Archeologists in Niger have much work to do, with little known of the prehistory of the societies who inhabited the south, the home of the vast majority of modern Nigeriens. The deserts and the mountains of the north, though, have garnered attention for the ancient abandoned cities and pre-historic rock carvings found in the Aïr Mountains and the Ténéré desert.
Considerable evidence indicates that about 60,000 years ago, humans inhabited what has since become the desolate Sahara of northern Niger. Later, on what was then huge fertile grasslands, from at least 7,000 BCE there was pastoralism, herding of sheep and goats, large settlements and pottery. Cattle were introduced to the Central Sahara (Ahaggar) from 4,000 to 3,500 BCE. Remarkable rock paintings, many found in the Aïr Mountains, dated 3,500 to 2,500 BCE, portray vegetation and animal presence rather different from modern expectations.
One recent find suggests what is now the Sahara of northeast Niger was home to a succession of Holocene era societies. One Saharan site illustrated how sedentary hunter-fisher-gatherers lived at the edge of shallow lakes around 7700–6200 B.C.E., but disappeared during a period of extreme drought that may have lasted for a millennium over 6200–5200 B.C.E. When the climate returned to savanna grasslands—wetter than today's climate—and lakes reappeared in what is the modern Ténére desert, a population practicing hunting and fishing, as well as cattle husbandry. This last population survived until almost historical times, from 5200–2500 B.C.E., when the current arid period began.
As the Sahara dried after 2000 BCE, the north of Niger became the desert it is today, with settlements and trade routes clinging to the Air in the north, the Kaouar and shore of Lake Chad in the west, and (apart for a scattering of oases) most people living along what is now the southern border with Nigeria and the southwest of the country.
A 2002 UNESCO published study suggested that iron smelting at Termit, in eastern Niger may have begun as early as 1500 BC. This finding, which would be of great importance to both the history of Niger and the history of the diffusion of Iron Age metalworking technology in all of sub-Saharan Africa, is as yet contentious. Older accepted studies place the spread of both copper and Iron technology to date from the early first Millennium CE: 1500 years later than the Termit Massif finds.
By at least the fifth century BCE, Carthage and Egypt became terminals for West African gold, ivory, and slaves trading salt, cloth, beads, and metal goods. With this trade, Niger was on the route between the empires of the Sahel and the empires of the Mediterranean basin.
Trade continued into Roman times. Although there are Classical references to direct travel from the Mediterranean to West Africa (Daniels, p. 22f), most of this trade was conducted through middlemen who inhabited the area and so were aware of safe passages through the drying lands.
Recent archeological discoveries at Bura (in southwest Niger) and in adjacent southeast Burkina Faso have documented the existence of the iron-age Bura culture from the 200s CE to the 1200s CE. The Bura-Asinda system of settlements apparently covered the lower Niger River valley. But further research is needed to understand the role this early civilization played in the ancient and medieval history of West Africa.
Herodotus wrote of the Garamantes hunting the Ethiopian Troglodytes with their chariots; this account was associated with depictions of horses drawing chariots in contemporary cave art in southern Morocco and the Fezzan, giving origin to a theory that the Garamantes, or some other Saran people, had created chariot routes to provide Rome and Carthage with gold and ivory. However, it has been argued that no horse skeletons have been found dating from this early period in the region, and chariots would have been unlikely vehicles for trading purposes due to their small capacity.
The earliest evidence for domesticated camels in the region dates from the third century. Used by the Berber people, they enabled more regular contact across the entire width of the Sahara, but regular trade routes did not develop until the beginnings of the Islamic conversion of West Africa in the seventh and eighth centuries. Two main trade routes developed. The first ran through the western desert from modern Morocco to the Niger Bend, the second from modern Tunisia to the Lake Chad area. These stretches were relatively short and had the essential network of occasional oases that established the routing as inexorably as pins in a map. Further east of the Fezzan with its trade route through the valley of Kaouar to Lake Chad, Libya was impassable due to its lack of oases and fierce sandstorms. A route from the Niger Bend to Egypt was abandoned in the tenth century due to its dangers.
Niger was an important economic crossroads, and the empires of Songhai, Mali, the Dendi Kingdom, Gao, and Kanem-Bornu, as well as a number of Hausa states, claimed control over portions of the area. During recent centuries, the nomadic Tuareg formed large confederations, pushed southward, and, siding with various Hausa states, clashed with the Fulani Empire of Sokoto, which had gained control of much of the Hausa territory in the late 18th century.
In the 19th century, contact with Europe began when the first European explorers—notably Mungo Park (British) and Heinrich Barth (German)-explored the area searching for the mouth of the Niger River. Although French efforts at pacification began before 1900, dissident ethnic groups, especially the desert Tuareg, were not subdued until 1922, when Niger became a French colony.
