Country Profile: Niger

About three-times the size of California — two-thirds of it Saharan desert and mountains and one-third savanna — the Republic of Niger is one of the poorest countries on earth.

Its landlocked economy, in the heart of West Africa, is based largely on subsistence crops, livestock, and some of the world's largest uranium deposits.

But cycles of drought, desertification, a roughly 3.3 percent population growth rate, and a declining world demand for uranium have undercut its already marginal economy.

About 98 percent of the roughly 10 million people there are Muslims. Most are either farmers or herders.

The country's literacy rate in the mid-1990s was 12.5 percent. Life expectancy is only 41 years, with a particularly high child mortality rate that is comparable to neighboring countries.

A Period of Political and Economic Reform

Niger was a French colony from 1922 until 1960, when it was granted independence.

After several years of political instability and political rule in the late 1990s, it has been run since 1999 by a democratically elected president and single chamber legislature in the capital city of Niamey, and has an independent judiciary.

Observers have been optimistic the government will address many of the country's challenges, including continued privatization and other International Monetary Fund-guided restructuring of its economy to stimulate growth.

Violent Crime a Problem

Niger is bordered by Libya, Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, Nigeria, and Chad.

The country today maintains close ties with France and has close relations with its West African neighbors.

The U.S. State Department has cautioned Americans travelling to Niger about violent crime, including carjackings, home invasions, and muggings, and about bandits in the northern, mountainous areas, who have attacked and robbed foreigners, leaving them stranded in remote desert areas.