The the Niger region was penetrated early by Muslim missionaries for it was on the central caravan route from North Africa to the Hausa States and the empires of Mali and Songhai. The Hausa states were dominant in southern Niger from before the 10th century until the early 19th century, when they were overwhelmed by the Fulani Jihad led by Usuman dan Fodio. The Songhai Empire was the supreme power in the western part of the country for almost a thousand years , while the Kanem-Bornu Empire exerted a powerful influence in the east. In the 14th century, the Tuareg populated the Aïr Plateau, where they subsequently established the Sultanate of Agadez.
The French occupied the area about 1890. Proclaimed an autonomous republic of the French Community in 1958, Niger became fully independent in 1960 under the Djerma, Hamani Diori who was reelected in 1965 and 1970 (Djermas are descendants of the Songhai). He was overthrown in 1974 by a military coup headed by Colonel Seyni Kountché who died of a brain tumor in 1987 (also a Djerma). He was succeeded by the Djerma army chief of staff Ali Seybou who was reelected president in 1989 after introducing a new constitution that returned Niger to civilian rule under a single party system. Strikes, demonstrations and the rebellion of the Tuareg in the north led to the institution of a multi party constitution in 1992 with the Hausa Mahamane Ousmane winning the first free elections in 1993.
In 1996, Colonel Ibrahim Bare Mainassara seized power in a military coup, banned all political parties and held elections which he won of course. His regime was widely criticized for human rights violations. Following his assassination in Niamey in April 1999 a "Conseil de Reconciliation Nationale" was established headed by Major Douada Malam Wanké who promised to hold free elections, from which the military would be excluded, in November 1999.
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Finally here is the majestic Niger River flowing 4200 km from its source in Guinea, through Mali and Niger to its delta on the Atlantic coast of Nigeria. Most of the lands it traverses are now semi-arid and in the process of becoming deserts like the Sahara. It is difficult to imagine that the Sahara was covered with forests and inhabited by hunters and herders 6000 years ago .
Droughts are frequent and catastrophic for most of the people survive on subsistence farming and herding.
Ninety percent of the people live in the south for the north is a desert with a few oases where only the hardy Tuareg can survive.
The people of south-western Niger where the capital is located are mostly proud descendants of the Songhai Empire based in nearby Gao whose hegemony lasted the 14th century to the 16th.
This is Niamey's huge "Grand marché" which was completely rebuilt after a disastrous fire in 1980.
This modern Gaweye Hotel and other fine buildings in the city center were built in the 1970s when the countries uranium mines brought hopes of prosperity.
In those happy days the Gaweye's pool was occupied by businessmen seeking relief from the heat and by affluent tourists on their way to colourful Agadez and the beautiful Aïr-Azawad region.
Unfortunately uranium prices crashed in the '80s and the tourist industry has not yet recovered from the 1992 Tuareg rebellion even though that is now over. Consequently, the average annual economic growth has been of only 1.7% from 1985 to 1995, exactly half of the annual rate of growth of the population of 3.4 % during the same period.
The white buildings in this view taken from the top of the Gaweye Hotel, house the National Museum which is worth a visit. I can't remember what the big building in the background was.
The country has severe economic difficulties but I rank Niamey as one of the most pleasant places I have visited in West Africa because of its people and more particularly my fiends Ibrah and Wacho.
It was past midnight when I arrived here from Parakou. I took a chance and had a taxi drive me to the Catholic Mission which was closed of course but the night watchman opened up and let me sleep in the Chapel until the morning service.
Then, I was given this very comfortable room with private bath for the ridiculously low price of only 5.50&US. If you travel to Niamey, don't miss it, there is also a common kitchen and dining room where you can meet other travellers.
You can see from my bag on the floor that I travel light, it weighs between 8 and 10 kilos, depending on how many books I'm carrying.
Ibrah, seated in front of me, teaches physics at the Abdou Moumouni University. A bachelor, he prepared an excellent dinner which his friend Abdoulaye Hassoumi Garba and I are enjoying in his home.
