‘Did you like Nigeria?’ The question that’s been asked me the most since I’ve returned from Niger. This proves how little is know about a country that according the the United Nations (UN) is one of the least developed countries in the world.
As you can see, it’s an honest mistake. And actually, it isn’t uncommon for Nigeriens who live just at the south border, to resettle in Nigeria. Quite a few border villages maintain close relationships. That is until Boko Haram, an extremist group, started to gain power in the Lake Chad area in Nigeria, which borders Niger.
Many Nigerians and resettled Nigeriens fled to Niger when Boko Haram made it a habit of attacking villages to steal food, get medicine and sow fear. Unfortunately, Boko Haram has also crossed the border into Niger. Just this past June the group attacked the relatively prosperous city of Bosso.
This city, located in the very southeast of the country only a river crossing away from Nigeria, used to have 35.000 inhabitants. The day after the Boko Haram attack, few remained: some cattle, their breeders and the city’s perfect who stayed in touch with Brigi Rafini, his prime minister, during the attack.
Many of Bosso’s inhabitants fled to Tomour about 25 kilometers from Bosso. It was once a little village of 3.000 but now – with it’s 30.000 inhabitants – practically a refugee city.
Those aren’t Niger’s only refugees. In October 2016 the UN estimated the number of people who have fled their houses because of Boko Haram on 222.000.More than half of them are minors. That is not a number for the whole of Niger; it’s just for the Diffa region, which is located in the south east of Niger.
After a while, some people return to their villages or, in the case of Boulla (37) and her
family, back to their city. ‘We went back to Bosso in September.’ She and her family
couldn’t bear staying any longer in Toumour. They wanted to go home. 10.000 people thought the same and returned to Bosso. Boulla hopes the other 25.000 will follow shortly. ‘That way, Bosso can become prosperous again.’
Not the only problem
But even if Boko Haram disappears and people find ways to go home again, Niger remains one of the least developed countries in the world. Besides the current threat of Boko Haram, there are diverse other reasons.
First of all, the climate in Niger doesn’t allow an easy rural development. The size and location – almost completely in the dry Sahel region – of the country don’t help either. Add low economic diversity and a low complete degree of adult literacy – 73% of the women en 60% of the men didn’t receive any kind of education. In addition, the population keeps on growing which makes it harder to find solutions.
This is paradoxical because child mortality has declined. Normally, when this number drops, so does the population growth. ‘This isn’t the case in Niger’, says Viviane Van Steirteghem, head of Unicef Niger. ‘Making sure that this number drops is one of our biggest challenges right now.’ On average, a family in Niger consists of 7.6 children which is the highest number world wide. On top of that, there are a lot of children suffering from malnutrition.
Among others, Unicef is actively fighting child malnutrition, supporting education and building of sanitary facilities and water pumps. The VN organisation is also working closely with other non-governmental organisations like Concern, Coopi and Plan. If you want to support Unicef Niger you can find more information here: https://support.unicef.org
In November 2016 I won the Belgian Unicef Young Journalist Award managed by Unicef Belgium and news organisation Stampmedia. A month later I visited Niger together with Philip Henon from Unicef Belgium, photographer Frank Dejongh, journalist Jesse Van Regenmoortel and people from Unicef Niger, including Viviane Van Steirtheghem (head of Unicef Niger) and Charlotte Arnaud (communication specialist).