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Country profile - Niger

niger

Niger is a vast, arid, landlocked country on the southern edge of the Sahara desert where it is possible to travel hundreds of kilometres north-east from the capital, Niamey, and see no colour other than the colour of sand. Even the livestock - camels, goats and chickens - blend into this monochromatic landscape.

The intense, searing heat of the sun can be wearisome even to those accustomed to living for several months of the year at 40C and above. Non-traditional buildings offer little respite, but village houses, built squat and square in the desert regions, with thick, sun-defying walls, are amazingly cool and colourful inside. South west of Niamey the landscape is greener and full of human activity but even here, where rainfall is higher, its quantity and distribution are erratic. Niger, ranked as one of the poorest countries of the world, well illustrates the challenges of living in a tough, unyielding environment.

Crops...

Although the country is regarded as having four ecological regions, a huge two-thirds is, in effect, desert. Rainfed crop farming is only feasible in the southern Sudanian region, which typically receives annual precipitation of 550mm. Irrigated land makes up around five per cent of the total cultivated area. Niger's tropical climate is characterised by a short rainy season from June to October and a dry period between November and May. Where crops are grown, sorghum, millet and cowpeas are most widespread. Some rice, maize, and cassava are also grown in the heaviest rainfall areas. Cotton and groundnuts are popular cash crops, but production has been in decline since the 1970s. There is very little mechanisation of crop production and crop-producing areas are dependent on animals for manure and draught power.

Mineral resources
Foreign exchange earnings from livestock are second only to those from uranium. Niger's reserves in the north-west Arlit region are among the largest in the world. But falling uranium prices on the world market (a result of a drop in demand) alongside failure to develop its other minerals (which include gold, cassiterite, gypsum, phosphate, salt, iron, tin, tungsten, petroleum and coal) mean that Niger has not fully exploited its mineral resources.

Niger hit the international headlines in January this year, when US President George W Bush was quoted as saying that Iraq had tried to acquire uranium 'yellowcake' from Niger for its nuclear programme. In September 2002 this claim was also included in the UK's dossier that set out its justifications for invasion. However, three months later (March, 2003) a nuclear watchdog told the United Nations that such claims were forged and that the allegations were unfounded. The White House is now embroiled in a criminal investigation that is attempting to throw light on the whole affair.

...and livestock

With so much of Niger's land unsuitable for crops, there is a particularly heavy dependence on livestock, which accounts for around 15 per cent of GDP and supports 29 per cent of the population. The majority of the livestock; camels, cattle, sheep, and goats, is held by pastoral nomads, the Tuareg and the Fulbe, who range across the savannahs and into neighbouring countries. Niger relies on its livestock sector for income and food security, the main market being its neighbour Nigeria. As Nigeria's population continues to grow, demand for meat is also increasing - an opportunity for further development in Niger's livestock industry.

Forests and fuel

In 2002, 188,000m tonnes of wood were transported to the capital Niamey (a big increase from 153,000m tonnes in 1996). Deforestation was estimated at 3.7 per cent in 1999/2000 and rates are increasing. With 95 per cent of the population reliant on wood as a main source of fuel, there has been mounting pressure on the remaining forests. The government has recognised this as a threat, and has put in place a Household Energy Strategy based on making rural populations responsible for the management and sustainable use of their timber resources. According to the United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN), the new strategy limits who can cut wood, and what they may cut. Those who are allowed to fell trees (usually local lumberjacks) are trained and supervised by officials of the environmental services. They are trained to know which species the community is authorised to cut (no more than four), when and how much can be felled in a given year, and how to cut them so as to enable regeneration.

A peaceful, prosperous future?

A Nigerien village
A Nigerien village

In April this year, there were reports in the international press that Niger's agricultural output had exceeded earlier estimates. According to IRIN, the country is set to produce a food surplus of 390,000m tonnes. Also this year, Nigeriens celebrated eight years of peace since signing, on 24 April 1995, the first of a series of agreements that ended rebellion by nomads in the north of the country. This is particularly poignant given the country's troubled political past since independence from France in 1960. But will peace and one better than expected harvest bring a real and sustained improvement to the lives of Nigeriens? With 63 per cent of its people living below the poverty line and little opportunity for commercial agriculture to improve their situation, Niger relies heavily on multilateral and bilateral aid and that need is likely to continue into the foreseeable future.

Statistical information
  • Country: Niger
  • Capital: Niamey
  • Area: 1,267,000 sq km
  • Population: 11,058,590 (CIA World Factbook, July 2003 est)
  • Ethnic groups: Hausa 56%, Djerma 22%, Fula 8.5%, Tuareg 8%, Beri Beri (Kanouri) 4.3%, Arab, Toubou, and Gourmantche 1.2%, plus about 1,200 French expatriates
  • Major languages: French (official), Arabic, Hausa, Djerma
  • Population growth: 2.71% (2003 est)
  • Population below poverty line: 63%
  • Labour force: agriculture 90%; industry and commerce 6%; government 4% (CIA World Factbook, 2003)
  • Literacy(people aged 15 and over who can read and write): total 17.6%; male 25.8%; female 9.7% (CIA World Factbook, 2003)
  • Gross primary school enrolment (as a % of school-age population): total 35%; male 42%; female 29% (World Bank, 2002)
  • GDP: purchasing power parity US$8.8 billion
  • GDP per capita: purchasing power parity US$830 (2003 est.)
  • Average annual income: US$180 (World Bank, 2001)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture 39%; industry 17%; services 44% (CIA World Factbook, 2002 est)
  • Major industries: Uranium mining, cement, bricks, textiles, food processing, chemicals, slaughterhouses
  • Natural resources: Uranium ore, coal, iron ore, tin, phosphates, gold, petroleum
  • Agricultural products: Cowpeas, cotton, peanuts, millet, sorghum, cassava (tapioca), rice, cattle, sheep, goats, camels, donkeys, horses, poultry
  • Irrigated land: 660 sq km (1998 est)
  • Land use: arable land 3.94%; permanent crops nil; other 96.6% (CIA World Factbook, 2003 est)
  • Environmental issues: Overgrazing; soil erosion; deforestation (95% of the country depends on wood for fuel); desertification; hunting was banned in 2001 in an effort to save wildlife populations (such as elephant, hippopotamus, giraffe, and lion)

Date published: November 2003

 

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