Where babies abound

Most of it is desert – the rest plagued with soil erosion, desertification, contaminated water, poaching and habitat destruction.

The literacy rate is 19 percent. It is home to 23 million benighted souls. First-world statisticians have concluded that more than 40 percent of the people are “impoverished.”

The Republic of Niger is a landlocked country situated in the core of what was once French West Africa. The 2020 UN Human Development Index ranked it dead last, 189th out of 189 countries.  The per capita GDP is US$1,213 – 183rd out of 189.

Politics is tribal. Slightly more than half the natives are Hausa, the remainder comprises other tribes, including Zarma/Songhai, Tuareg, Fulani and Kanuri. There are 10 recognized national languages. Fragmented doesn’t begin to describe it.

There have been five constitutions and three military regimes since independence in 1960. The latest coup attempt was in March of this year. Even most readers of MercatorNet have probably never heard of its capital city, Niamey – population 1.3 million.

The government is corrupt, sustained by massive foreign aid. Donations from France, the EU, World Bank, International Monetary Fund and an alphabet soup of UN agencies account for the bulk of the national budget. (US taxpayers pony up 22 percent of the UN’s annual budget.)

Somebody once said that foreign aid is taking money from poor people in rich countries to give to rich people in poor countries. Look no further than Niger as a prime example.

But here’s the big one: Niger has the highest fertility rate on the planet: 6.91 children per female. Some estimates have it at 7.1. The population is all Muslim.  Most are devoutly so and rigorously follow the Koran’s injunction to increase the ummah (community of believers). 

In 1960 the population was 3.4 million. It is now 23 million and counting, with the world’s fourth highest population growth rate, averaging 3.65 percent per year. While the specter of famine incessantly hovers, The Lancet projects Niger’s population to grow to 185 million by 2100. Our great-grandchildren will see if that ever happens.

With the world’s highest fertility rate but only the fourth highest population growth rate, the 6.81 percent infant mortality is undoubtedly a factor. The maternal mortality rate is 509 for every 100,000 live births, or just over one in two hundred. South Sudan leads the world in that dubious distinction at 1,150 per 100,000 (US is 19, Australia 6).

About 52 percent of Nigeriens (as distinguished from neighboring Nigerians) are under 15 years of age. An estimated 2.7 percent are over 65. The very few elderly thankfully grow old with their families. Average life expectancy is 59.7 years; according to the CIA’s World Factbook, as of 2016, there was one physician for every 25,000 people. To put that in perspective, the US, with 333 million people, has 65 physicians for every 25,000. Australia, with 25,800,000, has 92. 

The Niger regime occasionally waxes eloquent about progress. And progress there is. Take the slavery issue.  Slavery was officially abolished at the beginning of French colonial rule in 1900. Upon independence in 1960, slavery was again outlawed in Niger.  But in 2008 the UK Guardian reported, “Slavery was abolished in Niger in 1960 (upon independence from France), prohibited in 1999 and criminalised in 2003… The minimum estimate is that 43,000 people are in slavery across Niger.” 

Abolishing slavery in Niger has been a rather complicated affair. For instance, there is an age-old custom, officially outlawed only in 2019, that is still around:

Islam allows a man to take a maximum of four wives. However, in Niger, the practice exists of taking a fifth wife. These women are known as wahiya among the Tuareg and sadaka among the Hausa. 

Sometimes men take several fifth wives. The fifth wife does not receive any of the status benefits of being a wife, as there is no actual marriage. She is, in effect, a slave to her "husband."

This practice led to the famous case of Hadijatou Mani. Sold at age twelve as a “fifth wife,” she met anti-slavery activists and sued for her freedom. Nigerien courts denied her claim on procedural grounds. She then took her case to the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which ruled in 2008 that Niger had violated its own laws and was responsible for not protecting her from slavery (Mani v. Niger). In 2009 the government of Niger affirmed their acceptance of the ruling in the case. Ms. Mani, then 24, was awarded ten million CFA, then the equivalent of US$19,750.

The Mani case, now largely forgotten, made international headlines at the time. Not to sell the magnanimous Nigerien regime short, but it was grumbling from foreign aid donors that really made the difference. Money talks.

In August 2014 Deutsche Welle ran a piece headlined, “Modern day slavery still rampant in Niger.”

Ten years of litigation after Mani, in 2019 the government of Niger ruled against the practice of taking a “fifth wife,” outlawing wahiya status as a form of slavery. Now that is progress.

Anti-Slavery International says that slavery persists in Niger and other neighboring African countries (Mali, Chad, and Nigeria, among others) through the trafficking of girls and young boys for labor and girls as “fifth wives.” In addition, and more broadly, Africa hands tell me that involuntary servitude, dressed up under the guise of “employment,” is still often found in that part of Africa. 

Slavery was widespread on the “dark continent” for ages. Then Arabs and, later, Europeans, engaged in that abominable commerce. The African slave trade has since been a source of unending chaos, and in places like Niger, continues to stalk the poorest of the poor and forestall meaningful progress and desperately needed modernization.

All lives are precious. The enslaved concubinage known as wahiya brought many precious children into the world, though most doomed to a life of slavery, simply due to the circumstances of their birth. Even the most woke among us cannot possibly blame the West for that.  And we can further agree that the sooner this sordid business once and for all comes to an end, the better for all, regardless of its impact on the ummah.

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