Before the Sahara started swallowing Niger around 2500 BC, it supported verdant grasslands, abundant wildlife and populations thriving on hunting and herding. Long after the desert pushed those populations south, Niger became a fixture on the trans-Saharan trade route. Between the 10th and 18th centuries, West African empires, such as the Kanem-Borno, Mali and Songhaï, flourished here, trafficking gold, salt and slaves.
The French strolled in late in the 1800s, meeting stronger-than-expected resistance. Decidedly unamused, they dispatched the punitive Voulet-Chanoîne expedition, destroying much of southern Niger in 1898–99. Although Tuareg revolts continued, culminating in Agadez’s siege in 1916–17, the French had control.
French rule wasn’t kind. They cultivated traditional chiefs’ power, whose abuses were encouraged as a means of control, and the enforced shift from subsistence farming to high-density cash crops compounded the Sahara’s ongoing migration.
In 1958 France offered its West African colonies self-government in a French union or immediate independence. Countless votes conveniently disappeared, enabling France to claim that Niger wished to remain within its sphere of influence.
Maintaining close French ties, Niger’s first president, Hamani Diori, ran a repressive one-party state. After surviving several coups, he was overthrown by Lieutenant Colonel Seyni Kountché after food stocks were discovered in ministerial homes during the Sahel drought of 1968–74. Kountché established a military ruling council.
Kountché hit the jackpot in 1968 when uranium was discovered near Arlit. Mining incomes soon ballooned, leading to ambitious projects, including the ‘uranium highway’ to Agadez and Arlit. Yet not everyone was smiling: inflation skyrocketed and the poorest suffered more than ever.
The 1980s were unkind to all: uranium prices collapsed, the great 1983 drought killed thousands, and one-party politics hindered democracy. By the 1990s, Nigerians were aware of political changes sweeping West Africa and mass demonstrations erupted, eventually forcing the government into multiparty elections in 1993. However, a military junta overthrew the elected president, Mahamane Ousmane, in 1996.
In 1999, during widespread strikes and economic stagnation, president Mainassara (1996 coup leader) was assassinated and democracy re-established. Peaceful elections in 1999 and 2004 witnessed victory for Mamadou Tandja.
Niger is truly struggling, ranking last on the UN’s Human Development Index, based on life expectancy, infant mortality and education. Sadly, Niger also ranks last on the UN’s Human Poverty Index and Gender-Related Development Index.
The one bright light is the ongoing transition from military to democratic rule. Niger’s government is undergoing decentralisation, handing many administrative powers to newly elected municipal councils.