Niger - safe to visit?
La Grande Mosque, Niamey
It doesn't inspire confidence to visit a country where you've just read that a foreign tourist has been executed. Edwin Dyer, a British citizen, was supposedly captured by Tuareg rebels in January this year near the border with Mali then sold to Algerian members of Al Qaeda in Mali. According to the BBC the group responsible said "it would kill Mr Dyer if the British government refused to release radical Muslim cleric Abu Qatada from a UK prison." So if you are British, from the U.S. or another 'coalition' country you may want to think hard before coming. While we were in Benin we weighed up the pros and cons, trying to filter through all the obvious fears one may initially have on hearing such information.
Niger has not been mentioned much in western media recently other than the kidnappings and the upcoming referendum in August which has heated passions against the current president who wants to prolong his stay in power by changing the constitution. Apart from these issues and times when the Tuareg rebels flare up against the government or when the UN releases its Human Development Index (Niger is bottom of the pile out of 177 countries), Niger appears to only be thought of as a spelling mistake ("Aren't you talking about Nigeria, what and where is Niger?") and not a country in and of itself.
After being reassured of the general safety of Niger in our guide book we visited the Niger embassy in Cotonou, Benin, and were told that it is fine to visit at the moment. With the knowledge that a wide variety of aid and voluntary groups are operational in large parts of the country we decided to visit. So after a mammoth journey with various levels of dodgy and crammed vehicles ranging from semidodgy to fairly dodgy, we crossed the border at Malanville/Gaya in the north of Benin. Our Visa (La Visa Touristique Entente) worked a treat and we breezed through the frontier without any problems.
Unfortunately, the journey from Gaya to Niamey has very bad potholes as far as Dosso (best go direct from Cotonou/Bohicon or Parakou in Benin with a coach like SNTV as it costs the same, about 18000 CFA, but is a thousand times less hardship) though the road from Dosso to Niamey is excellent.
Our first impressions of Niamey have been very positive. The people are very friendly and willing to help, though one has to endure the usual hassle around the artisan stalls. The richness and quality of their jewellery and crafts are amazing, the streets are alive and kicking with normal commercial activity but it appears a lot calmer than Accra, Lome or Cotonou. Local food and transport appears generally cheaper than the neighbouring countries.
We are staying in Auberge Dragon (formerly Chez Tatayi, which unlike our 2008 Rough Guide states is no longer to be found near Wadata market)near the Grand Hotel roundabout. Budget accom. seems very hard to find here, but we managed to haggle and reduce the fan room price from 14,000 CFA to 10,000CFA. It's possible to stay in the dorm beds for 6000 per person. It has a great location near the Petit Marche, this internet cafe I am writing from and the museum. It is very clean and the staff are helpful, so if you are coming to Niger I can highly recommend it.
Earlier we met some Japanese volunteers/professionals who are sponsored by their government to work for 2 years in rural communities. JICA have their 25th anniversary at the moment and have a series of events and an excellent exhibition running this week in the French-Niger Cultural Centre. Their work spans from teaching karate and judo, to more sustainable agricultural practices and fighting against contraction of guinea worm by best water hygiene practices.
We will be only staying in Niamey whilst in Niger as we have to move onto Gorom Gorom in Burkina Faso on Wednesday. It certainly seems unsafe and unwise to travel to the Agadez region in north east Niger as does the Niger-Mali border areas, but Niamey gets my thumbs up so far as a friendly, beautiful and safe place to visit in West Africa.