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What’s next as ‘heavy-handed’ US negotiates pullout from Niger?

In News, World
May 01, 2024

The United States is preparing to withdraw more than 1,000 military personnel from Niger, once a front-line partner in its war against the ISIL (ISIS) group and al-Qaeda affiliates in the Sahel region of Africa, which is currently experiencing a surge in deadly violence.

Niger announced in March that it was breaking off its defence agreement with the US “with immediate effect”. The US Department of State confirmed that officials were meeting their Nigerien counterparts on Thursday to discuss “an orderly and responsible withdrawal of US forces”.

The split comes as no surprise. The military government, installed during a coup last year, and the US were always going to be awkward bedfellows, say experts. Furthermore, the junta set the tone for relations with the West at the end of last year, when it showed 1,500 French troops the door.

Now, Russia has entered the scene. State-funded Wagner mercenaries were already deeply embedded across Africa before their late leader Yevgeny Prigozhin marched on Moscow last year. Now, in a clear bid to erase that chapter of history, the group has been rebranded as the “Africa Corps” and a team of its military instructors recently visited Niger’s capital, Niamey, with equipment to build an air defence base.

Niger is one of the world’s poorest countries and its army is mired in conflict with armed groups despite more than a decade of US presence. For the junta, the arrival of Russia heralds the start of a new era of potentially more fruitful – and possibly more egalitarian – relations with foreign nations.

It appears that locals agree. “The junta has also won the battle of opinion,” said Ibrahim Yahaya, deputy director for the Sahel Project at the International Crisis Group, an NGO dedicated to the prevention and resolution of armed conflict. Originally from the town of Zinder, Yahaya said he has witnessed how the young and disaffected approve of the junta’s “difficult decisions”, even as their lives get harder under regionally imposed sanctions and aid cuts imposed after last year’s coup.

“Western powers have enjoyed quite a bit of leeway in how they influenced and meddled in local affairs,” he told Al Jazeera. “And now they [Nigeriens] have a junta that is putting an end to all that. They want to assert their sovereignty.”

So, it’s a not-so-fond farewell to the US, which is reportedly engaged in an eleventh-hour effort to persuade generals its troops should remain in the country. How did things go so wrong, and where does Niger go from here? Read on for a breakdown of this developing saga.

What was the situation in Niger before the coup?

Less than a year ago, Niger was ruled by “Western poster boy” Mohamed Bazoum. “But it wasn’t a rose garden,” said Simon Rynn, a senior research fellow for African security at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a London-based think tank.

Bazoum, a former teacher, was elected in 2021 – the country’s first-ever peaceful transfer of power since independence in 1960. Lauded for his democratic credentials, he offered a base for France, the US and, to a lesser extent, Italy and Germany to launch security campaigns to curb the rise of armed groups across the Sahel region, using military aid to strengthen Niger’s military forces.

Despite his efforts to bring reforms, such as promoting the education of girls, he struggled to shake off the legacy of his Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism, which had a 12-year run of power until the 2023 coup but had long been criticised over repression and corruption. He, himself, banned protests in 2022 which had initially been triggered by a hike in fuel prices, which brought widespread anti-French sentiment to boiling point.

What changed after the coup?

Ostensibly, the coup generals claimed their priority was to protect the country from the escalating security situation. But Abdourahmane Tchiani, then-head of the presidential guard, had reportedly heard he was going to be removed and decided to strike first, toppling Bazoum in July 2023 and declaring himself leader of the military junta.

In the chaos that followed, Bazoum called Western and regional allies from a safe room in his house, setting off a diplomatic drive to reverse the coup. Led by regional powerhouse Nigeria, regional leaders from West African bloc ECOWAS imposed heavy economic sanctions and threatened a military invasion of Niger.

“The public discourse in the junta was that France was pushing ECOWAS,” said Yahaya, of the Crisis Group. By the end of the year, French troops had been expelled from Niger. As for the US, the clock was ticking, a “lack of trust” prompting a gradual “souring of relations”, even if the Joe Biden administration initially attempted to strike a cautious tone.

“From the beginning, they [the junta] knew it would be a tough relationship,” he said. “They never trusted the US would support a military junta.”

A visit by US Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, during which she was barred from visiting Bazoum who was “under virtual house arrest”, went badly. But the real breaking point came in March after a visit by senior US officials to discuss democratic transition.

The military said on national television that the officials had accused Niger of making “secret deals” with Russia and Iran, threatening action against the country if it did not cut ties with both countries.

The US approach was “heavy-handed”, said Yahaya. “The tone of the meeting, where they tried to dictate the measures, angered the generals.”

A US and Niger flag are raised side by side at the base camp for air forces and other personnel supporting the construction of Niger Air Base 201 in Agadez
US and Niger flags are raised side by side at the base camp for air forces and other personnel supporting the construction of Nigerien Air Base 201 in Agadez, Niger, on April 16, 2018 [Carley Petesch/AP Photo]

What was the US doing in Niger?

