Numerous Neolithic remains of early pastoralism have been found in the desert areas of Niger. Ptolemy wrote of Roman expeditions to the Aïr Massif. In the 11th cent. A.D., Tuareg migrated from the desert to the Aïr region, where they later (c.1300) established a state centered at Agadez. Agadez was situated on a major trans-Saharan caravan route that connected N Africa with present-day N Nigeria. In E Niger, Bilma, a salt-mining center, was on another important trans-Saharan route that linked N Africa with the state of Bornu (located in present-day NE Nigeria).
In the 14th cent. the Hausa (most of whom lived in what is now N Nigeria) founded several city-states in S Niger. In the early 16th cent. much of W and central Niger came under the Songhai empire (centered at Gao on the Niger River in present-day Mali), and after the fall of Songhai at the end of the 16th cent. E and central Niger passed to Bornu. In the 17th cent. the Djerma people settled in SW Niger near the Niger River. In the early 19th cent. Fulani gained control of S Niger as a result of the holy war waged against the Hausa by the Muslim reformer Usuman dan Fodio.
At the Conference of Berlin (1884–85) the territory of Niger was placed within the French sphere of influence. The French established several military posts in S Niger in the late 1890s, but did not occupy Agadez until 1904 because of concerted Tuareg resistance. In 1900, Niger was made a military territory within Upper Senegal–Niger, and in 1922 it was constituted a separate colony within French West Africa. Zinder was the colony's capital until 1926, when it was replaced by Niamey. The French generally governed through existing political structures and did not alter substantially the institutions of the country; they undertook little economic development and provided few new educational opportunities.
National political activity began when Niger received its own assembly under the French constitution of 1946, which established the French Union. The first important political organization was the Niger Progressive party (PPN), a part of the Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (which had branches in most French West African territories). In the mid-1950s a leftist party (later called Sawaba) headed by Bakary Djibo became predominant in the colony. However, when it unsuccessfully campaigned for complete independence in a 1958 referendum, the PPN (which favored autonomy for Niger within the French Community) regained power.
Niger achieved full independence on Aug. 3, 1960, and Hamani Diori, the leader of the PPN, became its first president; he was reelected in 1965 and 1970. In the early 1960s, sporadic campaigns of rebel warfare were waged by the outlawed Sawaba party (most of whose members lived in exile). Otherwise, Niger enjoyed political stability, despite its weak economy and occasional ethnic conflicts; the PPN maintained firm control of the government. Close ties were retained with France, which gave Niger considerable aid.
The country was severely affected by the Sahelian drought of 1968–75; much of its livestock died and crop production fell drastically. In 1974, Diori was overthrown in a military coup led by Lt. Col. Seyni Kountché, who cultivated ties with members of the European Community, neighboring African nations, and Arab nations. The uranium boom of the early 1980s caused disparities in wealth that led to civil unrest. A coup attempt was quickly put down by the government in 1983, and fear of opposition prompted frequent cabinet changes to ensure that officials were loyal.
Kountché died in 1987 and was succeeded by Gen. Ali Seybou as head of state. Seybou vowed to dismantle the ruling Supreme Military Council and introduce civilian rule. In 1991, a 1,204-member national conference suspended the constitution and dissolved the government. A transitional civilian government ruled until 1993, when Mahamane Ousmane was elected president in free elections. However, an opposition coalition subsequently won control of the legislature, leading to a protracted stalemate. Conflict between the government and the Tuareg in the early 1990s, in part over uranium mining on traditional Tuareg lands, subsided with the signing of a peace accord in 1995. Some Tuaregs, however, continued sporadic attacks into the 21st cent. By 2007 a more serious uprising broke out, but two of the three rebel groups agreed to a cease-fire in 2009.
In Jan., 1996, the government was ousted in a coup led by Col. Ibrahim Baré Mainassara. Presidential elections held in July, 1996, were won by Mainassara, who replaced the independent electoral commission with a handpicked one during the two-day poll. Mainassara was assassinated by members of his presidential guard in Apr., 1999, and Maj. Daouda Malam Wanké became head of state. France, the country's major aid donor, suspended aid following the coup. In Nov., 1999, elections were held for a new president and parliament; a retired colonel, Mamadou Tandja, was elected president. There were tensions in 2000 with neighboring Benin over some long-disputed islands in the Niger River; their ownership was finally settled in 2005 by the International Court of Justice. Tandja, whose first term was marked by relative stability, was reelected in Dec., 2004.
Niger's agriculture was hurt by a major locust outbreak and drought in 2004, leading to famine and a need for international food aid in 2005. In Oct., 2006, the government began expelling Mahamid Arabs who had emigrated from Chad mainly during the 1970s and 80s; although the move, which was soon suspended after neighboring nations requested it be halted, was ostensibly for security reasons, observers believed that political, racial, and economic rivalries lay behind the explusion.
In 2009 the president, who had said he would step down at the end of his second term, sought to hold a referendum on allowing him to run for a third term, but the constitutional court ruled (May) that it was illegal. The vote was also opposed by parliament, but Tandja dismissed parliament and assumed executive powers, and subsequently announced he would hold a referendum. When the court again ruled in June that the referendum was illegal, Tandja dismissed the court, provoking oppositions protests and leading to government crackdown.
In the August vote Tandja claimed an overwhelming victory, but the opposition charged the president with hugely inflating the number of voters. The referendum approved constitutional changes that increased the president's powers, extended his current term by three years, and ended term limits. The opposition subsequently boycotted the October elections for a new parliament, in which two thirds of the seats were won by Tandja's party, and Tandja mounted a crackdown on opposition politicians. In Feb., 2010, the military ousted Tandja, but the coup leaders asserted they would restore civilian rule as soon as possible. Major Salou Djibo was named head of the junta (the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy), and Mahamadou Danda, a civilian and former communications minister, was named prime minister.
In Oct., 2010, a number of junta officers, including the deputy military leader, were dismissed or arrested in association with an alleged coup plot, and a new constitution was approved in a referendum at the end of the month. The following month the Economic Community of West African States court called for Tandja to be released, but he remained in custody until May, 2011. In Mar., 2011, Mahamadou Issoufou, an opposition leader, was elected president after a runoff. By 2013, the spillover from terrorist operations by Islamist groups in neighboring Algeria, Mali, and Nigeria had led as well to significant confrontations in Niger.