Niger Today

A series of unpleasant events have defined Niger to the outside world in recent years. In 2007 the Tuareg in the north of the country began a rebellion against Niger's government, whom it accused of hoarding proceeds from the region's enormous mineral wealth and failing to meet conditions of previous ceasefires, in a conflict that has reignited at regular intervals since the early 20th century.

A year later Niger again made headlines around the world for less-than-positive reasons when in a landmark case an Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) court found Niger guilty of failing to protect a young woman from the continued practice of slavery in the country. According to anti-slavery organisations, thousands of people still live in subjugation. In 2014 a man was sentenced to four years in jail on a conviction of slavery. The first such prosecution of its kind.

There have been several high-profile terrorist attacks and kidnappings of tourists and foreign workers over the past few years by groups linked to Al-Qaeda factions operating in the Sahel and Sahara zone. The largest such attack was a coordinated assault by Islamic militants on military and mining sites in the north of the country in 2013. The Islamist takeover of northern Mali in 2012 created a security vacuum and opened up a safe haven for extremists and organised crime groups in the Sahara Desert. But even though terrorist attacks were on the rise in Niger, tens of thousands of refugees flooded into the country from neighbouring conflict zones.

Niger's economy continues to putter and struggle along. The country’s main export, uranium, is prone to price fluctuations, and the industry has been hurt by the threat of terrorism and kidnapping. Niger began producing and refining oil in 2011 following a US$5 billion joint-venture deal with China.

In March 2016 Mahamadou Issoufou was re-elected president in a run-off election that was boycotted by opponents.

Culture

Niger boasts the highest birth rate in the world: in 2015 it was estimated that women have a staggering average of just under seven children each. The population is predicted to reach 21.4 million by 2025.

More than 90% of Nigeriens live in the south, which is dominated by Hausa and Songhaï-Djerma, making up 53% and 21% of Niger's populace respectively. The next largest groups are nomadic Tuareg (11%) and Fulani (6.5%), both in Niger's north, and Kanuri (5.9%), who are located between Zinder and Chad.

Nigeriens are predominantly Muslim (over 80%), with small percentages of Christian urban dwellers. Several rural populations still practise traditional animist religions. Due to the strong influence of Nigeria's Islamic community, some Muslims around the border town of Maradi call for sharia law.

Despite most Nigeriens being devoutly Muslim, the government is steadfastly secular and Islam adopts a more relaxed aura than in nations with similar demographics. Women don't cover their faces, alcohol is quietly consumed and some Tuareg, recognising the harshness of desert life, ignore Ramadan's fast.

While Islam plays an important role in daily life, shaping beliefs and thoughts, little is visible to visitors. The biggest exceptions are salat (prayer), when Niger grinds to a halt – buses even break journeys to partake.

Religion aside, survival occupies most people's days. Around 90% make their tenuous living from agriculture and livestock, many surviving on US$1 or less per day. Producing numerous children to help with gruelling workloads is a necessity for many, a fact contributing to population growth. The need for children to work has led to staggering adult illiteracy rates.

Niger's best-known artisans are Tuareg silversmiths, who produce necklaces, striking amulets, ornamental silver daggers and stylised silver crosses, each with intricate filigree designs representing areas boasting Tuareg populations. The most famous cross is the croix d'Agadez. To Tuareg, crosses are powerful talismans protecting against ill fortune.

Leatherwork by artisans du cuir is well regarded, particularly in Zinder, where traditional items – such as saddlebags, cushions and tasselled pouches – rank alongside attractive modernities like sandals and briefcases.

Beautifully unique to Niger are vibrant kountas (Djerma blankets), produced from bright cotton strips.

Environment

Three quarters of Niger is desert, with the Sahara advancing south 10km a year. The remaining quarter is Sahel, the semi-desert zone south of the Sahara. Notable features include the Niger River (Africa's third-longest), which flows 300km through Niger's southwest; the Aïr Mountains, the dark volcanic formations of which rise over 2000m; and the Ténéré Desert's spectacularly sweeping sand dunes.

Desertification, Niger's greatest environmental problem, is primarily caused by overgrazing and deforestation. Quartz-rich soil also prevents topsoil anchoring, causing erosion.

The southwest's dry savannah woodland hosts one of West Africa's better wildlife parks, Parc Regional du W (although many governments have marked the Niger section of this trans-frontier park as unsafe to visit).