Ibrah and Abdoulaye drove me around Niamey. The "Assemblée Nationale" is Niger's legislative body, it is here that democracy will be exercised if and when it returns to this country.
It might seem strange to see camels in a modern city but one must keep in mind that Niamey is at the edge of the desert where camels are still a very efficient means of transport. We were just going to the University but these big guys crossing the bridge over the Niger with us could have been going all the way to Burkina Faso.
Here is the University Auditorium, it's a nice building, the finest on the campus. After visiting Ibrah's office and laboratories, I have the greatest respect for those who teach and study science with so little equipment.
We also drove by Niamey's attractive "Grande Mosquée". An overwhelming majority of the people (85%), are Sunni Muslims but they practice a tolerant variety of that faith and beer it is available for whoever wants it.
The tall fellow in the coloured shirt is my Tuareg friend Ahmed Wacho in front of the house of his friend Mohammed Nanzoul (in blue), whose wife had prepared a typical Tuareg dinner for us. Writing this six months later, I don't remember exactly what we had to eat but I do remember that it was interesting and very good and more importantly that the hospitality was just extraordinary.
I took this big fellow's picture not far from Ahmed's office in the suburbs. He could not have been going very far with his load of fodder.
These two donkey driven carts were also taken in the same area. It seems that all this fodder will be delivered to suburb residents who like to fatten a sheep or two for their own consumption. It makes sense, it eases the change from village life to city life and at least they know what they're eating!
After more than a week in Niamey, I went north toward Gao in Mali.
Apart from being centered on the Mosque, the Church or the Shaman's Temple, village life is similar from one place to the next in the Sahel but the architecture changes, here, north of Niamey, living quarters are square and granaries are round.
I made a point of getting here on Saturday to see Ayorou's famous Sunday livestock market. The Amenokal Hotel was the best place in town but the price was very reasonable at only 9.00$US a night for a comfortable air conditioned unit.
The hotel was well located, right on the beautiful ever-changing Niger River.
People flock to this famous market from far and wide. Some come overland the but most used the convenient river. Herds of cattle swim across the Niger and their arrival on this side is an event to watch.
The market is known as a cattle market but all kinds of products are sold here by all kinds of people. It is a good idea to hire a local youth who can explain what is going on and point out the various tribes by their distinctive dress and behavior.
Here is the donkey corner of the market showing about the third of the number that is traded here every week.
According to my "guide" Ibrahim, the virtues and defects of these sheep are being discussed at length in in the process of agreeing on the price for the lot.
Legally, these Bella women, in their traditional embroidered dresses, can no longer be owned as slaves by some Tuareg master for slavery is now illegal in Niger. In practice however, many Bella choose to remain subservient to their traditional Tuareg masters who generally take good care of them.
The Ayorou market specializes in livestock but, as previously mentioned, all kinds of products and services are available here as evidenced by a by this sign publicizing the various ailments treated by the "guerisseur" Idissa Safari Cove!
Everyone was shopping and haggling to buy or sell something in this market, including myself for I was buyer of transportation to Gao in Mali some 200 km north of here. It turned out to be a pretty complicated business. There were a lot vehicles around but not many going north where the bad roads required four-wheel-drives.
Shopping for ride was complicated by my guide who was steering me to those drivers who would give him a commission and telling me that the others were leaving the next day or the day after that. Finally I dismissed him, took the matter in my own hands and made a deal for the front seat of the blue 4x4 in the photo. I made the deal not with driver but with a merchant who had apparently "chartered" the 4 by 4 and was now selling passages to who recover his costs. We loaded 12 huge bags of flour and 15 passengers in the back along with all their baggage. I paid 10,000 CFA (18 $US), to share the front seat with a woman and her baby all the way to Gao.
We left around four clock in the afternoon. At first the road was real nice, as you can see in this picture, but it got progressively worse as we approached the Mali border.