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Why the Nigerien junta wants to kick US troops out

Why the Nigerien junta wants to kick US troops out

While Washington’s policy has been rudderless since last year’s coup, an American exit might not be a bad thing

Analysis | Africa

An American government delegation recently traveled to Niger to, according to the State Department, “continue ongoing discussions since August with leaders of the National Council for Safeguarding the Homeland (CNSP) regarding Niger’s return to a democratic path and the future of our security and development partnership.”

The CNSP is the junta that took power in Niger in July 2023, in a coup that extended a trend of military takeovers in the Sahel. For the U.S., the Nigerien coup was the most consequential of these putsches, given longstanding and intensive security cooperation, including the presence of a major U.S. drone base in the northern city of Agadez.

The visit went poorly. Initially scheduled for March 12-13, the delegation extended its stay by one day in hopes of meeting military head of state General Abdourahamane Tiani, but was denied. Then, on March 16, the CNSP announced that it was rejecting the military cooperation agreements between Niger and the U.S. The junta has suggested that in the absence of what it considers a viable and legal status of forces agreement (referring to a 2013 document that the junta now rejects), American civilian and military personnel are no longer welcome in Niger. The Pentagon and the wider U.S. government are working through the implications of that statement while attempting to convince the Nigerien authorities to let U.S. personnel stay.

Diplomatically, the U.S. side appears to have stumbled in several ways. The CNSP’s spokesman criticized the U.S. for its “unilateral” announcement of the delegation’s arrival date and composition and said that the Nigerien authorities received the delegation out of simple courtesy and hospitality. It’s also possible that the Americans inadvertently insulted their hosts by sending what the U.S. regarded as a “high-level” team but what the Nigeriens may have seen as insufficiently senior. The delegation was headed by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee and AFRICOM Commander General Michael Langley and included other senior officials such as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Celeste Wallander.

This episode has been a flashback to my yearlong fellowship in the State Department in 2013-2014. During that time, one thing that shocked and dismayed me is that the assistant secretary of state — as a position — was implicitly considered within the State Department as a position equivalent in rank to an African head of state.

Within State (and I assume within Defense and within AFRICOM), senior officials are treated with extraordinary deference and sometimes fear by their own subordinates. But there is no reason why an African leader should see things that way. To be lectured at by an American official whose rank is far junior to one’s own is an experience that many African officials tolerate, but it cannot be pleasant. For the Sahel’s newly minted juntas, who emphasize a particular brand of sovereignty and who have not been shy about antagonizing Paris, it is not a stretch to rebuke Americans over perceived (and, I would argue, actual) arrogance.

The delegation met Nigerien Prime Minister Ali Lamine Zeine along with senior members of Niger’s junta, such as Generals Salifou Mody and Mohamed Toumba. But I suspect one reason the delegation could not see Tiani is because they misread how seriously the Nigeriens want to be taken.

Substantively, the conversation also seems to have gone badly. According to some reports, the American officials seem to have been criticizing Niger’s turn towards Russia and to a lesser extent Iran. The junta also appears to have tired of criticism over the generals’ handling of the “transition” back to civilian rule — criticism that is well deserved, since no serious transition appears to be underway, but that is nevertheless unwelcome.

The episode underscores both the misguidedness of America’s pre-coup policies towards Niger and the incoherence of current policymaking. In terms of pre-coup policies, Niger was a darling of American counterterrorism in Africa. Looking the other way over civilian overreach (particularly under President Mahamadou Issoufou from 2011-2021) and military abuses was long justified in the name of the “partnership.”

But one thing for American policymakers to reflect on is why the supposed closeness of the two militaries — including longstanding relationships at the senior level — has not translated into any substantial American influence over the junta. If huge investments in training and infrastructure can evaporate with a change in political fortunes, and if those investments cannot be proven to have flattened the curve of the Sahelian insurgency in the first place, then what are they worth?

In terms of current policymaking, American officials don’t seem to know what they want — an ambivalence that was easily detectable during the months of foot-dragging over invoking U.S. law that calls for suspensions of security assistance to coup-afflicted countries. The U.S. has sometimes appeared to view the Nigerien junta more favorably (or be more desperate to curry its favor) than the juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso, again due to the massive U.S. investments and sunk costs in Niger. Yet the U.S. also appears to lecture Niger over democracy, Russia, and more. Perhaps the delegation calculated that the might, prestige, and resources of the U.S. would continue to impress the Nigeriens— they calculated wrong, and so achieved neither of the two contradictory pulls in U.S. policy, advancing neither democracy nor security cooperation.

I was not in the room, obviously, but it also strikes me that AFRICOM’s preferred rhetorical frames may play very badly on the ground in the Sahel now. In their annual posture statements, successive AFRICOM commanders depict Africa as a place where outsiders (al-Qaida, the Islamic State, Russia, China, etc.) cause havoc, to be opposed by a stalwart coalition of the U.S. and its “partners.” This is a view of Africa that offers little room for Africans to exist other than as victims of some outside force or as junior partners to the U.S., junior partners within their own story.

That might play well to Congress — but it did not go over well in Niamey, and it would be received even less warmly in Bamako or Ouagadougou. The juntas could also easily read how negatively they are depicted by AFRICOM; while AFRICOM’s criticisms of the juntas are largely fair (I shared many of them), U.S. officials cannot expect to dismiss the juntas as malevolent and incompetent but then go to make asks of them.

Going forward, one thing to watch for advocates of restraint is whether and how easily the U.S. can pivot out of Niger. It may turn out that the drone base there, billed as essential to the fight against Sahelian jihadism, is not so essential after all. The critical question to ask will not be whether things get worse — security has steadily degraded since approximately 2015 in many parts of the central Sahel — but whether there is any proof that the presence or absence of vast American military expenditures makes any discernable difference.

The U.S. may yet salvage something in Niger, but if it exits, that will not necessarily be a tragedy for Nigeriens or Americans. And sadly, U.S. policy incoherence and diplomatic missteps may have squandered, for the medium term, whatever opportunity had existed to place meaningful pressure on the junta over democracy and human rights.

Col. Ben Ibrahim, Niger Armed Forces (FAN) director of training, receives a briefing from Senior Master Sgt. Kyle Platt, 724th Expeditionary Air Base Squadron, Civil Engineer Flight, of the CE Flight operations at AB 201, Niger, March 11, 2023. Col. Ibrahim, and a delegation of FAN, visited AB 201 to participate in a knowledge exchange of how the different sections of the air base operate and how those sections support overall operations. Knowledge exchanges, such as these, ensure the U.S. remains an enduring partner with Niger and helps build our partner’s capacity to strengthen their defense capabilities. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Michael Matkin)

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