Niger (river), river in western Africa, flowing primarily from west to east, through Guinea, Mali, Niger, Benin, and Nigeria to the Gulf of Guinea. With a length of 4,180 km (2,600 mi), it is the third longest river in Africa, after the Nile and Congo. The drainage basin covers an area of about 2,092,00 sq km (about 808,000 sq mi) and includes two deltasan inland delta in central Mali and a coastal delta along the Gulf of Guinea. The coastal delta is the largest in Africa, spanning nearly 190 km (120 mi).
The Niger has served as a focal point for the development of African civilizations, particularly the ancient kingdoms of Ghana and Mali. It continues to play a key role in the region, serving as a source of livelihood for many West African farmers, fishers, and herders, as a transportation route in areas that are otherwise poorly connected, and as a source of energy.
The Niger originates in the highlands of southern Guinea near Guinea's border with Sierra Leone. Several tributaries, including the Milo, Sankarani, Mafou, Niandan, and Tinkisso, join the Niger as it flows northeast through Guinea and into Mali. The well-defined valley of the upper Niger gives way to a broad, level floodplain downstream from Bamako, near Ségou. There, the waters of the Niger and its tributary, the Bani, spread out over an inland delta that covers 20,000 sq km (7700 sq mi). Floodwaters move through a maze of channels, filling low-lying basins and replenishing several lakes, among them Lakes Débo, Faguibine, and Do. In the process, most of the Niger's water evaporates or is absorbed by the ground, leaving the river much diminished in size beyond the inland delta. The Niger flows to the east between Tombouctou (Timbuktu) and Bourem and then turns to the southeast. From Bourem through Gao in Mali and Niamey in Niger, to Kainji Lake in Nigeria, the channel is well defined but shallow and interrupted by several rapids. South of Niamey, before entering Nigeria, the river forms part of the Niger-Benin border. Heavier rainfall, plus inflow from the Mékrou and Sokoto rivers, adds to the Niger's volume in this stretch. Created by the Kainji Dam, Kainji Lake, about 135 km (about 84 mi) long, occupies the valley between Yelwa and New Bussa. Several major tributaries, including the Kaduna, Benue, and Anambra, greatly increase the Niger's size in its lower course. As it moves south from its junction with the Benue at Lokoja, past Onitsha, and toward its mouth, it is a broad, deep river that flows within a confined channel. Finally, before it enters the Gulf of Guinea, the Niger forms a wide, fan-shaped delta, dividing into dozens of channels that wind through a maze of swamps and low-lying islands and depositing most of its sediment load.
Environmental conditions in the Niger Basin vary widely. Rainfall decreases from about 2300 mm (about 90 in) near the Niger's source to less than 250 mm (10 in) in the bend between Tombouctou and Bourem, then increases as the river flows southward to about 4000 mm (about 160 in) at its mouth. The moist woodland savanna vegetation of the upper basin gives way to progressively drier savanna and semidesert conditions in Mali. After the river turns southward, it flows through increasingly moist and lush savanna, and through tropical forest near Onitsha. In the delta, swamp forest containing many oil palms occurs where the water is fresh and mangroves grow where the water is brackish.
The river contains nearly 200 species of fish, including catfish, African carp, Nile perch, lungfish, tigerfish, barbel, and tilapia. Crocodiles, hippopotamuses, lizards, and snakes are common in the river. Some animals, including various species of antelopes and monkeys, live in many parts of the Niger Basin. Others, including buffaloes, elephants, lions, leopards, and jackals, have more limited ranges. The inland delta serves as a major gathering area for birds migrating between Europe and Africa.
III. Economic Importance
About 5000 km (about 3000 mi) of the Niger and its tributaries are navigable. Commercial navigation begins at the town of Kouroussa, in Guinea. Several rapidssuch as at Koulikoro in Mali, Atakora on the Niger-Benin border, and Jebba in Nigeriainterrupt through traffic. Locks permit boats to bypass the Kainji Dam. Agricultural products and refined petroleum are transported on the river. Passenger travel is important along the upper-middle Niger, where road and rail connections are poorly developed. Nigeria's major river ports, including Onitsha, Idah, Ajaokuta, Lokoja, Jebba, and Yelwa, were upgraded in the late 1980s to encourage greater use of inland waterways. Several ocean ports on the Niger Delta, notably Port Harcourt, Sapele, Warri, Bonny, and Burutu, handle exports of petroleum and agricultural products.
