondly, the declining demand from the major purchasing countries since they have had to reconsider their nuclear energy programmes due to pressure from ecology groups. This has resulted in a massive drop in Niger’s uranium production, exports and employment figures.

Another primary difficulty faced by Niger’s economy is the lack of a comprehensive system of roads. In all there are only 7,460 miles of roads of all types in a land-locked country of 489,062 sq. mls. which needs good communication links with its seven neighbours. Niamey, the capital with 350,000 inhabitants, is over 370 miles from the nearest sea port, Cotonou in Benin. Other important towns are Agadez, Diffa, Dosso, Maradi, Tahoua and Zinder. However, the majority of the population are rural and really need a better communications system for their development.

History and Government

Proof of humans living in the area now known as Niger goes back around 6000 years, when the then rich fertile area sustained a well-developed civilisation. The control of the great trans-Saharan trade routes was the source of all power in the region for the thousand years preceding the 19th Century. This trade was chiefly in salt, gold and slaves, supporting the creation of the Songhai kingdom in the west with the Kanem-Bornu empire around Lake Chad in the east. The central area was dominated by the Hausa kingdom from the 13th century onwards. However, once European traders opened up the sea routes to West Africa in the 18th century, the wealth and power of these kingdoms declined.

France colonised Niger in the 19th century and, consequently, Niger became part of French West Africa until 1958. Eventually in 1960 independence was achieved, Hamani Diori being elected head of state. Further elections in 1965 and 1970 returned Diori and his party back to power, giving him and his government an aura of stability for a newly independent nation. Unfortunately, severe drought in the region from 1968 onwards resulted in large-scale civil unrest.

April 1974 saw a successful military coup in Niger led by Lt. Col. (later Major General) Seyni Kountche. However, when the military later attempted to try and civilianise the government a number of further unsuccessful coup attempts followed. Nevertheless, by 1983 the legislative Council of Ministers were completely civilian under Prime Minister Oumarou Maname. In 1987 Kountche died and he was replaced by his loyal supporter Ali Seibou who commenced his work as head of state by trying to put Niger’s economy onto a sounder footing.

At that time the only industry virtually supporting the country was uranium. To try and diversify its economy, Niger had to seek help from the World Bank which, as with all other applicants, demanded a Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) be implemented, e.g. higher taxes and less subsidies. The Government was extremely loath to apply the Programme fully as it required strict austerity procedures, particularly for the public sector. For example, the loyalty of the civil service was extremely important for the Government, resulting in extreme reluctance to alienate them. However, some parts of the Programme were ushered in with the result that a large number of people working in the public sector were laid off, although they were generously compensated.

Initially it appeared that the Government had embraced the right economic plan. However, a number of bumper agricultural harvests in the late 1980s hid the underlying state of affairs. Niger was plunged into recession in 1990 and saw a series of general strikes by the workforce. Demonstrators insisted on an end to the World Bank’s harsh SAP and demanded the introduction of multi-party democracy.

Yet, despite the reluctance of the head of state Ali Seibou, the Government bowed to popular demand, and the current trend in African politics, by assembling a national conference to decide the country’s future. Following several months’ consideration, the conference decided to establish a provisional administration, led by former International Civil Aviation Organisation official Amadou Cheiffou, to govern Niger to the end of January 1993.

Originally, it had been planned to have multi-party elections in early 1992. Unfortunately the interim government was faced with two serious problems, a chronic shortage of cash and mutinous military forces. These problems resulted in a delay in procedures. The new Constitution was adopted in December 1992 and, eventually, in March 1993 Niger held its first multi-party presidential and legislative elections since independence in 1960. In the presidential elections, judged to be free and fair by the international observers, eight political parties joined together against the party founded by the former military rulers to elect Mahamane Ousmane as President of the Third Republic. Nine political parties won representation in the National Assembly elections. The governing coalition, Alliance des Forces du Changement [the Alliance of the Forces of Change] (AFC), led by Prime Minister Mohamadou Issoufou, consists of six parties with 50 of the total of 83 Assembly seats. The former ruling party, the National Movement for the Development of Society (MNSD-Nassara), won 29 seats in the Assembly and now leads the opposition.

