History & Politics

Early empires

Thousands of years ago, there were lush grasslands across this region. Rock engravings from the Neolithic/New Stone Age period (from around 10,000BC) show our earliest ancestors hunting wildlife across the plains. Around 2500BC, the landscape became drier as the Sahara encroached.

Trading towns

Towns like Agadez – see Map – grew up as trading centres for Arab merchants, who helped to spread Islam. (The famous mud mosque at Agadez is shown in the photo.)

Agadez mosque, by Dan Lundberg (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By the Middle Ages (around AD1300/1400) the region began to serve as an important link on trade routes across the Sahara.

To the south, the Hausa States formed an important medieval kingdom. Hausa merchants became wealthy by trading with groups in gold-producing regions further south – see Ghana History & Politics.

Between the 15th and 18th centuries, Niger served as an important central link for the trade in gold, salt and slaves. Caravan routes went north through the Sahara and south through to the Atlantic ocean. Nomadic groups such as the Tuareg and Fulani often vied with the southern Hausa states for control over the territory.

The arrival of the Europeans

In the 19th century, Europeans began venturing further inland. The British explorer, Mungo Park, led a famous search for the source of the River Niger.

Subduing the north

It took the French until 1922 to completely subdue Tuareg resistance in the north, after a siege at Agadez in 1916–17.

But in 1890, it was the French who took control of the region, tackling any resistance from local groups with ferocity.

France conferred French citizenship on the population in 1946, when Niger became a republic of the French Community with local autonomy. However, this was not enough to stop the growing demand for independence, which finally came in 1960.

A state seeking stability

During the decades which followed independence, the country went through years of austere rule by one-party or military leaders. There was little political stability and the situation wasn’t helped by a number of severe droughts, which devastated livestock and crops.

A coup to change presidents

Multi-party elections were held in 1993. But the ruling government was overthrown by the military in 2010, after the president tried to extend his powers and remain in office beyond a second term.

Since 1960, a number of military coups took place in Niger and six republics came and went.

However, after the last military overthrow, a referendum was held in October 2010 to establish a new constitution. This limits presidents to two five-year terms and bans soldiers from running for office. In March 2011, elections were held and Mahamadou Issoufou became president of Niger.

In 1990, groups of Tuareg people in the north began a rebellion to demand a fairer share of the country’s uranium wealth and more local autonomy. In 2009, Tuareg rebels agreed an end to the hostilities after talks in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. However, since the Libyan uprising, many armed Tuareg fighters have returned to Niger (and neighbouring Mali), causing renewed unrest.