Africa Watch – Yanks bow out

29th April 2024

The United States (US) will withdraw its troops from Niger, Reuters reported, adding an agreement was reached between the US Deputy Secretary of State, Kurt Campbell, and Niger’s leadership. There were a little over 1,000 US troops in Niger as of last year, where the US military operated out of two bases, including a drone base known as Air Base 201 built near Agadez. Although there will still be diplomatic and economic relationships between the US and Niger, Reuters reported. The New York Times has reported more than 1,000 American military personnel will leave Niger in the coming months.

Map accurate as of August 2023

This development is the latest casualty of the West’s ceding of influence in the Sahel to other geopolitical players, especially Moscow. The sheer pace at which this is happening is striking. Beginning with the Frexit from Mali and the winding down of Operation Barkhane in 2020, the West has become a casualty of the popular angst against underperforming civilian governments and a victim of its support for these governments.

The coup that removed President Mohammed Bazoum in July 2023 marked a significant turning point for Niger domestically and geopolitically. This does not mean that Washington and Moscow could not have existed side by side in Niger. Camp Lemonnier, the US’s only permanent military base in Africa, exists in Djibouti alongside China’s naval base, which opened in 2017. The difference between Djibouti and Niger is that the Sahel is not as strategic as Djibouti’s location in the Red Sea, the Horn of Africa and the Mediterranean–all important global sea lanes.

The US Agadez base has become a burden for the Americans. Despite its $100 million annual budget, the memory of four US servicemen’s deaths in Niger in 2017 has led voters and policymakers to view it as an unnecessary asset. The US military’s decision to withdraw from Niger has raised concerns about security in the Sahel region. The departure of US forces is expected to weaken counterterrorism efforts, particularly in containing ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates. This could lead to increased violence and instability across the Sahel.

Nigeria now faces challenges from its unstable neighbours, worsened by the Wagner Group’s presence in West Africa. Former President Buhari acknowledged this issue, but Nigeria lacks the power to address it effectively. With strained relations between Abuja and Niamey, the ability of Russian and Nigerien forces to combat terrorism will have short-term consequences for Nigeria.

However, amidst these challenges, there is an opportunity for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to step up its efforts in enhancing regional cooperation through improved intelligence sharing, joint military operations and coordinated border security among its member states. Additionally, focusing on development projects to tackle poverty and lack of opportunity, which are often underlying factors fuelling extremism, is crucial. Although the physical presence of US forces will diminish, continued technical and technological assistance from the US can support ECOWAS in bolstering its military capabilities. The truth is that Africa’s problems were always only going to be solved by African institutions, so ECOWAS has to assume a more prominent role in addressing security concerns in the Sahel by working together, focusing on development and leveraging whatever assistance is made available to create a more secure and stable region.