Niger — History and Culture
Niger is a country in Africa that has an ancient history, and most of modern civilization can trace its roots back to this area. However, unforeseen environmental change altered the social make up of Niger, and complex societies were gradually changed into nomadic clans that still populate the landscape today. Further intrusion, albeit this time political in nature, changed society once again in Niger when the French colonized the region in the early 20th century. Since independence the country has experienced political turmoil and is today still attempting to find a path forward.
The encroaching Sahara Desert has not been kind to the environment and history of Niger and its people. 5,000 years ago the north of the country was fertile grassland, and was populated by early farmers who domesticated animals and created a complex society. In a process known as desertification, around 2,000 years ago the habitat changed, and the inhabitants of Niger were forced to become nomadic, an indigenous culture that still remains today.
Later in history, one of the great empires of Africa called the Songhai expanded into modern day Niger, as far as Agadez, until its collapse in 1591. In the 13th century, the nomadic Tuareg pushed south into the Air Mountains, and then continued to rule over most of northern Niger, and into parts of what is now Nigeria. Strong Tuareg culture is still observed in the city of Agadez.
Different parts of the country remained ruled over by various tribes, and by the 19th century the city of Zinder had become an important hub. The first contact with Europeans came in the 19th century, when the first explorers came searching for the source of the Niger River. The territory of Nigeria was already the domain of the British, and Mungo Park traveled northwards from there in his exploration. All of the ethnic groups of Niger rebelled against European intrusion, and Niger was not finally conquered as a colony until 1922, when the French claimed it as their own.
Actually, Niger was amongst the last of African nations to be colonized by Europeans, but even after WWI the age of empire was alive and the French had vested interests in the natural resources that Niger held. Today, Niger’s economy relies heavily on subsistence crops and livestock although it also contains some of the world’s largest uranium deposits buried underground. The drive toward nuclear technological advances by the middle of the 20th century ensured that Niger was kept firmly in the clutches of the French.
However, compared to other colonies, the existence of Niger as a colony was comparatively short lived, as the country gained independence in 1960. Almost immediately, because of the power vacuum left behind once the French had departed, Niger succumbed to brutal military rule for the next 30 years until 1991. A small return to democracy happened here, but was followed by further military rule from 1996 to 1999. Since then, Niger has returned to democracy, in what is labeled the ‘fifth republic’, however, politics remains extremely unstable in the country. In 2011 a military junta took office, albeit not by force, and for the last few years the vast barren landscape of Niger has been a hotbed of activity for international Islamic fundamentalist terrorist groups.
The political situation has not been helped by the fact that Niger has been kept extremely poor since its independence little over 50 years ago, since its subsistence economy is at the mercy of unavoidable environmental degradation such as drought and desertification. This, and also the drop in demand for uranium since the 1960s, prior to this a lucrative export for the country, have kept Niger poor.
Most of northern and western Africa has been influenced by Islam, since it spread westwards from the Middle East. Niger is no different, with around 90 percent of the population being Muslim. The rest of the population follows the Baha’i faith, also originating in the Middle East, and Christianity, as an influence of the French colonization. A further proportion following traditional, indigenous beliefs known as animism (a religious belief that animals, plants, and other inanimate objects such as rocks possess spiritual essence, and are worshipped).
Modern Niger culture is steeped in tradition, either following the Islamic doctrine that has been adhered to since the 10th century, or reflecting the indigenous, typically African traditions. French colonialism has also had an influence in the Niger of today, although the country has found it difficult to join the modern global culture of the 21st century. The only place you are likely to find modern culture is in the country’s largest urban area, Niamey, where modern fashions and music are followed like in any other capital city.