The economy is another important issue which the new government has tried to address. Around 90% of the population survive on subsistence farming or herding. Uranium is the most important single export. In 1993 the government introduced an austerity budget which cut the largest single public expense - civil service salaries - in an attempt to begin to grapple with the problem of overspending. Nevertheless, persistent years of drought, low literacy rates, the declining demand for uranium, and massive debt have greatly weakened an already marginal economy. Strikes and student unrest were exacerbated by the 50% devaluation of the CFA franc in January 1994. This obviously led to a general increase in all prices. In the meantime plagues of locusts, drought and flooding have since seriously affected agricultural production. The consequence of all this has been that Niger found herself with another government within 18 months at the beginning of October, 1994 (see page 22 for ‘Update’).

The Tuareg Rebellion [1]

One of the first problems the new government was forced to address was the rebellion of the Tuaregs who form roughly 10% of the population (less than 800,000). Since 1990 Tuaregs, light skinned cattle-rearing nomads who wander across the Sahara desert seeking pasture and water for their animals, have waged war against government forces in Niger and Mali.

Besides causing much bloodshed, the rebellion brought economic activity to a virtual standstill in the Northern regions of the country. National reconciliation was a vital topic for the new President facing a daunting challenge in trying to arrange a peaceful resolution to conflict with the Tuareg insurgents. Their continued attacks had made much of the north unsafe. The President had feared that a newly assertive army might push for fresh attacks on the Tuareg exactly when he was attempting to extend a hand of compromise to the rebels. A cease-fire was agreed, commencing 10th June 1993, and for the remainder of the year contacts and talks continued fitfully, marked by sporadic rebel attacks.

A meeting was arranged between a delegation of the Tuareg armed rebellion movement and the Niger Government in Ouagadougou, under the patronage of the government of Burkina Faso, from the 15th - 17th February, 1994, to negotiate. French and Algerian mediators were on hand. A brief look at the position of both sides should give some insight into the situation.

Basically on the Tuareg side, the underlying reason for the unrest was stated as the low priority in which they, the Tuareg, are officially regarded and the persistent long-term underdevelopment of the northern regions where the majority of the Tuareg live. They consider that only a few regions of Niger have actually benefited economically since independence and that they have been consistently discriminated against as a minority. Their leaders say that their people have no say in the administration, government affairs, the economy or welfare projects.

The Niger government refuted these arguments. They stressed that considerable investments had been made in the northern regions, pointing to figures to support their claim. The example was given of the district of Agades in the north being second in receipt of government investment for improvement of facilities. It was pointed out that Agades came after the capital, Niamey, with regards to educational establishments and percentage of pupils attending schools. They also cited further improvements in such sectors as sanitation and transport.

It was pointed out by the government officials that the same complaints made by the Tuareg could be heard from other areas of the country. They admitted that even places close to Niamey suffer extreme deprivation. However, they stressed that regional variations in development was not because of favouritism but, rather, because of the lack of an integral development plan which involves people at the grass-roots. Also, the government claimed that in some regions age-old customs and traditions prevented any true development.

The government representatives expanded upon this by stating that the way of life of certain peoples prevented them from embracing a new lifestyle in keeping with current times. They insisted that this was not to be allowed to go on and went on to point out that certain adaptations and changes had to be made in keeping with the twenty-first century, if the people of Niger wished to live in the modern age. Blame was pointed at certain cultural considerations and a given philosophy of life for seriously hindering local initiatives to improve the standard of living.

Reference was made of a book entitled The Tuareg Problem in Niger by Andre Salifou based upon his authority and experience as President of the Presidium in the Sovereign National Conference of Niger, and President of the High Council of the Republic.

The government discussion was then directed at the recently adopted Constitution plus the free, democratic and open elections. However, mention was made of the urgent need for decentralisation of power, allowing each region to be involved in decision making in line with the principles of the Constitution.

Yet it was stressed by the government that the same Constitution spells out the singleness and indivisibility of the State of Niger. There would be no toleration or acceptance of any partition or intent to secede. For this reason the government totally rejected the federal system of government as called for by the Tuareg and the two official political parties. The authors of the draft legislation made this clear when they wrote: “A federal system corresponds neither to the nature of the State of Niger nor to the sociological and historical reality of the country. The adoption of a state such as that would have no credibility. It would divide the nation of Niger which is only just coming together”.

Faced with this rejection of a federal system of government, the Tuareg rebels then called for a system of self-rule. This demand resulted from the meeting at Ouagadougou where the Tuaregs presented the following:

1. The administrative boundaries of Niger to be redrawn. Two-thirds of the country to come under Tuareg administration.

2. Inter-regional relations to be regulated by an internal Constitution to form part of the National Constitution and draft legislation.

