‘Did you like Nigeria?’ That’s the question that’s been asked me the most since I’ve returned from Niger. To me, this proves how little is known 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. It isn’t even uncommon for Nigeriens who live 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 started 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 and only a river crossing away from Nigeria, used to have 35.000 inhabitants. The day after Boko Haram attacked, only cattle, some breeders and the city’s perfect – who stayed in touch with the Nigerien prime minister during the attack – remained.
Many of Bosso’s inhabitants fled to Tomour, about 25 kilometers from Bosso. It was once a little village of 3.000 but is now with as many as 30.000 inhabitants a refugee city.
Those aren’t Niger’s only refugees. In October 2016 the UN estimated that in the south east of Niger alone, 222.000 people had fled their houses because of Boko Haram. More than half of them were minors.
After a while, some people return to their homes. Just like Boulla (37) and her
family did. ‘We went back to Bosso in September.’ She and her family
couldn’t bear staying any longer in Toumour. They wanted to go home. Along with Boula, 10.000 people have 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 aren’t helping 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 Philippe 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).