Today marks the anniversary of the independence of Niger from colonial rule by the French in 1960. Niger or the Niger, officially the Republic of the Niger (French: République du Niger), is a landlocked country in West Africa. It is a unitary state bordered by Libya to the northeast, Chad to the east, Nigeria to the south, Benin and Burkina Faso to the southwest, Mali to the west, and Algeria to the northwest. It covers a land area of almost 1,270,000 km2 (490,000 sq mi), making it the second-largest landlocked country in West Africa, after Chad. Over 80% of its land area lies in the Sahara. Its predominantly Muslim population of about 25 million live mostly in clusters in the further south and west of the country.
The capital Niamey is located in Niger’s southwest corner. Some non-desert portions of the country have undergone periodic drought and desertification. The economy is concentrated around subsistence agriculture, with some export agriculture in the more fertile south, and export of raw materials, including uranium ore. It faces challenges to development due to its landlocked position, desert terrain, historical political shifts, and a population growth that cannot be supported by its shallow economy. Niger society reflects a diversity drawn from the independent histories of a number of ethnic groups and their regions given that the country borders a number of states all of which have had a cultural influence. Since independence, Nigeriens have lived under 5 constitutions and 3 periods of military rule. After the military coup in 2010, Niger became a democratic, multi-party state.
The territory of Niger has a long history, but the country’s existence as a nation does not (and its multi-ethnic, multi-lingual composition reflects that reality. By at least the 5th century BCE the territory of what became Niger had become an area of trans-Saharan trade, led by Tuareg from the north (using camel caravans). This regional mobility which continued in waves for centuries was accompanied with further migration to the south and intermixing between sub-Saharan African and North African populations, and the spread of Islam. It was aided by the Arab invasion of North Africa in the 7th century CE, which resulted in population movements to the south. Many empires and kingdoms existed in the Sahel during this era, and I cannot get into all of them in any great detail.
The Mali Empire (13th to 15th centuries)
The Mali Empire was a Mandinka empire founded by Sundiata Keita (r. 1230–1255) in c. 1230 and existed up to 1600. As detailed in the Epic of Sundiata, Mali emerged as a breakaway region of the Sosso Empire which itself had split from the earlier Ghana Empire. Thereafter Mali defeated the Sosso at the Battle of Kirina in 1235 and then Ghana in 1240. From its heartland around the later Guinea-Mali border region, the empire expanded under successive kings and came to dominate the Trans-Saharan trade routes, reaching its greatest extent during the rule of Mansa Musa (r. 1312–1337). At this point parts of what are now Niger’s Tillabéri Region came under Malian rule. A Muslim, Mansa Musa performed the hajj in 1324–25 and encouraged the spread of Islam in the empire, although most locals continued to practice some form of animism along with Islam. The empire began a steady weakening in the 15th century due to a combination of internecine strife over the royal succession, weak kings, the shift of European trade routes to the coast, and rebellions in the empire’s periphery by Mossi, Wolof, Tuareg and Songhai peoples. Even so a rump Mali kingdom continued to exist until the 17th century.
Songhai Empire (1000s–1591)
The Songhai Empire was named for its main ethnic group, the Songhai or Sonrai, and was centered on the bend of the Niger River in Mali. Songhai began settling this region from the 7th to 9th centuries. By the 11th century Gao (capital of the former Kingdom of Gao) had become the empire’s capital. From 1000 to 1325, the Songhai Empire managed to maintain peace with the Mali Empire, its neighbor to the west. In 1325 Songhai was conquered by Mali, but then regained its independence in 1375. Under king Sonni Ali (r. 1464–1492) Songhai adopted an expansionist policy which reached its apex during the reign of Askia Mohammad I (r. 1493–1528). At this point the empire had expanded from its Niger-bend heartland, including to the east where most of later western Niger came under its rule, including Agadez which was conquered in 1496. The empire was unable to withstand repeated attacks from the Saadi Dynasty of Morocco and was decisively defeated at the Battle of Tondibi in 1591. It then split into a number of smaller kingdoms.
Sultanate of Aïr (c.1449 – 1906)
Around 1449 in the north of what is now Niger, the Sultanate of Aïr was founded by Sultan Ilisawan, based in Agadez. Formerly a trading post inhabited by a mixture of Hausa and Tuareg, it grew as a strategic position on the trans-Saharan trade routes. In 1515 Aïr was conquered by Songhai, remaining a part of that empire until its collapse in 1591. In the centuries that followed, the sultanate was marked by internecine wars and clan conflicts. When Europeans began exploring the region in the 19th century most of Agadez lay in ruins and was taken over by the French, marking the beginning of the nation of Niger (sort of).
