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What Washington got wrong about Niger and Russia

What Washington got wrong about Niger and Russia

The ruling junta recently called on American troops to leave the country after a meeting where US officials warned against partnering with Moscow

Analysis | Africa

On March 17 Niger’s National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP) suspended its military agreement with the United States after a visit by senior U.S. officials to the capital, Niamey. A CNSP spokesman said the decision was made after the U.S. delegation warned the military regime against partnering with Russia and Iran. Niger, which hosts around 1,000 U.S. troops and a drone base, has been an important partner in Washington’s counterterrorism operations in the region. But relations have deteriorated considerably since July 2023, when Niger’s presidential guard removed democratically elected Mohamed Bozoum and installed General Abdourahamane Tchiani.

Russian influence looms large in Western discourse on the Sahel, and now informs U.S. policy and decision-making in places like Niger. This is a mistake. Outsized focus on Russia misunderstands the scale and scope of Moscow’s presence. More importantly, it ignores longstanding patterns of governance and denies the role of Africans in emerging pro-sovereignty movements and political blocs.Neither the U.S. nor Russia are in a position to force Africans to choose sides, efforts to do so will only result in rebuke.

African governments seek to balance outside powers while retaining the ability to work with each. Historically, local elites leverage these often unequal relations with powerful states to enhance their own domestic position. In francophone Africa, the cozy relationship between French officials, companies, and African autocrats came to be known as Françafrique. Niger had become somewhat of an exception among its peers, however, when it pursued close military ties with the United States.

Recent years have seen a wave of anti-French sentiment hit the Sahel. Military regimes seeking political legitimacy have helped foment anti-French sentiment, but they do not control it. The backing of Paris is politically poisonous; kicking the French military out of Niger was necessary to the CNSP’s survival.

Neither the U.S. nor Russia have a policy to address the humanitarian, economic, and security implications of France’s departure from the Sahel, which explains, in part, the focus on ideological narratives.

Without a clear strategy, Russia responds opportunistically to events on the ground. And while Moscow has enjoyed more success than America in exporting security to Africa recently, it lacks comparable experience and capabilities in the humanitarian field. “We understand everything through Africa Corps,” a Russian security expert in the region says. “We can strengthen it, expand it, redirect it. There are now some aspects of soft power, your matryoshkas and balalaikas. But now we need to do serious things, and that requires a lot of time, money, and people.”

Even though Washington historically ceded policy priorities in francophone Africa to France, anti-French sentiment did not carry over to anti-American sentiment in Niger. Close military relations, and leadership in the humanitarian field still carried weight.

It appears that the U.S. delegation’s visit to Niamey in March — led by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee and AFRICOM Commander General Michael Langley — did significant damage. Sahel expert Alex Thurston noted the reportedly uniliteral announcement of the U.S. delegation’s visit, and the relatively low rank of visiting officials, may have played a part.

The subject of the talks — Niger’s turn towards Russia and Iran — appears to have been equally insulting. Ironically, the U.S. delegation’s attempt to counter Russian influence in Niger has further pushed the CNSP to seek ties with Russia.

U.S. focus on Russia misses the reality that Africans, not Russians or Americans, are driving major political shifts in the Sahel. The formation of the Alliance of Sahelian States (AES), for example, was a project initiated by Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger first and foremost to counteract the military threat from a regional bloc, ECOWAS. That Russia welcomed the development does not mean Moscow inspired it.

Indeed, the overthrow of Bozoum was as unexpected in Moscow as it was in Washington. “The coup was a surprise with no obvious advantage,” a Russian diplomat in the region admitted. Western media were still quick to divine a Russian hand. Implicit was the belief that Russian influence thrives in instability and can “spill” across borders.

Such tropes, however, fail to account for a basic building block of politics: personal relationships. Russia’s arrival in Mali was not a product of information warfare — it was the result of collaboration between Russian advisers in Mali and Malian military officers who trained in Russia, the history of which goes back to the Soviet era. Malians, not Russians, cleared the way politically, working to secure the buy-in of trade unions and other powerbrokers in Bamako.

There is no equivalent history in neighboring Niger. The U.S. has the monopoly on relations with Niger’s officer corps. Moscow doesn’t have an embassy in Niamey. Lacking strong, proven connections, Russian diplomats and security officials feel they don’t have a good read on the junta. Moreover, Russian officials have little gauge over the mood within the broader Nigerien military. “Pressure to break with the U.S.,” a high-ranking Nigerien military officer adds, “comes from within, not Russia.”

Sensing wariness on both sides, the CNSP has tried to attract, rather unsuccessfully thus far, the Kremlin’s attention. When a CNSP delegation visited Moscow in January, they couldn’t land a meeting with Vladimir Putin or even Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov. Still, Niamey was among the first countries to congratulate Putin on his election victory.

The saga of Niger reflects a strange, transitory phase between Washington’s “War on Terror” and “Great Power Competition,” the strategic rivalry between the U.S., China, and Russia, in which geopolitical foes find themselves on the same side against al-Qaida and ISIS-affiliated armed groups.

The Kremlin views and frames its intervention in the Sahel in counterterrorism terms — a fact likely to continue following the recent terror attacks in Moscow. This resonates far better with Sahelian leaders than geopolitical rivalry. “If the United States does not participate in the fight against terrorists, then why are they here?” the Nigerien officer asked. “To track and contain the Russians? This is not their business. We respect America, we need their help. But this does not mean that we are ready listen to reproaches and accusations from incompetent people.”

Some time has passed now since the U.S. delegation’s visit and the denunciation of Niger’s military agreement with the U.S., and it appears that the initial tension from the Nigerien authorities’ categorical statement has subsided. There is still a chance that the denunciation was a strong-arm tactic to coerce Washington into dialogue.

At the same time, the AES continues to gather steam, with Chad now expressing interest in joining. Niger is an integral part of this new alliance and is closer to the U.S. and further from Russia compared to Mali and Burkina Faso.

If the U.S. loses a foot in the alliance, which is very possible, it will be the result of efforts to force Africans to choose sides. In the long run, if the U.S. and Russia wish to continue fighting Islamist militancy in the Sahel, they will need to find a way to, if not cooperate, at least deconflict and accommodate for each other’s presence. If not, they’ll both find themselves on the outside looking in.

U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Jonathan Braga, U.S. Army Special Operations commander, meets with Brig. Gen. Moussa Barmou, Niger Special Operations Forces commander, to discuss anti-terrorism policy and tactics throughout the region, at Air Base 101, Niger, June 12, 2023. U.S. Department of Defense agencies partner with the Nigerien Army and Special Operators to bolster anti-violent extremist organization action throughout northwest Africa.
(US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Amy Younger)

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