Niger Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Ethnicity is a complex subject, and everywhere we look it means something a little bit different. In this lesson, we'll look at the nation of Niger, and see what ethnicity means in this part of the world.

Niger

There's something that seems appealing about growing your own food. If you grow enough for yourself, you don't have to buy food somewhere else. It's a nice idea. But, it's risky. If something happens, say a drought, you could literally lose everything. Unfortunately, that's not an uncommon experience in the African nation of Niger.

Niger is one of the poorest nations in the world, and has struggled to maintain political and economic stability since becoming independent from France in 1960. Many people still live on small subsistence farms, growing just enough for their families, but recent droughts flung many into absolute poverty. It's a risky situation, and one that the people of Niger have dealt with for some time.

Niger
Niger

Ethnicity in Niger

Niger, like most African nations, was created by European empires and not by the people living there. This means that there is very little sense of national unity in Niger. Instead, most people have very strong ethnic identities. Now, there are many ethnic groups in Niger, but we can generally categorize them into a few broader groups based on shared ethno-linguistic traits and identity.

The Hausa

The largest ethnic group of Niger is the Hausa people, who make up about 53% of the national population. The Hausa groups live mostly in the central part of the nation, where they successfully worked as farmers and leatherworkers for centuries. The Hausa language is one of the official languages of the nation, being as it's spoken by roughly half of the population. Due to their numbers, the Hausa have also traditionally held most political power in Niger, although Hausa leaders have not really levied any extra benefits in favor of the Hausa people.

The traditional Hausa harp is still a favored musical instrument in Niger today
Hausa

The Zarma/Songhai

The next largest ethnic group in Niger is actually a compilation of two groups that often see themselves as a single people. Together, the Zarma and Songhai make up about 21% of the total population. Their language is also widely spoken across Niger. The Songhai are largely fishers and live along the rivers of Niger. The Zarma are mostly farmers.

Historically, these groups came from separate urban empires of West Africa that moved into the same region, and over time adopted each other's customs, beliefs, and traditions. Most Zarma and Songhai are Muslim, although their interpretation of Islam allows for the continued practice of many traditional rituals involving the worship of ancestors.

The Tuareg

Most people of Niger are farmers, but that requires staying in one place. And, not everyone's into that. Niger was traditionally home to several nomadic societies, and many still exist there today. Most notable are the various Tuareg groups.

While the Tuaregs consist of many tribes, they share a very strong unified identity. They are mostly pastoralists, following herds of camels and goats, and live in nomadic, matrilineal societies where women have a fair degree of power. About 11% of people in Niger identify as Tuareg.

Nomadic groups in Niger's history often lacked political representation, and in 2007 the Tuaregs led a rebellion against the government. It was quelled by 2009, but some improvements have been made in opportunities for nomadic peoples to participate in Niger's government.

Tuareg raiders were a major source of trouble for French colonists
Tuareg

The Fulani

The Tuaregs aren't the only nomadic groups of Niger. About 6.5% of the population identifies with one of the Fulani groups, who also follow herds across the desert and grasslands. Fulani peoples also live within distinct tribes but share a strong ethnic unity, and have some unique practices.

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