The Republic of Niger is a West African country named after the Niger River. It is landlocked and lies on the border between the Sahara and the Sub-Saharan region. Formerly a French colony, Niger became independent in 1960. As of 2007, it is the poorest country in the world and is instituting economic reforms in order to address this issue. A significant portion of its national budget is derived from foreign aid.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, Niger was part of the Songhai Empire centered in Mali. Over the centuries, it frequently changed hands among shifting political powers in Africa. Regular European contact with the region began in the 19th century, when European explorers sought the source of the Niger River.
The Touareg, a nomadic Berber group occupying the area, resisted European control, but was eventually subdued. In 1917, the Touareg signed a treaty granting the French control of Niger, and in 1922 it became a French colony. Beginning with the French constitution of 1946, French legislation gradually allowed Niger and other French colonies greater autonomy. It became an autonomous French state in 1958 and an independent nation two years later.
Hamani Diori was elected as the first president of Niger. He was reelected unopposed for the next two five-year terms, but a coup d'etat led by Colonel Seyni Kountché ended his reign in 1974. Kountouché and his military supporters remained in power until his death in 1987, when he was succeeded by Ali Saibou. Saibou instituted widespread governmental reforms, culminating in a new constitution in 1989.
Despite Saibou's attempts to minimize corruption in the Nigerian government, the country's political strife continued. Saibou was overthrown in a 1996 coup by Colonel Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara, who was in turn killed in a 1999 coup. The new leader, Major Daouda Malam Wanké, was more successful than his predecessors in instituting reforms, and a new constitution was approved by the electorate in 1999.
In the current governmental model, an elected president shares executive power with an appointed prime minister, while a unicameral National Assembly makes up the legislative branch. The National Assembly contains seven political parties and recently passed a number of bills aimed at decentralizing the Nigerian government. Mamadou Tandja became the first president under the new constitution and was elected to a second term in 2004.
As well as being the world's poorest country, Niger has both the highest fertility rate and the highest infant mortality rate, so nearly half the population is under the age of 15. It is a member of the United Nations and has friendly relations with many countries worldwide, including Western powers and Muslim nations. It enjoys a special relationship with France. Eighty percent of the Nigerian population is Muslim, while Animism and Christianity are important minority religions. French is the country's official language, but most people speak one of the country's many native languages.
Niger's economy is based mainly on subsistence agriculture, livestock, and uranium mining. It also has potentially profitable gold and oil reserves. In addition to foreign debt relief, the government has privatized state-owned companies and passed legislation to combat poverty in an attempt to improve the economy.