Fishing is an important activity, supplying food far beyond the Niger Valley. Most of the catch is taken from the delta areas. The catch has fallen to less than half its pre-1970 level, however, as a result of drought, increased water diversion for irrigation, dam construction, and overfishing.
The Niger plays a significant role in local livestock raising, except along its lower course, where the tsetse fly is prevalent. Herders, primarily the Fulani, depend on the river for water and on its floodplain for dry-season pastures for their cattle, sheep, and goats.
Irrigation schemes on the Niger have helped expand agricultural development in the Niger Basin. In 1932, when most of the Niger River Basin was part of French West Africa, the French colonial administration attempted to develop about 1 million hectares (about 2.5 million acres) of the inland delta area of Mali for irrigated cotton and rice cultivation. Dams were built at Sotuba, near Bamako, and at Markala to control water levels for irrigation. But development of the inland delta fell far short of original expectations, and only about 55,000 hectares (about 136,000 acres) were under cultivation in the mid-1990s. Other irrigation schemes exist, especially in Nigeria downstream from the Kainji Dam and along tributaries such as the Sokoto and Kaduna rivers. Millet and sorghum are the leading crops in the drier savanna area of the basin, while yams, cocoyams, and maize (corn) are grown in the moister regions.
The largest dam and hydroelectric plant on the Niger is the Kainji Dam, completed in 1968. The dam provides Nigeria with about a sixth of its of hydroelectric power. Energy supplies are unreliable, however, because of frequently inadequate water levels in the river, poor maintenance of infrastructure, and growing demand. Use of the Niger's water is presently relatively unregulated, but newer dams constructed on the Niger's tributaries and proposed new dams on the Niger itself threaten to reduce both the river's discharge and the deposition of fertile silt on the floodplain.
Since 1962 the Niger Delta has been the center of Nigeria's large petroleum industry. In addition to onshore and offshore wells, petroleum-linked development includes oil and gas-fired electrical plants and the Port Harcourt refinery. Local and international groups have protested the adverse environmental effects of the petroleum industry. These include oil spills that damage farmland and waterways; the burning of excess gas, which is blamed for health problems and reduced crop yields; and the excessive clearing of forest in connection with petroleum exploration and development.
Several important empires developed in the upper Niger Basin, starting with the Kingdom of Ghana by the 5th century AD. Following Ghana's demise around 1200, the Mali Empire rose to prominence. The decline of Mali in the 15th century coincided with the rise of Songhai, centered at Gao. In the mid-19th century the Mandinka (also known as Mandingo or Malinké) state headed by Samory Touré and the Tukolor Empire of Umar al-Hajj arose in the upper Niger Basin; both were conquered by the French at the end of the century.
In Nigeria, major empires such as Ife, Oyo, Benin, and Sokoto extended their influence over parts of the Niger Valley at various times. The Nupe kingdom, centered at Bida, and the Borgu kingdom at Bussa had established themselves in the Niger Valley by the 15th century. Several city-states in the Niger Delta, most notably Brass and Bonny, prospered through their participation in trade with Europeans, exporting slaves, ivory, and palm oil.
Europeans had long known that a massive river flowed through the West African savanna, but its course remained a mystery. Some hypothesized it flowed west, emptying via the Sénégal and Gambia rivers into the Atlantic. The expedition of Scottish explorer Mungo Park from 1795 to 1798 proved the Niger flowed eastward, but whether it emptied into the Nile, the Congo, an inland lake, or the Gulf of Guinea was still unknown. The Niger mystery was finally solved through expeditions headed by Scottish explorer Hugh Clapperton from 1823 to 1825 and by British explorer Richard Lemon Lander in 1830. French explorers, most importantly René-Auguste Caillié, also visited parts of the upper and middle Niger during the 19th century.
Throughout the 19th century the British government, often collaborating with trading companies, solidified its control over the Niger Delta and the Nigerian coast. By 1900 most of present-day Nigeria had been occupied. The Niger and Benue rivers provided access to the interior, which the British exploited for commercial, military, and political purposes. Upstream from Nigeria, the rest of the Niger Basin was within the colony of French West Africa. Except for Guinea, which became independent from France in 1958, colonial rule throughout the region ended in 1960.
Robert Stock, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.
Adjunct Assistant Professor of Geography, Queen's University. Author of Africa South of the Sahara: A Geographical Interpretation and other books.
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