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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Niger : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date July 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Niger : Overview, July 2008, available at: [accessed 4 September 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Updated July 2008


The Republic of Niger is a landlocked state on the southern edge of the Sahara in West Africa. Niger is bordered by Algeria, Libya, Chad, Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso and Mali. The north lies in the heart of the Sahara Desert and most of the rest of the country are savannas of the Sahel, although these are giving way as a result of desertification. Southern Niger has some forests. Lake Chad lies in the south-east and the Niger River flows through the extreme west of the country, including the capital, Niamey. Niger has large deposits of uranium.


Main religions: Islam, traditional religions.

Main languages: French (official), Hausa, Arabic, Tamashek (Tuareg Berber) Djerma (Songhai), Fulani.

Main minority groups: Songhai 2.3 million (21%), Tuareg 1 million (9.3%), Peulh (Fulani) 940,000 (8.5%), Kanuri (including Manga) 513,000 (4%), Toubou 42,000 (0.3%).

[Note: Demographic data on ethnic groups comes from the 2001 census, Institut National de la Statistique. Percentages are converted to numbers and vice-versa using the CIA's 2007 estimate for total population of 12.9 million.]

Just over 55 per cent of the population is Hausa, settled agriculturists who live in the south.

Second to them, comprising a fifth of the population, are Songhai cultivators whose homeland is located west of the Hausa territory. Songhai are a broad constellation of ethnic clans including the Dendi, Djerma, Gube, Kurtey, Sorko and Woga. Dendi who live on the Niger-Benin border are essentially descendants of the Songhai who resisted the Moroccan conquest of central Songhai and Gao. Djerma are found east of the River Niger between Niamey and the Hausa belt, and along the River Niger. They are believed to be descended from Malinké and the Sarakolé and to have migrated southward from Mali before the rise of the Songhai empire and to have adopted Islam in the tenth century. Dosso, their loose confederacy of small clans and village states, developed a feeling of deeper affinity only after wars with the Fulani and pressure from the Tuareg and became powerful in the nineteenth century, especially under colonial rule.

The arid north and centre are home to Tuareg camel and goat herders, who speak Tamashek, a language related to Berber (see page on Tuareg).

The second-largest traditionally pastoralist group is the Peulh (also known as Fulani, Fula and Toucouleur), nomadic cattle herders who are found all over the West African Sahel from Senegal and Guinea to Cameroon. Today, most are sedentary. In Niger they are dispersed throughout much of the country, with concentrations in the south-central and west. Their ancestors were known as Bororo, who form a subgroup today which is less Islamicised than sedentary Peulh. The origin of the Peulh is uncertain; it has been postulated that they may be of Ethiopian origin.

Toubou are inhabitants of Tu, the local name for the Tibesti Mountains that are centred in the Sahara of northern Chad and reach into Libya and north-eastern Niger. They are nomadic, traditionally extracting a levy on all caravans and tribute from sedentary villages. There are at least three distinct castes in Toubou society, and intermarriage is rare. In Niger, Toubou control the salt pans, acting as intermediaries between the Kanuri population of the oases and the Tuareg overlords. Toubou are comprised of Teda (Braouia) and Daza (Gorane). Teda are a branch of the Toubou found mostly in northern Chad and in small numbers in eastern Niger. They call themselves Tedagada (those who speak Tegada) and are related to Kanuri. In Niger they are found in the Kaouar and Djado areas. There are very small numbers of Daza in north-eastern Niger, around Lake Chad. They call themselves Dazagada. Toubou are Muslim, but Islam was not widely followed until well into the 20th century.

Related by language but not livelihood are Kanuri agriculturists of the south-east, near Lake Chad, but many are now urban dwellers. Kanuri are known in Niger by their Hausa name, 'Beri Beri' which Kanuri consider derogatory. With Toubou nomads, some Kanuri continue to exploit remote salt pans and desert oases of Kaouar.

Manga, who speak Kanuri and are sometimes regarded as a sub-group of the Kanuri, live east of Zindar in Agadiz department on the Niger-Chad border.


Niger was first inhabited by pastoralists tens of thousands of years ago. As rainfall decreased, they gradually migrated south and became sedentary farmers. Islam was introduced in the 11th century, and in the 14th century, Hausa city-states were established in the south. The Mali Empire to the west controlled parts of present-day Niger until its defeat by the Songhai in the 14th and 15th centuries. The Songhai Empire thrived on trade in salt and gold that depended on Tuareg, Toubou and Fulani traders. It eventually fell to the Moroccan army in 1591. Meanwhile, in the east of present-day Niger, Kanuri people built the Bornu Empire, which emerged out of the remnants of the centuries-old Kanem Empire that had been centred in present-day Chad. The Bornu Empire captured many slaves and imposed heavy taxes on its subjects. During the 19th century Bornu lost its western Hausa territories to the Peuhl-based Sokoto Caliphate, which had risen across today's northern Nigeria and into Niger and Cameroon in the jihad of 1804-1808. Tuareg and Hausa continuously clashed with the Caliphate.

Europeans explorers arrived late in the 18th century, and in the late 1800s scrambled to claim African lands. Britain, France and Germany divided the Bornu Empire between the four colonies of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad. The British and the French disrupted the profitable trans-Saharan trade, subjecting the Kanuri to the colonial economy.

In 1892, the French established the capital of the territory it now called 'Soudan' at Kayes, in the west of present-day Mali. French Soudan took on various other names under different geographical configurations, until Niger was finally declared a colony within French West Africa in 1922. France had first conquered sedentary groups in the south, but the Tuareg and Toubou put up armed resistance in response to French efforts to tax their trade. France pursued scorched-earth tactics in the north and east, killing many Tuareg and Toubou, and driving many more into Nigeria.