Niger's colonial history and development parallel that of other French West African territories. France administered her West African colonies through a governor general at Dakar, Senegal, and governors in the individual territories, including Niger. In addition to conferring a limited form of French citizenship on the inhabitants of the territories, the 1946 French constitution provided for decentralization of power and limited participation in political life for local advisory assemblies.
A further revision in the organization of overseas territories occurred with the passage of the Overseas Reform Act (Loi Cadre) of July 23, 1956, followed by reorganizational measures enacted by the French Parliament early in 1957. In addition to removing voting inequalities, these laws provided for creation of governmental organs, assuring individual territories a measure of self-government over internal matters such as education, health, and infrastructure.
After the establishment of the Fifth French Republic on 4 October 4, 1958, the territories of French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa were given the right to hold a referendum on their membership in the French Community, a modified form of the French Union which both allowed some limited self-government, and was viewed as a path to eventual independence.
The December 4th elections (on whether to remain in the French Community, followed shortly by those for the Nigerien territitorial assembly) were contested by the two political blocks of the Territorial Assembly. The Nigerien Progressive Party (PPN), originally a regional branch of the African Democratic Rally (RDA) led the Union Pour L Communaute Franco-Africaine (UCFA) and was headed by PPN leader and deputy-speaker of the Assembly Hamani Diori. The other block was led by the then majority leader of the Assembly, Djibo Bakary. His Movement Socialist Africain (known by the name Sawaba: independence in the Hausa language) called for a "no" vote: one of only two major formations in French West Africa to do so.
While there have always been questions about French influence in the voting The results of both elections were confirmed on the 16th. The PPN led UCFA (yes 358,000) defeated SAWABA (no 98,000), winning 54 seats to 4 in the 60 seat assembly. On the 18th Niger declared itself a Republic within the French community and the Territorial Assembly became the Constituent Assembly. This date (18 December 1958) is celebrated as Republic Day, the national holiday of Niger, and considered date of the founding of the nation. In March 1959 this became the Legislative Assembly.
In 1958 Diori became president of the provisional government, and then became Prime Minister of Niger in 1959. Having organised a powerful coalition of Hausa, Fula, and Djerma leaders, especially made up of chiefs and traditional leaders, in support of Niger's "Yes" vote in the 1959 referendum, Diori gained French favor. During the 1959-1960 period, the French government banned all political parties except the PPN, effectively making Niger a one-party state. The SAWABA leaders fled into exile, and the member parties of the UCFA were folded into the PPN.
The French Fifth Republic passed a revision of the French Community allowing membership of independent states, and on 28 July the Nigerien Legislative Assembly became the Nigerien National Assembly: Independence was declared on 3 August 1960. Diori was elected President of Niger by the national assembly in November 1960. During his presidency, Diori's government favored the maintenance of traditional social structures and the retention of close economic ties with France. He was re-elected unopposed in 1965 and 1970.
Diori gained worldwide respect for his role as a spokesman for African affairs and as a popular arbitrator in conflicts involving other African nations. Domestically, however, his administration was rife with corruption, and the government was unable to implement much-needed reforms or to alleviate the widespread famine brought on by the Sahelian drought of the early 1970s. Increasingly criticized at home for his negligence in domestic matters, Diori put down a coup in 1963 and narrowly escaped assassination in 1965. Faced with an attempted military coup and attacks by members of SAWABA, he used French advisers and troops to repress opposition, despite student and union protests against French neocolonialism. However, his relationship with France suffered when his government voiced dissatisfaction with the level of investment in uranium production when Georges Pompidou visited Niger in 1972.
The PPN functioned as a platform for a handful of Politburo leaders grouped around Diori and his advisors Boubou Hama and Diamballa Maiga, who were largely unchanged from their first election in 1956. By 1974 the party had not held a congress since 1959 (one was scheduled for late 1974 during the famine induced political crisis, but never held). The PPN election lists were made up of traditional rulers from the main ethnic regions who, upon election to the Assembly, were given only ceremonial power. Ethnic tensions, too, mounted duiring Diori's regime. The Politburo and successive cabinents were made up almost exclusively of Djerma, Songhai and Maouri ethnic groups from the west of the country, the same ethnic base the French had promoted during colonial rule. No Politburo ever contained a member of Hausa or Fula groups, even though the Hausa were the plurality of the population, forming over %40 of Nigeriens.
Widespread civil disorder followed allegations that some government ministers were misappropriating stocks of food aid and accused Diori of consolidating power. Diori limited cabinet appointments to fellow Djerma, family members, and close friends. In addition, he acquired new powers by declaring himself the minister of foreign and defense affairs.
