"Even by West African standards, Niger is a tantalizingly remote and little visited destination. Most of the country comprises a vast expanse of largely uninhabited Sahelian desert, with the only areas of significant population concentrated in a small ribbon of cultivated land at its southern edge along the Niger river." - The Rough Guide to West Africa

Population: 12.9 million
Capital: Niamey
Main exports: Uranium, livestock products

A vast, arid state on the edge of the Sahara desert, Niger suffered austere military rule for much of its post-independence history and is rated by the UN as one of the world's least-developed nations.

The drought-prone country sometimes struggles to feed its people. Its main export, uranium, is susceptible to price fluctuations and agriculture is threatened by the encroaching desert. Niger is bargaining on oil exploration and gold mining to boost its fortunes.

Niger's climate is mainly hot and dry, with much desert area. In the extreme south there is a tropical climate on the edges of the Niger River basin. The terrain is predominantly desert plains and sand dunes, with flat to rolling plains in south and hills in the north.

Historically a gateway between North and sub-Saharan Africa, contact with the West began in the 19th century, when the first European explorers - notably Mungo Park (British) and Heinrich Barsch (German) - explored the area, searching for the source of the Niger River. Although French efforts at pacification began before 1900, dissident ethnic groups, especially the desert Tuareg, were not subdued until 1922, when Niger became a French colony.

After independence in 1960 Niger’s progress was stymied by political instability and a five-year drought, which devastated livestock and crops.

In 1990 a revolt by Tuareg tribes, who accused the government of failing to deliver on promised economic aid, developed into an armed rebellion, ending only in the mid-1990s. The re-integration of former combatants is still under way.

In 1999 voters overwhelmingly approved a new constitution providing for presidential and legislative multi-party elections. These took place later in the year and saw Mamadou Tandja elected as president.

One of the poorest countries in the world, Niger's economy is based largely on subsistence farming, livestock, and some of the world's largest uranium deposits. Drought cycles, desertification, a 3.3% population growth rate, and the drop in world demand for uranium have undercut an already marginal economy. Traditional subsistence farming, herding, small trading, seasonal migration, and informal markets dominate an economy that generates few formal sector jobs.

Although slavery is illegal in Niger since 2003, human rights activists say that the laws prohibiting it are seldom enforced. The head of the government's National Commission for Human Rights and Fundamental Liberation claims that slavery does not exist, saying "Even if they have no salary, they refuse to leave the master because they are at ease with the master;" but foreign journalists report that, according to claims by opposition lawmakers, "about 10% of the members of parliament keep slaves or are from slave-owning families."

Niger's agricultural and livestock sectors are the mainstay of over 80% of the population. Fourteen percent of Niger's GDP is generated by livestock production--camels, goats, sheep and cattle--said to support 29% of the population.

The largest ethnic groups in Niger are the Hausa, who also constitute the major ethnic group in northern Nigeria, and the Djerma-Songhai, who also are found in parts of Mali. Both groups, along with the Gourmantche, are sedentary farmers who live in the arable, southern tier of the country. The remainder of Nigeriens are nomadic or semi-nomadic livestock-raising peoples--Fulani, Tuareg, Kanuri, Arabs, and Toubou. With rapidly growing populations and the consequent competition for meager natural resources, lifestyles of agriculturalists and livestock herders have come increasingly into conflict in Niger in recent years.

With a paucity of primary education, Niger has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. Its health system is basic and disease is widespread.

(edited. Wikipedia, BBC, The Africa Guide, Bradt)
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