Niger River: History and Major Facts

History and Facts about the Niger River

The Niger River is a very important water body located in West Africa. With a length of about 2597 miles, the river is considered the 3rd longest in Africa. The river has presence in 5 west African countries – Guinea, Mali, Niger, Benin, and Nigeria. The significance of the Niger River cannot be overemphasized. For centuries, the Niger River has sustained powerful West African empires such as the Old Ghana Empire, the Songhai Empire and the Mali Empire.

Quick Facts about Niger River, West Africa

French Name: Fleuve Niger

Location:  West Africa

Length: 4,180 km (2,600 miles)

Drainage Basin – 2,117,700 km square

Source:  Guinea Highlands, Guinea

Countries: Guinea, Mali, Niger, Benin, Nigeria,

Mouth: Gulf of Guinea, Niger Delta (Oil Rivers), Nigeria

Record: 3rd longest river in Africa

Shape: Boomerang/Crescent shape

Names in other languages: Jeliba (in Manding); Isa (Songhay); Isa Beeri (Zarma); Kwara (Hausa); Orimiri/Orimili (Igbo); and Egerew n-Igerewen (Tuareg)

Below is a concise history of the Niger River. It also includes worth-knowing facts about the river.

Where did the name come from?

Historical records from the Ptolemaic era in Egypt made mention of two rivers in the Sahara Desert. They called the first one ‘Gir’ and the second “Nigir”.  In the Tuareg language, the name of the Niger River may have come from the phrase, gher n gheren (“rivers of rivers”).

Niger River Route

Beginning in the West African country of Guinea, the source of the Niger is about 240 km (150 miles) inward from the Atlantic Ocean. From the highlands near Kissidougou in Guinea, the Niger moves further up into the Sahara Desert. Midway in Mali, the Niger River makes a sharp turn around Timbuktu downwards into Niger. From Niger, the river heads down along the Benin border before heading into Nigeria.

Experts believe that the Niger River’s strange route is because it formed from the combination of two very ancient rivers.

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How important is the Niger River?

For centuries, the Niger River has sustained a thriving population of animals such as antelopes, elephants, gazelles, giraffes, lions, monkeys, and hyenas.

Secondly, many of the five countries where the river passes through have built hydroelectric dams. These dams are important source of energy for the inhabitants of those locations. For example, there is the Kainji Dam and Jebba Dam in Nigeria that have in a lot of ways augmented Nigeria’s electricity supply.

For the 35 million plus inhabitants of the Niger Delta, the Niger River plays a crucial role in their lives. From fishing to irrigation of crops, the river offers immeasurable benefits to those communities. The size of the Niger Delta stands at 70,000 square kilometers (27,000 sq mi). At that size, it is equivalent to about 7.5% of Nigeria’s land mass.

In addition to fishing and farming, the Niger Delta has for decades been a big boast to the economy of Nigeria. The region is rich with vast oil deposits. It is for this reason why the area has been sometimes called “Oil Rivers”. It has been estimated that millions of barrels of oil get extracted on a daily basis in the Niger Delta. The oil alone from the Niger Delta accounts for a huge portion of Nigeria’s exports.

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Environmental Activism in the Niger Delta

In the mid 1990s, environmental activist Ken Saro Wiwa campaigned extensively for environmental and social justice to be observed in the Niger Delta region. The Nigerian activist was part of the Ogoni people, an ethnic group of people whose farms and livelihoods had for decades been destroyed due to oil exploration in the region. After he was alleged to have been involved in the murder of some influential Ogoni community elders, Ken Saro Wiwa was tried and killed during the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha. After Saro Wiwa’s death, there was a huge outcry from the international community, and Nigeria even got suspended from the Commonwealth of Nations.

Read More: Most Ruthless African Dictators of All Time

Pollution in the Niger Delta

Over the years, the environmental degradation in the Niger Delta has to some extent gone from bad to worse. In the past 50 years alone,  the delta has witnessed thousands of oil spills in many fishing and farming towns. The gross lack of any concern and wanton destruction of the environment by major international oil companies have left the economic livelihoods of several millions of people in the area hanging by the thread. Luckily, help seems to be on its way. The international community has approached the problem by launching inquiries that reveal just how bad the human and environmental damages are in the area. Out of those inquiries, some amount of compensation packages have been awarded to the locales of the area. However, those economic relief packages have in no way made up for the decades and decades of oil spillages and pollution.

Other Interesting Facts about the Niger River

  • Leo Africanus is widely recognized as the author to first use the word “Niger” for the Niger River. The name appeared in Leo’s book – Della descrittione dell’Africa et delle cose notabili che iui sono (1550).
  • In many European maps from the Middle Ages, the middle parts of the river in Mali was called Niger while the lower parts in Mali went by the name Quorra (Kworra).
  • The source of the Niger River – the Guinea Highlands – is located in Guinea, close to the border with Sierra Leone. It averages about 500 meters (1640 feet) feet above sea level. Atop the Highland is a dense and very thick forest made of mainly ebony and mahogany trees. The area is known for its high annual rainfall.
  • Compared to the Nile River, the Niger is much clearer. It has only about one-tenth the sediment in the Nile River. The reason for this is because the Niger River headwaters flow on ancient rocks that have not as much silt as other forms of rocks.
  •  For quite a long time in the past, many explorers confused the Niger River with the Senegal and Nile Rivers. Some even believed that the three rivers were connected.
  • The West African nations of Nigeria and Niger derived their names from the Niger River.
  • Flooding of the Niger is an annual affair. Flooding starts around September and reaches its zenith two months later.
  • From Ségou to Timbuktu, it has been estimated that about two-thirds of the flow gets lost through evaporation or seepage.
  • In Nigeria, the Benue River is considered the most important tributary of the Niger River.
  • The Niger bend, also known as the northern part of the river, is an important element in the lives of inhabitants in and around the Sahara desert. In the past, the place was a very popular trading hub for traders from Western Sahara and other cities in Mali.
  • The Niger River comes in third on the list of longest rivers in Africa. It comes behind the Nile River (4,180 miles/6,695 km) and the Congo River (2,900 miles/4,667 km) (also known as the Zaire River).
  • The Portuguese were the first Europeans to sail to the Niger Delta coastline. Their arrival occurred in 1473.
  • Mungo Park is widely believed as the first European to see the middle section of the Niger River. His expeditions were written in Travels in the Interior of Africa (1799). Park wrongly believed that the Niger River and the Congo River were somehow connected.
  • In 1830, an expedition led by Richard Lander was the first to walk along the Niger all the way to its mouth at the Gulf of Guinea.
  • Over the last century or so, several adventurers and film makers have traveled the entire length of the Niger River. For example, Helge Hjelland, a Norwegian adventurer, journey the full length of the river in 2005.
  • Like all other rivers across the world, the biting effects of climate change is taken a huge toll on the Niger River. Experts believe that over usage and excessive building of dams on the river has go a long way in affecting the sustainability of the river, especially for the people living in and around the Niger basin.
  • Examples of famous towns that inhabit the Niger Delta are: Beyelsa, Delta, Rivers States. Abia, Akwa-Ibom, Cross River State, Edo, Imo and Ondo. The Niger Delta can boast of more than 40 different ethnic groups. For example, there are: the Igbo, Esan, Efik, Bini, annang, Yoruba, Ikwerre, etc.
  • From the mid-1960s to the late 1960s, the Niger Delta was close to the epicenter of the Biafran War (i.e. the Nigerian Civil War) that raged on the Nigeria’s south east.

FACT CHECK: At, we strive for utmost accuracy and objectivity. But if you come across something that doesn’t look right, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below.

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