To understand the way in which Niger currently functions, it is important to be aware of its political history – the organization of the region prior to colonization, the manner in which things were re-organised during French occupation and the current governance model, including the legacy of colonial rule.
The country that is today known as Niger is relatively young. Prior to colonization, this part of the world had different borders, languages and customs and a very different political organisation. In order to understand the contemporary context, it is important to be aware of this history and of the legacy of colonization.
The country we now call Niger was an important site of trans-Saharan trade for many centuries. From as early as 5th century BC, Tuaregs from the north would transport goods on camels through the region and there was a high level of intermixing between sub-Saharan African and north-African populations. The Arab invasion of North Africa in the 7th century increased migration to the south and also saw the spread of Islam as a religion. Numerous empires and kingdoms co-existed in the Sahel region during the pre-colonial period (not always peacefully), including the Mail Empire (1200-1400s); Songhai Empire (1000s-1591); Sultanate of Aïr (1400s – 1906); Kanem-Bornu Empire (700s-1700s); Hausa states and various smaller kingdoms (1400s-1800s). The demographics of Niger today reflect this cultural diversity (see ‘demography’). Between 1730-1740, a breakaway group of the Kanem Empire founded by the Sultanate of Damagaram congregated around the town of Zinder, which thus became a thriving religious, cultural, intellectual and political centre. Communities at the time were organized according to a social hierarchy that was largely determined by birthright: certain groups of the population being considered nobles and others, by birth, being considered subservient and ascribed to the role of servant or slave. Historian Camille Lefebvre has detailed the manner in which this social inequity created an environment of social unrest that was subsequently exploited by the French military.
In the late 19th Century, a number of European nations embarked upon aggressive Empire-building campaigns which entailed invading and occupying distant foreign territories. Justification for these military attacks was framed in explicitly racist terms: the natural expansion of the supposedly superior Occidental civilization. In reality, this was a thinly disguised argument for a land and resources grab. The ‘Scramble for Africa’ as it has since been termed, consisted of the systematic annexation, division and colonization of most of Africa by seven Western European countries. To appease rivalry and avoid military tensions between themselves, these countries convened an international ‘diplomatic’ gathering – The Berlin Conference of 1884 – at which they negotiated how Africa would be partitioned and divided between them. French-British diplomatic records indicate that through this process, Zinder and Agadez were theoretically attributed to the ‘zone of French influence’. From today’s historical standpoint, it is alarming that a process of hostile invasion was legitimized by ostensibly ‘diplomatic’ process. The effects of the Berlin Conference were dramatic: Whilst in 1870, 10 percent of Africa was under European control, by 1914 this had increased to 90% of Africa.
The French army invaded the Sahara and Sahel regions in 1890. The invasion was explained to the French population as the necessary ousting of a repressive regime – an honourable cause in the name of freedom. Historical texts refer to the French military as being ‘liberating forces’ who ‘conquered’ tyrannical tribal chiefs. This version of history has since been revisited and revised by contemporary historians including Camille Lefebvre (CNRS) whose book Des pays au crepuscule details the manner in which France, motivated by vested interests, forcefully deposed existing governments. She underlines that the process was one of occupation rather than liberation: ‘It was after all a hostile foreign army – as it happened French – which forcibly took control of the territory and of existing nation-states in order to impose its own laws’ (p12).
Occupation of the area between Lake Chad and the Niger River began in 1898. Thence ensued many years of military campaigns and colonial wars (1898-1916) culminating in the ‘colonisation’ of both Zinder and also Agadez in the Sahara (today also part of Niger). Although the arsenal of French military was far more powerful than that available to Sahelians and Saharans at the time, it is also true that the French military were far outnumbered by the population of Zinder (80 French officers and 600 soldiers compared to 15,000-20,000 inhabitants). It has accordingly been suggested that colonization was facilitated by the fact that occupying forces were able to exploit social inequities in the existing Sahal and Saharien societal structures. Lefebvre suggests that it was the concordance of three factors which created the conditions of possibility for French colonization of Niger:
- Technical superiority of the French arsenal;
- Strategic use by occupying forces of ‘legitimizing’ discourse which persuaded the population that their own culture and languages were valued and would be perpetuated under colonial rule (80% of French soldiers were of African origin and shared cultural, linguistic and religious practices of the population)
- The collaboration of low-ranked individuals within the existing Sahal/Saharian political structures who were actively seeking to transcend the traditional social hierarchies and assisted the French in an effort to position themselves more favourably within a new regime.
