The purpose of this two-part article is to study the various elements that influenced the context for Christian service in Niger and more specifically in Niamey, its capital city. In this article, we look at the historical context—namely, the origin of the dichotomy of the presence of Muslims and Christians in this part of West Africa. In part two, we discover some of the characteristics specific to the worldviews prevalent in Niger, and more specifically, in Niamey. In part two we also examine the different elements that can affect Christian service in Niamey.
History of Niger
Historical evidence indicates that human presence can be traced in the Sahara of northern Niger at least as far back as 4000 BC. Five thousand years later, in the tenth or eleventh century, Islam and its accompanying Arab influence arrived. Several Hausa city-states were developed around the fourteenth century along the east-west trans-Saharan trade routes. Various empires rose up and fought against each other until the nineteenth century, each trying to take over the land, sometimes using the excuse of waging a holy war. Islam was initially confined to the upper classes, but spread to the masses during the jihadist movements, most significantly under Dan Fodio Usthman.
Early in the twentieth century, French military and colonial forces attempted to control Lake Chad and created the military district of Niger. Although the various ethnic groups living in the area—the Bornu, the Hausa, the Fulani, and the Tuaregs—persistently resisted takeover, they had little success. In 1922, Niger was made a French colony.
Niger was administered as a French colony by the regional French governor in Dakar, Senegal. In 1946, French citizenship was granted to all inhabitants of the French territories. On 19 December 1958, Niger became an autonomous state (the Republic of Niger) within the French community. On 3 August 1960, the Republic of the Niger proclaimed its independence.
The growth of the young democracy was hindered at times by military coups and the subsequent overthrow of political leaders. Niger’s economy grew substantially in the 1970s with the discovery of uranium. This boom ended in the late 1980s as Libya tried repeatedly to take over the north by fueling the Tuareg rebellion, which has started up again in recent months. Today, Niger enjoys a multi-party democracy, its major concern being the Tuareg rebellion against the government in the northern part of the country. Niger is predominantly Muslim (ninety-nine percent according to the Nigérien government1), but seeks to remain a secular state where freedom of religion and beliefs is promoted. It has consistently resisted Islamic radicalization.
History of Christianity in Niger
Christians attempted to reach Niger with the gospel on two occasions, but failed to make a lasting impact. In the seventh century, Berber Christians “migrated south after being driven from North Africa by emerging Islam. Isolated from other Christians, the faith gradually weakened.”3 Later on, during the nineteenth century, Samuel Crowther, the first African Bible translator for his own people4, the Yorubas, became the head of “The Niger Mission.” The mission declined after Crowther’s death and was discontinued for lack of visionary leadership.
Following the First World War, American missionary efforts were again invested in the Sahel region. SIM (formerly Sudan Inland Mission and now Serving In Mission) started to work in northeast Niger, and churches were planted. The Evangelical Baptist Mission started at approximately the same time and developed quite significantly in the southwestern part of country. Finally, during that same period, the Catholic Church turned its attention to Niger, specifically to the major cities where it gathered mainly expatriate African Christians. Further mission groups and parachurch organizations came in later in the twentieth century.
A noteworthy event was the creation of the Eglise Evangélique de la République du Niger (EERN), the name given to the churches established by SIM in Niger. A couple of church groups split off from the EERN and formed their own church association. Meanwhile, the Alliance des Missions et Eglises Evangéliques au Niger (AMEEN) was started in 1998 “to create a greater sense of community and collaboration amongst the growing number of evangelical mission and church associations.” This association brings together all the evangelical churches in Niger, and its leadership is renewed every few years. By seeking to promote a sense of unity in the Nigérien Church, the AMEEN offers churches and church leaders several opportunities for training and development.
The Christian Church in Niger Today
Today, the Christian Church in Niger has about fifty thousand members with an annual growth rate of 5.4%.5 It offers about five hundred churches and preaching points around the country.6
Recent conversations with long-term missionaries9 have uncovered that church leadership training has been minimal in the country. This has often been due to misunderstandings among Nigérien leaders about Christian leadership, as well as their strong commitment to keeping power in one’s own hands. Church leadership has too often been assimilated with the traditional chieftaincy model of leadership. Furthermore, struggles among leaders within the evangelical Church body, and consequent denominational splits, seem to have stemmed significantly a concerted and visionary effort toward evangelism and church planting.
These internal leadership struggles have unfortunately prevented the Church from making a significant impact on its surrounding Islamic community (estimated to be between eighty and ninety-nine percent of the total population of Niger). Furthermore, constant pressures from the Islamic communities and from Islamic family members make for a very challenging environment for Christians, who often feel emotionally and spiritually drained by these unceasing pressures.
We have briefly looked at the historical background that influences church life in Niger. History has undoubtedly influenced the worldviews Nigérien Christians have adopted. In part two of this article will attempt to identify and characterize these worldviews.
1. 2007. Le Niger en Chiffres—Edition 2007. Niamey, Niger: Institut National de la Statistique.
3. Schaaf, Ype. 2000. L’Histoire et le Rôle de la Bible en Afrique. Lavigny (Suisse): Editions Groupes Missionnaires, 59.
4. Ischei, Elizabeth. 1995. A History of Christianity in Africa: From Antiquity to the Present. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 171.
5. Johnstone, Patrick and Jason Mandryk. 2001. Operation World. Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K.: Paternoster Publishing, 485.
6. Evans, Gordon. 2003. “History of the Church in Niger.” unpublished.