Niger has been plagued by political instability since its independence from France in 1960. For 14 years after independence the country was run by a single party regime, under Hamani Diori, who was eventually ousted in a military coup in 1974. A military dictatorship took control for the next sixteen years, under Seyni Kountché, and after his death in 1987, Col. Ali Saibou. Saibou’s program of political liberalisation, including the implementation of a single party, Republican constitution, sparked student and union uprisings and the formation of civil action groups who demanded multi-party democracy. Saibou gave in and in 1991 plans were put in place for a transitional government who would oversee the transition to democracy. A referendum on a new constitution was succesfully passed, a free press was given room to develop, but fair and free elections in 1995 forced the President and Prime Minister (from rival parties) to share power.
This unstable government was overthrown by a military coup in 1996 by Col. Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara. Bare implemented a revised constitution and during the general election, replaced the electoral commission. Unsurprisingly, the new commission declared him the winner with 57% of the vote. Multi-lateral aid dried up in response to the new regime. Bare was overthrown in a military counter-coup in 1999. Maj. Daouda Malam Wanké, established a transitional National Reconciliation Council to oversee the drafting of a constitution for a Fifth Republic. Free and fair elections were held in 1999.
The political problems have been exacerbated by a consistently weak economy. Regular draught, population growth and the Sara desert’s gradual encroachment onto previously fertile land has made agricultural production very challenging in much of Niger. Despite this, almost 40% of the country’s GDP is tied up in agriculture. 90% of the population relies on agriculture (for subsistence or trade) for their survival, and in this context it is not surprising that a 63% of the population lives below the poverty line.
Niger has no great mineral wealth apart from its vast uranium deposits which are now starting to contribute significantly to its GDP. This recent growth is largely due to a new international interest in nuclear power, for which uranium is a key ingredient. Growth has also been helped by the termination in 2007, of a 40 year monopoly over Niger’s uranium, held by state-controlled French utility, Areva. Niger is now diversifying its mining sector and is beginning to enjoy the benefits of market competition for its resources. China is now the largest investor in Nigerien Uranium and India and Korea have also become big players in Niger. Areva still casts a significant shadow and in 2009 French President Nicholas Sarkozy visited Niger to secure Areva’s contract over the Imouraren mining site in northern Niger, the world’s second biggest uranium deposit. In response to the deal, French news site, France24, stated
There are also mounting allegations that the Niger government expelled nomadic Tuareg tribes to make way for the French operation. Tuareg rebels have threatened to attack the uranium mine and transport as they did once in 2007…It is a tense situation that contributes to blurring the line between trade relations and neo-colonialism.
A referendum in July 1999 passed the constitution proposed by the transitional government and signalled the beginning of the Fifth Republic. Mamadou Tandja won the election in November of that year, as head of a coalition of the National Movement for a Developing Society (MNSD) and the Democratic and Social Convention (CDS.)
In 2009, Tandja tried to change the constitution by referendum, to give himself a hitherto illegal third term in office. It sparked what became known as the Nigerien Constitutional crisis. In response to Tandja’s efforts, the military stepped in, in February 2010, and set up a military junta led by the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy. Thousands marched in favour of the SCRD, who they saw as the defenders of democracy. The SCRD has placed Tandja in a military barracks and as of, December 2010, are still promising to restore democracy to Niger. Niger was a major benefactor of the G7’s 2005’s dept relief policies. 100% of its debt to the IMF was wiped, amounting to $86million. Presently, 50% of the Government’s national budget is derived from international aid.
Ninety percent of the population is Muslim; the legacy of Arabic traders who introduced the religion to Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa in the 10th century AD.