A vast, arid state on the edge of the Sahara desert, Niger endured austere military rule for much of its post-independence history and is rated by the UN as one of the world's least-developed nations.
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.
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.
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At a glance
Politics: President Tandja changed the constitution to stay in power, but was ousted in a coup in 2010. Polls to restore civilian rule were held in January 2011
Security: Tuareg nomads seeking greater autonomy for the north have been waging a low-level war. Fears of Al Qaeda activity have been heightened by the kidnapping of foreigners
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
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. He was himself overthrown in a coup at the beginning of 2010.
Niger banned the centuries-old practice of slavery in 2003. But anti-slavery organisations say thousands of people still live in subjugation.