Colonisation entailed the reorganizing of four distinct areas of the pre-colonial era into a single nation with artificially imposed borders. Despite continued resistance and fighting for two decades, Niger was declared a French colony on 13 October 1922. Notwithstanding the borders of Niger continued to undergo ‘territorial adjustment’ right up until the 1930s. Colonisation entailed the imposition of European ways of life upon the African population: French governance, language, education systems and cultural morés replaced local traditions, which were by default a threat to the colonial enterprise.
France’s preoccupation with colonial power was somewhat subdued by the eruption of WWII, during which France itself was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany. Following the war, President Charles de Gaulle declared that the French colonial empire would be replaced with a less formal ‘French Union’. The French Union lasted from 1946-1958 and provided colonial populations with a hybrid form of French citizenship which also recognized their right to participate in the politics of their own territory. During this period the Nigerien Progressive Party was formed. In 1956 there was a further loosening of French control with the passing of the Overseas Reform Act and then, following the establishment of the Fifth French Republic, Niger became an ‘autonomous state’ within the French Community. Soon after, the Nigerien government decided to leave the French Community.
The Republic of Niger was declared independent on 3 August 1960. Over the ensuing years, the Nigerien leadership found itself at the nexus of a number of competing forces which undermined political stability:
- National borders had been arbitrarily imposed by European colonisers and did not correlate to earlier boundaries in the region that had been negotiated (and fought for) by local populations over preceding decades, thereby creating:
- little sense of national identity/cohesion
- regional tensions both within the country (eg the Diffa region had more established trade and transport links with Chad and Nigeria than it did with areas within Niger) and also outside the country (violence occurring in neighbouring countries destabilising the region).
- The new nation was populated by a multitude of ethnicities with distinct languages and cultural practices (in this respect Islam was a federating force)
- The new nation had little public infrastructure and no established governance institutions/systems to ensure political accountability
- Large swathes of the population were living in poverty
There was another significant factor that undermined the autonomy of this nascent democracy: the ongoing political involvement of the former colonial power. Although France had agreed to Nigerien independence, it retained a strong hand in establishing the new leadership. Those leaders thus remained highly susceptible to French influence (with an implied threat of being deposed should they not comply with the expectations of the French government). This external pressure was particularly apparent with respect to Niger’s natural resources, with various Nigerien Presidents facing political interference after attempting to renegotiate the proportion of benefits returning to Niger from the exploitation of uranium. This was notably the case of Presidents Diori and Tandja, both of whom were deposed by military coup after seeking to renegotiate the price of uranium.
In view of these multifarious challenges, it is unsurprising that Niger has experienced a high degree of political volatility since independence. Since independence there have been ten regimes, including three military-led coups d’état and six different Constitutions. Only in recent years has the situation stabilised, with the last two Presidents having each been democratically elected for two terms (10 years). The World Bank has pointed out that political instability has contributed significantly to poverty in the country by ‘weakening governance, discouraging private investments, and preventing the long-term horizon needed for proper planning, implementing and following-up of successful economic reforms’ (refer additional resources).
Indeed, despite having recorded an impressive level of economic growth for the past several years, Niger continues to rank at the bottom of the UNHDI (refer ‘Key Indicators’). As other commentators have noted, this is also directly linked to Niger’s continuing high rate of population growth. Following his election in 2021, Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum made explicit commitments to youth and education, in particular the schooling of girls as part of a concerted strategy to contain population growth. The effects are yet to be seen.
- Book : ‘Des pays au crépuscule : Le moment de l’occupation coloniale (Sahara-Sahel)‘ by Camille Lefebvre (Fayard, 2021).
- Article: ‘Contexte historique de Zinder’ by Prof Seyni Moumouni
- Interview Professeur Yahaya: ’60 Ans d’indépendance’ dans Politique
- Video: ‘Le Phénomène de Marginalisation’
- Podcast: ‘Sahel et Sahara: une emprise française’ Camille Lefebvre du CNRS (France Culture)