For the Songhai the French were sought-after allies who could assist them to stem the dual pressure from Tuareg in the north and Peulh in the south. The Djerma sub-group in particular were avidly Francophile and joined in the French military pacification of the north.

In 1946 France granted French citizenship to Nigeriens and other colonized peoples. Then in 1957, the French parliament passed a measure allowing broad self-governance. As Niger became autonomous within the French Community in 1958, Hamani Diori was elected as president. Diori's Parti Progressiste Nigérien (PPN) was one of three main parties, and it was dominated by Songhai, and especially the Djerma sub-group.

Diori remained as president upon Niger's full independence on 3 August 1960. He banned other parties and appointed Djerma loyalists to positions of power. High world prices for peanuts, a Nigerien export, and the beginning of uranium exports in the 1960s helped to keep Niger's economy afloat and Diori in power. However, a drop in peanut prices in the 1970s converged with major drought to turn the economy sour and sharpen political opposition. Additionally, the mining of uranium deposits on traditional Tuareg land led to conflict over the mining and proceeds. In 1974 a group of military officers overthrew and arrested Diori on grounds that he had embezzled aid sent in response to the drought. Lieutenant Colonel Seyni Kountché, also a Djerma, became president, dissolving the constitution and the national assembly. Upon his death from natural causes in 1987, Army Chief of Staff Ali Saibou – another Djerma – assumed the presidency. He formed a new ruling party, and confirmed himself as president through a single-party election in December 1989.

Students and union members protested for multi-party democracy. Initially the military opened fire on the protesters, but they persisted and international pressure mounted. Meanwhile the Tuareg mounted a rebellion in the large northern province of Agadez that was repressed by the military. By the end of 1990, Saibou agreed to a national conference. This was held in 1991, and a transitional government took over in November 1991. Niger held its first democratic elections in 1993, electing Mahamane Ousmane of the ethnic Hausa majority as president. His tenure in office was politically turbulent, but he managed to negotiate a peace agreement with Tuareg militants in 1995. In January 1996, Colonel Ibrahim Baré Mainassara, another Hausa, mounted a successful coup. In flawed elections that year, Mainassara became president. He introduced economic reforms in order to gain support from the International Monetary Fund, but western support waned in response to his undemocratic rule. Clashes with the Tuareg continued, and there were two additional peace agreements in 1997 and 1998. Mainassarra brutally repressed the opposition and in April 1999 his own presidential guard assassinated him in the course of Niger's third coup d'etat since independence. The putsch leader, Major Daouda Mallam Wanke, served as head of a transitional National Reconciliation Council for nine months. The transitional government drafted a new constitution that was approved by popular referendum in July 1999. In October and November 1999, Niger held legislative and presidential elections deemed free and fair by international observers. In a second-round runoff against former president Ousmane, Tandja Mamadou won the presidency with 60 per cent of the vote. Tandja is of Peuhl and Kanuri descent, and thus the first non-Hausa and non-Djerma to lead Niger. Following the elections, tensions with the Tuareg eased somewhat, although there were clashes between Toubou and Tuareg in 2003.

Tandja survived in power through an army mutiny in the east in 2002. In December 2004 elections, also deemed free and fair by international observers, was re-elected to a second five-year term.

In 2003, after years of campaigning by Anti-Slavery International and a local human rights organization called Timidria, the government passed legislation to criminalize slavery. The new law introduced 30-year sentences for those found guilty of the practice, which had been formally banned in 1960 but never punished. Tuareg leaders, in particular, still owned slaves into the 2000s.

Despite the return to civilian, democratic rule, Niger remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Recurrent drought, expected to continue and worsen with global warming, has plagued its pastoralists and agriculturalist peoples and catalyzed conflict between them.


Under Niger's July 1999 constitution, the president is directly elected to five-year terms of office. The unicameral National Assembly was expanded in 2004 to 113 seats. Its members are likewise elected to five-year terms through a system of proportional representation, with a five-per-cent threshold for viability. The National Assembly presents three candidates for prime minister to the president, who chooses among them.

Although Hausa and Djerma are still dominant in government and business, minorities are represented in both spheres, not least by the president himself. In the National Assembly, eight seats are reserved for ethnic minorities and nomadic groups.

Corruption remains a major problem in Niger, but in 2006 the Tandja government sacked two ministers accused of embezzlement, and in 2007 long-serving Prime Minister Hama Amadou resigned following a vote of no confidence in the National Assembly in response to a corruption scandal.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

The Hausa and Songhai (particularly the Djerma sub-group) continue to dominate Nigerien politics and business, but in recent years other groups have gained greater political representation.

Slavery remains a problem in Niger. Following its criminalization in 2003, the government planned a ceremony in 2005 at which a local Tuareg chief had agreed to declare free 7,000 slaves under his control. However, at the last minute the ceremony was cancelled when the chief and the government instead issued denials that the institution of slavery exists in Niger. Non-governmental organizations estimate that there are up to 43,000 slaves in Niger, many of them controlled by Tuareg leaders. Slaves are treated with brutality, and girls and women held in slavery are subjected to repeated rape and other sexual violence.

Long-standing tensions between the government in Niamey and Tuareg and Toubou herders remain a serious problem. Drought and locust infestations have heightened competition over ever-scarcer water and pasture resources. A new Tuareg militant group, the Mouvement des Nigeriens pour la Justice (MNJ) emerged in 2007 and clashed with government forces into 2008 (see page on Tuareg).

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