While benefiting from considerable economic growth, Niger faces significant challenges. The government is redeploying an assertive social strategy to support at-risk populations.
One statistic sums up the challenge faced by Niger: its population growth of 3.9 per cent per year leads to a doubling of the population every 19 years. In recent years, the country has made significant social progress, particularly in education and reducing poverty. However, food insecurity still affects one to two million people. While human development remains low, economic growth (+2.2 per cent per capita on average over the last decade) is significant. It is, however, still burdened by population growth.
In terms of security, terrorism remains an active threat. Destabilising incursions by armed groups (few of which are stationed in the territory) damage the country’s international image, and the repeated abuses by terrorist groups are aggravating the security situation, displacing thousands of people. Cross-border trade is disrupted by the increasing influx of refugees and population displacements. Financially, the state is facing increasing humanitarian and security costs. Nevertheless, the government has implemented several programmes to help victims and consolidate peace by strengthening conflict prevention and management.
To provide more solutions to this unfavourable situation, the Government of Niger is turning the demographic dividend into a source of resilience. In 1960, the population of Niger was estimated at approximately 3 million. It was 7.3 million in 1988, and is estimated at 23.2 million today. The latest projections put the number of young people aged 15–24 at over 4.5 million in 2020, with four fifths living in rural areas.
The median age is estimated at 15.2 years, making Niger’s population one of the youngest in the world.
The country is therefore struggling to pursue its demographic transition. While positive results have been recorded in terms of maternal, infant and child mortality, and life expectancy has increased, the level of fertility remains high. The average number of children per woman has remained at around seven since 1992.
As a result, the country’s youth are contributing heavily to the country’s dependency ratio, which has reached 121.2%. This means that, on average, each economically active person provides for more than one inactive person.
Problems facing the country’s youth
The health situation is far from exemplary; only the region of Niamey meets the WHO standard for the presence of doctors and medical personnel. The demographic burden also affects the Nigerien authorities’ ability to meet educational needs. Conversely, education is called upon to play a major role in the process of controlling demographic variables, particularly fertility.
The country’s youth are faced with a fairly sluggish labour market. In urban environments, the informal sector acts as a social buffer by siphoning off those who are rejected by the formal sector. However, it does not provide any guarantees.
As a result, young people are at risk of being recruited into armed gangs. This risk is all the greater as terrorist groups, smugglers and traffickers can easily move from one country to another, an issue aggravated by the weak state presence. Several thousand Nigeriens have joined Boko Haram in return for substantial monthly payments of up to 300,000 CFA francs. Familial, linguistic and ethnic ties between terrorist groups and populations facilitate enlistment in acts of violence and terrorism.
In February 2015, the countries of the Lake Chad Basin (Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria) formed an 8,000-strong Multinational Joint Task Force to effectively and consistently respond to Boko Haram’s attacks, which are nonetheless continuing.
Niger, which used to be a haven of peace despite occasional rebellions (particularly by the Tuareg), is now experiencing a fragile security situation. The Diffa region in the Far East and the border areas with Libya, Algeria and Mali are particularly exposed. Security risks are exacerbated by intra-community rivalries, which are generally related to land control or to the sharing of other types of resources.
In 2018, the Nigerien authorities participated in campaigns against terrorist groups on the borders with Mali, Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad. They also signed a security cooperation agreement with Libya, Chad and Sudan. Under this agreement, each signatory state authorises the forces of peer countries to enter its territory to hunt down terrorist and criminal groups.
Tensions in resource sharing
In 2019, Niger’s security situation deteriorated sharply. Improving it will require a new vision that takes several parameters into account, including mass poverty, the weakening of family capacities and the low level of human development. Once again, demography is the cross-cutting theme in all these issues.
Due to past demographic trends and continued high fertility, the population will keep growing, reaching 42 million in 2035 and about 50 million in 2040. These figures reflect strong pressures on the environment and resources, and may create or exacerbate tensions and conflicts between inhabitants and communities with divergent interests in sharing the same resources.
The main socioeconomic challenges are linked to demographic concerns: Niger will have to increase its capacity to meet the basic health and education needs of this population; it will have to preserve an agrarian system capable of ensuring food security, without neglecting the constraints of sustainable development. The government, and therefore also families, will have to make intense financial efforts in the areas of education, health and security.
Building a better future
At present rates of economic and demographic growth, it will take 35 years to double GDP per capita. Slower population growth would make it possible to achieve this objective more quickly.
This will not be easy in a country where high fertility is the result of couples’ preferences for large families; a country built and sustained around values and beliefs that still equate a high number of children with economic and social wealth. However, the effort to capture the demographic dividend must continue, requiring appropriate macroeconomic policies and a secure environment conductive to development. One example would be resolving the many land conflicts between rural populations.Sahel
In conclusion, Niger must provide a better future for its young and growing population. This can only come about through an improvement in its human capital (education and health), as well as job creation in the formal and informal sectors. In the absence of decisions that contribute to the training of young people, especially women, lack of work will make them vulnerable to the risk of recruitment into armed groups or other criminal activities.
The building of tomorrow’s Niger in peace, security, dialogue and social cohesion will depend on the achievement of the objectives set forth by the state and, above all, with regard to the new national population policy.