Africa Watch – High stakes in the Sahel

18th March 2024

Niger’s ruling junta has abruptly cancelled a military agreement that allows military personnel and civilian staff from the US Department of Defence on its soil, spokesperson Colonel Amadou Abdramane announced. The decision came after a recent visit by US officials. Abdramane stated that the US delegation did not adhere to diplomatic norms, failing to inform Niger about their composition, arrival date or agenda. Their discussions centred on Niger’s military transition, cooperation with the US and partner choices in combating militants associated with al Qaeda and Islamic State. A US official said they had “frank discussions” about the trajectory of Niger’s military council—the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP). Abdramane, however, said: “Niger regrets the intention of the American delegation to deny the sovereign Nigerien people the right to choose their partners and types of partnerships capable of truly helping them fight against terrorism.”

It is instructive that the junta’s announcement comes on the heels of the visit of officials – led by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee and US Africa Command head General Michael Langley– to Niger earlier this week to discuss a democratic transition.

At the height of the international condemnation of last July’s coup, which ousted President Mohammed Bazoum, the US, for all intents and purposes, greenlighted ECOWAS’ planned military action to restore democratic rule. A few months later, the US reduced its willingness to use force, having settled for an unspecified democratic transition following an agreement that US military operations, such as the air base in Agadez from which it fights terrorism in the Sahel, would remain.

One of the possible causes of this about-turn could be explained by impulsive ultra-sovereignist ideologies adopted by the junta, boosted by the isolationism of its counterparts in the Alliance of Sahelian States (AES), which includes erstwhile pariahs such as Burkina Faso and Mali. The junta thus views pressures for democratic transition as external interference that must be beaten down to improve domestic legitimacy. However, this posture is inconsistent with the presence of the Wagner Mercenary Group, which now operates under the new name Russia’s Africa Corps and has an outsize influence on the junta in Niamey.

For Nigeria, however, this announcement signifies a further loss of influence. In the face of eroding French influence, Nigeria would have been expected to fill in the gap and claim the primary regional power broker role in West Africa. However, its handling of the Niger crisis and ECOWAS in general ever since have ensured it maintained a mostly reactionary posture, made worse by the lifting of sanctions for coup-offending states, a move which got ECOWAS and Nigeria nothing in return.

Furthermore, the potential exit of American military forces could jeopardise security on Nigeria’s northern flank. The Americans, through their air bases, provided wiggle room for the Nigeriens in the central and northern parts of Niger, allowing that country’s military forces to combine forces with Nigeria to combat terrorism in Southern Niger/Northern Nigeria. With the latest developments, the Nigerien security forces will be forced to wrestle with security challenges on multiple fronts in the face of poor political and military relations with Nigeria buoyed by a Russian Africa Corps whose record on combating security challenges in the Sahel is very spotty at best.

Ultimately, this announcement could be an attempted shakedown of the US and its allies to reduce the emphasis on a return to democracy, which might reap benefits for the junta if a change of guard happens in the White House in 2025 with a US president who is not so keen on democracy home or abroad. The Nigeriens appear to be winning in this game of shakedowns and extortions. The only question is: for how long?