On 15 April 1974, Lieutenant colonel Seyni Kountché led a military coup that ended Diori's rule. Diori was imprisoned until 1980 and remained under house arrest. The government that followed, while plagued by coup attempts of its own, survived until 1993. While a period of relative prosperity, the military government of the period allowed little free expression and engaged in arbitrary imprisonment and killing. The first presidential elections took place in 1993 (33 years after independence), and the first municipal elections only took place in 2007.
Upon Kountché's death in 1987, he was succeeded by his Chief of Staff and cousin, Col. Ali Saibou. Saibou liberalized some of Niger's laws and policies, and promulgated a new constitution. He released political prisoners, Including Diori and his old political nemesis Djibo Bakary. However, President Saibou's efforts to control political reforms failed in the face of union and student demands to institute a multi-party democratic system. The Saibou regime acquiesced to these demands by the end of 1990. New political parties and civic associations sprang up, and a National Conference was convened in July 1991 to prepare the way for the adoption of a new constitution and the holding of free and fair elections. The debate was often contentious and accusatory, but under the leadership of Prof. André Salifou, the conference developed consensus on the modalities of a transition government.
A transition government was installed in November 1991 to manage the affairs of state until the institutions of the Third Republic were put in place in April 1993. While the economy deteriorated over the course of the transition, certain accomplishments stand out, including the successful conduct of a constitutional referendum; the adoption of key legislation such as the electoral and rural codes; and the holding of several free, fair, and nonviolent nationwide elections. Freedom of the press flourished with the appearance of several new independent newspapers. A coalition of parties in 1993 won the Presidential election for Mahamane Ousmane the CDS party candidate. The agreement between the parties fell apart in 1994 leading to governmental paralysis as the CDS on its own no longer had a majority in the assembly. Ousmane dissolved the legislature and called new legislative elections, but the MNSD party won the largest group of seats, so Ousmane was compelled to appoint Hama Amadou of the MNSD as prime minister.
As the culmination of an initiative started in 1991, the government signed peace accords in April 1995 with all Tuareg and Toubou groups that had been leading the Tuareg Rebellion since 1990 claiming they lacked attention and resources from the central government. The government agreed to absorb some former rebels in the military and, with French assistance, help others return to a productive civilian life.
The paralysis of government between the President and the Prime Minister who no longer agreed gave Col. Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara a rationale to overthrow the Third Republic and depose the first democratically elected president of Niger, on January 27, 1996. While leading a military authority that ran the government (Conseil de Salut National) during a 6-month transition period, Baré enlisted specialists to draft a new constitution for a Fourth Republic announced in May 1996.
Baré organized a Presidential election in June 1996. He ran against four other candidates, including Ousmane. Before voting had finished, Baré dissolved the national electoral committee and appointed another, which announced him the winner with over 50% of the votes cast. When his efforts to justify his coup and subsequent questionable election failed to convince donors to restore multilateral and bilateral economic assistance, a desperate Baré ignored the international embargo on Libya seeking funds for Niger's economy. In repeated violations of basic civil liberties by the regime, opposition leaders were imprisoned; journalists often arrested, beaten, and deported by an unofficial militia composed of police and military; and independent media offices were looted and burned with impunity.
In April 1999, Baré was assassinated in a coup led by Maj. Daouda Malam Wanké who established a transitional National Reconciliation Council to oversee the drafting of a constitution for a Fifth Republic with a French style semi-presidential system. In votes that international observers found to be generally free and fair, the Nigerien electorate approved the new constitution in July 1999 and held legislative and presidential elections in October and November 1999. Heading a MNSD/CDS coalition, Tandja Mamadou won the presidency. The council transitioned to civilian rule in December 1999.
In July 2004, Niger held municipal elections nationwide as part of its decentralization process. Some 3,700 people were elected to new local governments in 265 newly established communes. The ruling MNSD party won more positions than any other political party; however, opposition parties made significant gains.
In November and December 2004, Niger held presidential and legislative elections. Mamadou Tandja was elected to his second 5-year presidential term with 65% of the vote in an election that international observers called generally free and fair. This was the first presidential election with a democratically elected incumbent and a test to Niger's young democracy.
In the 2004 legislative elections, the National Movement for the Development of Society (MNSD), the Democratic and Socialist Convention (CDS), the Rally for Social Democracy (RSD), the Rally for Democracy and Progress (RDP), the Nigerien Alliance for Democracy and Progress (ANDP), and the Social Party for Nigerien Democracy (PSDN) coalition, which backed Tandja, won 88 of the 113 seats in the National Assembly.
The Second Tuareg insurgency in Niger began in 2007 when a previously unknown group, the Mouvement des Nigeriens pour la Justice (MNJ), emerged. The predominantly Tuareg group has issued a number of demands, mainly related to development in the north. It has attacked military and other facilities and laid landmines in the north. The resulting insecurity has devastated Niger's tourist industry and deterred investment in mining and oil. The government has labeled the MNJ criminals and traffickers, and refuses to negotiate with the group until it disarms.