The Republic of Niger is a landlocked nation in N central Africa. The N plateaux lie in the Sahara, while N central Niger contains the rugged Aïr Mountains. These, near Agadez, reach a height of 2,022m [6,632ft] above sea level. The rainfall in the mountains - averaging c.175mm [7in] per year - is sufficient in places to permit the growth of thorny shrub. Severe droughts since the 1970s have crippled the traditional lifestyle of the nomads in N and central Niger as the Sahara has slowly advanced S. The S region has also been hit by droughts.
The S consists of broad plains. The Lake Chad Basin lies in SE Niger on the borders with Chad and Nigeria. The only permanent rivers are the Niger and its tributaries in the SW. The narrow Niger Valley is the country's most fertile and densely populated region and includes the capital, Niamey. Niger, a title which comes from a Tuareg word meaning 'flowing water', seems scarcely appropriate for a country which consists mainly of hot, arid, sandy and stony basins.
Buffaloes, elephants, giraffes. and lions are found in the 'W' National Park, which Niger shares with Benin and Burkina Faso. Most of S Niger lies in the Sahel region of dry grassland. The Aïr Mountains support grass and scrub. The N deserts are generally barren.
Niger is one of the world's hottest countries. The warmest months are March to May, when the harmattan wind blows from the Sahara. Niamey has a tropical climate, with a rainy season from June to September. Rainfall decreases from S to N, and N Niger is practically rainless. The far S consists of tropical savanna.
Neolithic remains have been found in the northern desert. Nomadic Tuareg settled in the Aïr Mountains in the 11th century ad and by the 13th century established a state centred around Agadez and the trans-Saharan trade. In the 14th century, the Hausa settled in southern Niger. In the early 16th century the Songhai Empire controlled much of Niger, but the Moroccans supplanted the Songhai at the turn of the century.
Later on, the Hausa and then the Fulani set up kingdoms in the region. In the early 19th century the Fulani gained control of much of southern Niger. The first French expedition arrived in 1891, but Tuareg resistance prevented full occupation until 1914.
In 1922 Niger became a colony within French West Africa. In 1958 Niger voted to remain an autonomous republic within the French Community. It gained full independence in 1960, and Hamani Diori became Niger's first president. He maintained close ties with France.
Drought in the Sahel, beginning in 1968, killed many livestock and destroyed crops. In 1974 a group of army officers, led by Lieutenant Colonel Seyni Kountché, overthrew Hamani Diori and suspended the constitution. Kountché died in 1987 and was succeeded by his cousin General Ali Saibou. In 1991 the Tuareg in northern Niger began an armed campaign for greater autonomy. A national conference removed Saibou and established a transitional government. In 1993 multiparty elections, Mahamane Ousmane of the Alliance of Forces for Change (AFC) coalition became president. The collapse of the coalition led to fresh elections in 1995, which were won by the National Movement for a Development Society (MNSD), but a military coup, led by Colonel Ibrahim Bare Mainassara, seized power. In 1995 the government and the Tuaregs signed a peace accord. Elections in 1996 confirmed Mainassara as president. In 1999 bodyguards assassinated Mainassara and he was replaced briefly by Major Daouda Malam Wanke. Parliamentary rule was restored and, later that year, Tandjou Mamadou was elected president. He was re-elected in 2004.
Droughts have caused great hardship and food shortages in Niger, and have destroyed much of the traditional nomadic lifestyle. Niger's chief resource is uranium, and it is the world's second-largest producer. Uranium, most of which goes to France, accounts for more than 80% of exports. Some tin and tungsten are also mined, but other mineral resources are largely unexploited.
Niger is one of the world's poorest countries, despite its resources. Farming employs 85% of the workforce, although only 3% of the land is arable and 7% is used for grazing. Food crops include beans, cassava, millet, rice, and sorghum. Cotton and groundnuts are leading cash crops.
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