3. Legislative and Executive power to be devolved to the regions, sub-regions and local administration. Local general councils would then be responsible for administering the laws and would be the guardians of the local Constitution.

4. The Co-ordination for the resistance army (CRA) to have 15 seats in the National Assembly; 7 ministerial portfolios and 6 diplomatic representative abroad.

5. Only Tuareg and a number of other minorities, such as the Arabs and the Bororo Fulani, to be eligible electors. Residents coming from other regions to be ineligible.

6. The CRA insists that it should form 40% of the defence forces, having to administer two thirds of the country. 50% of the General Staff to be from CRA ranks. They are to be substantially represented in both the national and local police forces and also in the customs and excise service.

7. The insurgents demand 25% of the national investment budget for a period of 15 years.

8. They must receive a tax-free direct payment of 40% of commercial industrial profits from the mining corporations.

9. They insist on receiving credit transfer of 100% of various taxes collected at the regional level.

10. A central agency to be set up in order to direct mining corporations on site. 75% of the employees and executives of the corporations must be recruited from among the inhabitants of the region, of whom the Managing Directors must be the first to be recruited.

11. The CRA to have 15 executives to be present at central management level and at the head of operations.

12. The demand for an international enquiry into certain injustices with subsequent financial compensation.

Back in Niger, the President felt it necessary to ask all the subjects of Niger to comment on what had been called for at the Ouagadougou Meeting. Not surprisingly, the members of the National Assembly refuted these claims, regarding them as grossly inflated and unrealistic. Much of the press in Niamey were similarly scathing about the demands of the insurgents. Examples of their descriptions were: “an insult to the nation” and “insane and offensive”. A number of politicians declared that the whole affair was an attempt by the Tuaregs to break away their territory from Niger.

Throughout 1994 various meetings, ceasefires, and peace agreements have been signed, although the unrest continues unabated and the north remains unsafe. Despite the truces, some armed Tuaregs continued to attack convoys and government outposts, raiding vehicles and taking food and fuel. In August 1994 the Tuareg rebels raided and sabotaged a power plant north of the capital, Niamey, which supplies electricity to the uranium mines, Niger’s only industry, and is so extremely important for the economy.


Contrary to the demands of the Constitution of Niger, the traditional belief of the submissive role of women to men results in discrimination against females in such diverse areas as politics, education, employment and property rights. This is more obviously emphasised in the rural areas where women do much of the subsistence farming, besides child-rearing. Resistance to change from the traditional view can be seen in the example of the reaction when the transitional government wanted to appoint the first female governor. The local citizens objected so much that the appointment had to be revoked.

Discrimination against females begins very early in life. Most young girls have to stay at home to work. Even though the Government has enacted compulsory and free education for the first six years of primary school, only about 25% of children of primary school age attend school and about 60% of those who complete primary school are male. Consequently, the male literacy rate is 18% and the female 7%. Marriage agreements are frequently made for girls when they are 10 to 12 years old, at which time they are sent to their huband’s family to be trained by their mother-in-law.

Domestic violence against women and children is widespread, although neither the Government nor women’s rights groups have any precise figures. However, according to women’s rights groups, wife beating is quite common and, although they have the right to seek compensation in either the traditional or modern courts, few women officially complain out of fear of being called a bad wife. Moreover, most women are economically dependent, so speaking out would give rise to their being immediately divorced by their husbands. Prostitution would then be their only possible way of surviving!


Approximately 90% of the population of Niger are muslims. Initially Islam was brought into the area in the 11th century A.D. by the Tuaregs from North Africa. Yet it was only in the 19th century A.D. when the Fulani (another nomadic people) invaded during one of their holy wars that a large proportion of the population became muslims. However, the relatively young Islam of Niger remains strongly tainted by the traditional religions of the area. Nevertheless, the influence of Islam is all pervading on the life and culture of the country.

Christianity, on the other hand, can be traced further back. In the 7th century A.D. Christian Berbers, descendants and ‘successors’ of St. Augustine, were driven away from North Africa by the newly emerging religion of Islam. They migrated to the region of Air, in the centre of Niger, up to the banks of the Niger river. However, they found themselves completely out of contact with the rest of christianity and it appears that gradually their descendants took on the beliefs of Islam and the surrounding peoples. Many centuries were to pass before christianity was to make its appearance again.

