The drought-prone country sometimes struggles to feed its people. Its main export, uranium, is prone to price fluctuations and agriculture is threatened by the encroaching desert. Niger is bargaining on oil exploration and gold mining to boost its fortunes.
Historically a gateway between North and sub-Saharan Africa, Niger came under French rule in the late 1890s.
Politics: President Tandja changed the constitution to stay in power. Tuareg nomads seeking greater autonomy for the north have been waging a low-level war
Economy: Niger is a leading producer of uranium, and is rich in other minerals. UN rates it as one of world's poorest countries
International: Niger shares borders with seven countries. Some boundaries are disputed
After independence in 1960 its progress was stymied by political instability and a five-year drought, which devastated livestock and crops.
With little primary education, Niger has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. Its health system is basic and disease is widespread.
After a break of a decade, Niger again experienced an insurgency by Tuareg rebels in the north in 2007.
The Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) complained that a 1995 peace deal that ended the previous insurgency has never been fully implemented and that the region remains marginalised. The group demands greater autonomy and a larger share of uranium revenue.
In 2009, the MNJ and the government held talks in Libya, at which they committed themselves to a "total and comprehensive" peace.
In 1999 voters overwhelmingly approved a new constitution providing for presidential and legislative multi-party elections. These took place later in the year and saw Mamadou Tandja elected as president.
Mr Tandja introduced a new constitution in 2009 to extend his powers in a move described by the opposition as a coup.
Niger banned the centuries-old practice of slavery in 2003. But anti-slavery organisations say thousands of people still live in subjugation.
- Full name: The Republic of Niger
- Population: 15.3 million (UN, 2009)
- Capital: Niamey
- Area: 1.27 million sq km (489,000 sq miles)
- Major languages: French (official), Arabic, Hausa, Songhai
- Major religions: Islam, indigenous beliefs
- Life expectancy: 50 years (men), 52 years (women) (UN)
- Monetary unit: 1 CFA (Communaute Financiere Africaine) franc = 100 centimes
- Main exports: Uranium, livestock products
- GNI per capita: US $330 (World Bank, 2008)
- Internet domain: .ne
- International dialling code: +227
President: Mamadou Tandja
Mamadou Tandja, who was initially praised for helping restore relative stability to his country, brushed aside domestic and international objections to change the constitution and stay in power.
The former army officer was first voted into office in 1999 and was returned to power in elections in 2004.
President Tandja changed the constitution to stay in power
However, as the expiry of his second and final term approached he sought a constitutional amendment to overturn a provision banning him from standing for a third term.
The Constitutional Court twice ruled his plans for a referendum on the measure illegal. It said the vote had to be approved by parliament, where the president was unlikely to achieve the three-quarters majority needed.
Mr Tandja reacted by disbanding both the court and parliament, and assuming emergency powers.
The referendum went ahead in August 2009 and Mr Tandja scored a landslide victory. Opponents said the referendum was unlawful and the result rigged.
The new constitution allows him to extend his term for three more years without a vote. It scraps term limits and gives Mr Tandja broader powers under a fully presidential government.
Opposition parties accused him of having mounted a coup, and foreign governments - including the US and former colonial power France - voiced grave concern about the developments.
Supporters argue that Mr Tandja has brought economic growth, and deserves a longer stay in power.
Mr Tandja justified the term extension by arguing that the Nigerien people wanted him to stay in power to oversee multi-billion-dollar oil, mining and infrastructure deals.
The West African regional bloc ECOWAS suspended Niger's membership when he refused to postpone parliamentary elections in the face of an opposition boycott. Mr Tandja's party won 76 of the 113 seats in the National Assembly on 20 October, while allies won 25 and independents picked up the rest.
Born in 1938, he took part in a coup which overthrew Hamani Diori, Niger's first elected president, in 1974, and subsequently served as interior minister. He stood for the presidency unsuccessfully in 1993 and 1996.
The state controls much of the nation's broadcasting, though private radio stations have proliferated.
Radio is the most important outlet for news and information, owing to low literacy levels. Niger has a government-run daily newspaper and a handful of private papers, some strongly partisan.
Radio France Internationale operates FM relays in the capital Niamey, and in Maradi and Zinder provinces. BBC World Service is available in the capital (100.4 FM).
There were 40,000 internet users by September 2007 (ITU figure), comprising 0.3% of the population.
- Le Sahel - state-run
- Le Republicain - weekly
- Tele-Sahel - state-run
- Dounia TV - private, Niamey
- Tenere TV - private, Niamey-based
- Telestar - pay-TV, Niamey
- La Voix du Sahel - state-run, sole national station; broadcasts in French, Arabic, Hausa and vernacular languages
- Anfani FM - private, aims to promote social development, health, education
- Tambara FM - private, aims to promote interests of women and children
- R&M (Radio et Musique) - Niamey-based; first private station
- Horizon FM - private, Niamey-based
- Tenere FM - private, Niamey-based
Africa No 1 - Pan-African radio, relayed in Niamey on FM
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