In the 19th century some European explorers traveled in the area of what later is Niger, such as Mungo Park (in 1805–06), the Oudney-Denham-Clapperton expedition (1822–25), Heinrich Barth (1850–55; with James Richardson and Adolf Overweg), Friedrich Gerhard Rohlfs (1865–67), Gustav Nachtigal (1869–74) and Parfait-Louis Monteil (1890–92). Some European countries already possessed scattered colonies in Africa, and in the latter half of the century they began to turn their eyes towards the interior of the continent. This process, known as the ‘Scramble for Africa’, culminated in the 1885 Berlin conference in which the colonial powers outlined the division of Africa into spheres of influence. As a result of this, France gained control of the upper valley of the Niger River (roughly equivalent to the areas of what later is Mali and Niger). France then set about making a reality of their rule on the ground. In 1897 the French officer Marius Gabriel Cazemajou was sent to Niger; he reached the Sultanate of Damagaram in 1898 and stayed in Zinder at the court of Sultan Amadou Kouran Daga—he was later killed as Daga feared he would ally with the Chad-based warlord Rabih az-Zubayr. In 1899–1900 France coordinated three expeditions—the Gentil Mission from French Congo, the Foureau-Lamy Mission from Algeria and the Voulet–Chanoine Mission from Timbuktu—with the aim of linking France’s African possessions. The three eventually met at Kousséri (in the further north of Cameroon) and defeated Rabih az-Zubayr’s forces at the Battle of Kousséri. The Voulet-Chanoine Mission was noted for pillaging, looting, raping and killing local civilians on its passage throughout southern Niger. On 8 May 1899, in retaliation for the resistance of queen Sarraounia, captain Voulet and his men murdered all the inhabitants of the village of Birni-N’Konni in what is regarded as one of the worst massacres in French colonial history. The subsequent scandal forced the French government in Paris to intervene, and when lieutenant-colonel Jean-François Klobb caught up with the mission near Tessaoua to relieve them of command he was killed. Lt. Paul Joalland, Klobb’s former officer, and lt. Octave Meynier eventually took over the mission following a mutiny in which Voulet and Chanoine were killed.
The Military Territory of Niger was subsequently created within the Upper Senegal and Niger colony (what later split into Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger) in December 1904 with its capital at Niamey. The border with Britain’s colony of Nigeria to the south was finalized in 1910, a rough delimitation having already been agreed by the two powers via treaties during the period 1898–1906. The capital of the territory was moved to Zinder in 1912 when the Niger Military Territory was split off from Upper Senegal and Niger, before being moved back to Niamey in 1922 when Niger became a fully-fledged colony within French West Africa.The borders of Niger were drawn up in stages and had been fixed at their later position by the 1930s. Territorial adjustments took place in this period: the areas west of the Niger river were attached to Niger in 1926–27, and during the dissolution of Upper Volta (modern Burkina Faso) in 1932–47 most of the east of that territory was added to Niger; and in the east the Tibesti Mountains were transferred to Chad in 1931. Post-war realties led to Niger declaring independence from France in 1960.
This complex and tumultuous history makes sense of the cuisine of the region, or, rather, explains why the cooking styles are so varied – so many influences. Typical Nigerien meals start with a salad of seasonal vegetables, and the main courses consist of a starch (commonly rice) paired with a sauce or stew. Staple foods include millet, rice, cassava, sorghum, maize and beans, with couscous saved for special occasions. Many parts of the moringa tree (Moringa oleifera) are used in local cooking. The fruit pods (“drumsticks”) of the tree are a common ingredient in Niger dishes as are the leaves. The festive dish dambou combines couscous and moringa leaves into a main starch to which some meat or fish can be added. The recipes I found are all lyrics in my ear – basically, “take this stuff and do something with it.” No quantities, cooking times, etc. etc. Just get on with it.
Moringa leaves (or spinach)
Aji dulce pepper
Spices (optional) e.g. ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, saffron, and cloves.
Stock cubes (Maggi seasoning)
Steam the quantity of couscous you desire then add the other ingredients into the pot as desired. Look at the photos to get a general idea. Spinach is a common substitute for moringa, and many cooks do not use any spices. It’s all cook’s choice.