It was in 1930 that Mgr. Steinmetz, Vicar Apostolic of Cotonou in Benin, went with Fr. Faroud of the Society of African Missions of Lyons (S.M.A.) to Niamey in order to choose a plot for the first mission station. The following year, in 1931, Fr. Faroud built a hut in the countryside of Niamey, which at that time had only around 1,500 inhabitants. In 1942, Fr. Faroud was appointed Prefect Apostolic of a ‘new’ territory, which included all of Niger, the east of Upper Volta and the North of Benin. In all Fr. Faroud had but two other colleagues, one working with him and the other at Zinder, about 530 miles East of Niamey.

In 1946 six Redemptorist Fathers replaced the SMA Fathers in the then “territory of Niger”, consisting of three mission stations. However, in 1959 the Prefecture of Niamey was created and it embraced the whole of Niger. Niamey became a diocese in 1961 and Mgr. Hippolyte Berlier C.S.S.R. became the first bishop. In 1984 Bishop Berlier resigned as Bishop of the only diocese for the whole of Niger and was replaced by Bishop Guy Romano, C.S.S.R. as Apostolic Administrator which he remains today.

Yet, it was the work of a layman which proved to be important for the church in Niger. In both Niamey and Zinder, Fr. Faroud and his colleagues looked after the pastoral needs of a number of foreign laymen: Catholics from Benin and Togo, Europeans and Americans who were working in the colonial administrative centres. However, unknown to them, the christian faith had been taking root in Niger through the enthusiasm of one of her own sons. In the 1930s, Douramane, son of Tahirou, left his village of Djerma de Fantio to join the French army. There he was converted and became a christian in 1936. Upon returning home, Antoine, then the only Niger-born Christian, taught ‘the word of Jesus’ to his entire village. In 1946, when he heard that there were missionaries in Niamey, he walked several times from his village to Niamey, a distance of 186 miles, to ask the missionaries to have a mission set up in his village. But it was only in 1951 that a Fr. Berlier arrived there and found a group of well taught catechumens awaiting to participate fully in the life of the church. It was there that the small Church of Niger was born.

The White Fathers officially appeared on the scene much later in Niger following a request from Bishop Berlier of Niamey for our services. In fact it is only just over 11 years ago, in mid-January 1984, that three of our missionaries took up residence at Arlit, then a new uranium mining centre and the most northerly mission station in the only diocese and in the country. However a few individual White Fathers had spent some time in Niger prior to this. A second team of three White Fathers was appointed to the mission of Doutchi in August 1985. It is a town with a small Christian community and a number of educational establishments, giving our missionaries scope for some direct pastoral activity besides being a presence among the Muslims. Currently there are three communities of White Fathers, totalling ten in all at Birni N’Konni, Dogondoutchi and Zinder.

“What”, you may well ask, “is the role of the Catholic Church in such an overwhelmingly Muslim country as Niger?” In fact, the policy of the Church over the years has not been to convert the Muslims to Christianity. The Church wants only to walk with them, hand in hand, towards a permanent conversion which is to be expressed by a greater fidelity to God, a more in-depth and loyal research of the truth, and a greater charity among all people because of God. Therefore, it has frequently become customary to say that “the Church in Niger wants to uphold Christ’s presence among this people believing in the one true God, just like the Christian”. To the question of, “Why there should be Christian missionaries in Niger?” the answer has been given, “In a world where materialism in all its aspects is constantly gaining ground, those who still have a belief in higher values and a supernatural reality, have a duty to live and act together in order to promote a certain spirituality”. Writing to Bishop Berlier of Niamey on the occasion of his priestly jubilee in 1971, Pope Paul VI stated, “The Catholic Church of Niger is a Christian community, small in number, but faithful and persevering”.


[1] In his book ‘The White Fathers’, (W. H. Allen 1957), Glenn D. Kittler gives a fascinating account of the manner in which Cardinal Lavigerie, our founder, decided he needed the expertise of the Tuareg to guide his first caravans of missionaries across the Sahara in the 1870s, despite their reputation at the time of being ‘a cruel and treacherous people’ (p.107).

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 These articles first appeared in "White Fathers - White Sisters" (UK), issue 321, of April-May, 1995.

The articles may be published freely with due acknowledgements to the "White Fathers - White Sisters" magazine.

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