/ 27 July 2023

Guards’ insurrection adds to Niger’s woes

Upheaval: Demonstrators gather to protest the detention of Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum by the Presidential Guard in Niamey on 26 July. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Here are five things to know about Niger in West Africa, where guards turned on President Mohamed Bazoum this week.

The vast country, which is two-thirds desert, is one of the world’s poorest. 

Half of its 26.2 million people live in poverty, fuelled in part by the world’s highest birth rate of 6.8 children per woman in 2021.

Like other countries on the southern rim of the Sahara, Niger is losing huge swathes of arable land to the encroaching desert, causing droughts that worsen widespread hunger. 

The country forms part of Africa’s Great Green Wall project, which aims to create an 8 000km-long corridor of trees and shrubs across the continent.

Niger has suffered from chronic political volatility since gaining independence from France in 1960. It has seen four coups in its history, most recently a February 2010 putsch which toppled then president Mamadou Tandja. 

The country’s first-ever democratic transition of power took place in 2021, when Bazoum took the presidency after his predecessor voluntarily stepped down. 

On Wednesday, disgruntled members of the Presidential Guard sealed off access to Bazoum’s residence in the capital of Niamey and refused to release him after talks broke down.

Along with its Sahel neighbours Mali and Burkina Faso, Niger is struggling with a jihadist insurgency that began in Mali in 2012 and spread across the region’s highly porous borders.

The fighting against both al-Qaeda and Islamic State-affiliated jihadists has come to within 100km of the capital. One of the deadliest attacks left 141 people dead in several hamlets in the vast desert region of Tahoua in March 2021.

US-backed Niger is an increasingly rare bastion of support for Western anti-terrorism operations in the region. France has stationed 1 500 counter-terrorism troops in the country after being booted out of Mali and Burkina Faso.

Niger has some of the world’s biggest deposits of uranium, a key ingredient in the nuclear industry. 

France, which gets most of its electricity from nuclear plants, began mining uranium in northern Niger half a century ago.

The country has also become a small-scale producer of gold and oil. Most of the population, however, lives off farming.

North-east Niger is home to fabled towns of forts of salt and clay perched on rocks above the Sahara. The origins of the “ksars” of Djado, a series of crenellated walls, towers, passages and wells, is a mystery.

Niger is seeking UN World Heritage Status for the site. — Agence France-Presse