Niger is viewed as the West’s last major ally in the Sahel region. This vast expanse lying south of the Sahara Desert is home to Boko Haram in Nigeria as well as affiliates of ISIL and al-Qaeda which expanded in northern Mali in 2012, the violence spilling over into Niger and Burkina Faso three years later.

The situation is critical. Attending a summit of African leaders this week in Abuja, the UN deputy secretary-general, Amina Mohammed, noted that half the 8,352 deaths caused by “terrorism” around the world last year were in the Sahel. The conflict has displaced millions across the region.

The US has been in Niger since 2012, when it started conducting drone surveillance operations. It expanded its presence in 2018, with the construction of Nigerien Air Base 201 in Agadez at a cost of more than $100m. Over the past decade or so, the US has reportedly invested hundreds of millions of dollars in training Niger’s military.

But the US overestimated the strength of the partnership. In truth, the Nigerien military had long bristled over the terms of the so-called Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the two countries. According to Yahaya, Niger had three times requested that terms be revised. Last month, the junta said the deal had been “unilaterally imposed”.

Some of the clauses were deemed “decidedly unequal and exploitative”, said RUSI’s Rynn. The military was particularly riled that United States wasn’t sharing military intelligence garnered by drone flights from Nigerien airspace.

“That really touched a nerve,” said Rynn.

Why has Russia become involved?

The United States’ loss is Russia’s gain.

In the immediate aftermath of Tchiani’s takeover, supporters of the junta were waving Russian flags on the streets of downtown Niamey, prompting suspicions that the Kremlin was behind the coup.

But while it clearly benefitted Russia, Rynn believes the coup was “domestically driven”. Though it’s true, he said, that Russian embassies in the region carry a stock of flags to “capitalise on any development that … could be used to embarrass the West”.

A supporter of Niger's ruling junta holds a placard in the colors of the Russian flag reading "Long Live Russia, Long Live Niger and Nigeriens"
A supporter of Niger’s ruling junta holds a placard in the colours of the Russian flag reading ‘Long Live Russia, Long Live Niger and Nigeriens’ at the start of a protest called to fight for the country’s freedom and push back against foreign interference in Niamey, Niger, on August 3, 2023 [Sam Mednick/AP Photo]

In any case, Russia was pushing on an open door, experts say. The generals had already asked Wagner for help to ward off threats of invasion from ECOWAS. Now, the Africa Corps – controversially named after Adolf Hitler’s expeditionary force – is taking care of business, helping Niger build an air defence system so the country can control its own skies.

According to Yahaya, the country’s bid to secure its airspace has less to do with the war on armed groups and more to do with warding off France, which has a long history of interventionism in its former African colonies and maintains a monetary empire through the euro-pegged currency, the CFA franc. However, he notes, there’s an element of “paranoia on their side”.

“These jihadists do not own drones and aircraft,” he said. “Today the regime’s first priority is to stay in power. They know the divorce with France went really badly. They don’t believe France will go without striking back … Hence there is a desire to own an air defence system.”

What is Russia’s plan?

Beyond the military assistance, any details of a quid pro quo remain unclear.

A recent report by think tank RUSI, based on internal Russian government documents, revealed the country’s “guns-for-gold” model is still very much alive, but with a more considered geopolitical strategy for Niger.

According to the documents cited in the report, the Africa Corps plans to offer a “regime survival package” to client governments, exchanging military and diplomatic support for resources. In Niger, Russia is aiming to secure concessions for uranium mines, thereby threatening France’s access to supplies for its 56 nuclear reactors which produce most of the country’s energy.

None of this advances Nigerien sovereignty, analysts point out. But Yahaya said he believes the Niger military does not regard Russia as a “foreign presence”. “With the Russians, it’s very transactional – money for services,” he said. “They view them as temporary business between the Nigerien government and the Russian government.”

According to Rynn: “Niger has welcomed the Russian trainers and equipment in. Their big hope is that they can use that to turn the tide,” he said. “But the honeymoon period will end, and people will say: ‘Where are Russia’s results?’” He believes Russia will “gradually get drawn further into providing more support to the military”.

Niger has joined like-minded neighbours Mali and Burkina Faso – also ruled by military leaders since recent coups – in ditching France for Russia. The trio pledged to leave ECOWAS in January and have formed a defence and economic pact of their own named the Alliance of Sahel States.

What will the US do now?

“Old-fashioned diplomacy is what they [the US] did wrong,” said Yahaya.

“If you come as a superpower and dictate behaviours to people, it doesn’t work. You shouldn’t underestimate how determined people are to assert their sovereignty. If you come to dictate lessons to them, there is no business.”

US officials are now battling to retain boots on the ground in the region, both in Niger and in Chad. The latter recently questioned an agreement allowing the US to conduct security operations within its borders, ordering it to halt activities at the Adji Kossei Air Base in N’Djamena, which also hosts 1,500 French soldiers. The US currently has about 100 Special Forces soldiers in the country.

The tensions were exposed in a leaked letter this month, prompting speculation that Chad was trying to strengthen its hand ahead of elections on May 6. “Are they trying to renegotiate with everybody, make some tough initial moves … but then recalibrate and have more equal dealings with everybody?” asked Rynn.

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