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Rift between US and Niger reveals failure of ‘counterterrorism’ in West Africa

The results of the ‘War on Terror’ have been disastrous for the region

War ZonesAfricaUSA Politics

A formation of Nigerien soldiers from the 322nd Parachute Regiment march to a training site where they will learn combat and counterterrorism skills from US Army soldiers during Operation Flintlock, US Africa Command’s premier and largest annual special operations exercise. Photo courtesy US Navy/Wikimedia Commons.

On March 16, the military government in Niger—also known as the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP)—declared the presence of US troops in the country “illegal,” effectively giving the American soldiers the boot.

Since seizing power in July 2023, the Nigerien junta has severed ties with its former colonizer (and neocolonial exploiter) France, kicking out all 1,400 French troops in the country, expelling France’s ambassador despite protests from the Macron government, and nationalizing French water investments (former French ambassador Sylvain Itté had previously sparked outrage when he told Nigeriens to “stop drinking water, since it is European”).

Earlier military coups in the West African countries of Mali and Burkina Faso had already dented French influence on the continent. In August 2022, Mali forced the withdrawal of French troops from its territory. In February 2023, Burkina Faso did the same. Niger was the final holdout of France’s military influence in the region.

The same is true of the US. Following the coups in Mali and Burkina Faso—which pulled the two West African countries out of the US-European orbit and toward Russia’s—Niger became the hub for American troops in the region.

In addition to US personnel in Niger, the American military operates a massive drone base in the country. Known as “Nigerien Air Base 201,” it is the centre of US military activities in Niger. Its construction cost $110 million and it features a 6,200-foot runway for manned and unmanned aircraft, including MQ-9 Reapers, which have a price tag of $30 million each. The base is used for surveillance activities in West and North Africa. It is the second largest US base on the continent after Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, the primary base of operations for US Africa Command (AFRICOM) in the Horn of Africa.

The US operates two additional bases in Niger: one in the capital Niamey and one in the small northeastern town of Dirkou. The Dirkou base was secret until 2018.

Immediately following the coup, US authorities were unable to use the drone base. Despite the US pressuring the CNSP to restore former President Mohamed Bazoum to power (including with a visit from then acting US Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland), relations between Washington and Niamey eased in subsequent months. This rapprochement occurred even as France worked with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional political and economic union of 15 countries, to impose sanctions and threaten war on Niger. The military governments in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger all withdrew from ECOWAS in January 2024.

People’s Dispatch contributor Pavan Kulkarni outlines US efforts to retain its military presence in Niger in the latter half of 2023:

When [the Bazoum] regime was ousted in July 2023… much was at stake for the US. Until October, it had not even declared his removal and the takeover by the CNSP as a ‘coup,’ because “we don’t want to see that partnership go,” the US Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh told a press conference in August. “We’ve invested, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars into bases there.”
Barely two months after it finally designated the CNSP’s takeover as a coup in October, which kicked in laws restricting aid and military support to Niger, Molly Phee, the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, offered to restore both to Niger.
After meeting with the CNSP-appointed ministers in December, by when the size of US deployment was reduced from 1,100 to 648, Phee told a press conference, “I have made clear to the CNSP that we want to be a good partner again, but the CNSP has to be a good partner to the United States.”

Amid reports of Niger’s deepening ties with Washington’s geopolitical foes Russia and Iran, Molly Phee and AFRICOM commander General Michael Langley flew to Niamey to allegedly threaten “retaliation” against the CNSP. US officials accused Niger of entering a secret agreement with Tehran to supply the Iranian government with uranium, an accusation the Nigerien authorities deny.

Colonel Major Amadou Abdramane, spokesperson for the CNSP, has described the US’s accusations as reminiscent of the Bush administration’s false claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He called the US military presence in Niger “profoundly unfair” and against the “aspirations and interests of the Nigerien people,” before revoking the military agreement between the two states with immediate effect.

Another government spokesperson, Insa Garba Saidou, added, “The American bases and civilian personnel cannot stay on Nigerien soil any longer.”

Canadian troops also left Niger this year, albeit under murkier circumstances.

Like the US, the Canadian government did not label the CNSP’s takeover as a coup until months later—December 15, in Ottawa’s case. It seems that Ottawa was hoping to maintain positive relations with the Nigerien junta in order to keep Canadian troops in the country.

For over a decade, Ottawa has spent hundreds of millions of dollars sending military training teams to Niger. A Canadian program, Operation Naberius, saw dozens of Canadian trainers dispatched to the West African country every year to train the national army. The training fell under the authority of Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM).

In December 2023, the Canadian Forces released a statement asserting that Canadian forces would no longer train the Nigerien military. Even so, the Canadians would remain in the West African country for unspecified reasons. The statement simply read that, “They are conducting planning for future activities in the region including liaison and coordination with African and Western nations.”

In January, plans changed. As Ottawa Citizen reporter David Pugliese writes: “Canadian special forces have retreated on plans to continue on in Niger and have pulled out remaining commandos from that nation. The decision comes as Niger’s military leaders move towards more co-operation with Russia.”

CANSOFCOM issued a statement: “We can confirm that, as of January 2024, CANSOFCOM no longer has personnel operating in Niger and that personnel have returned to Canada.” No information was given about the reason for the withdrawal, just as one month earlier, no reason was given as to why Canada had decided to keep its troops in Niger.

The Canadian role in West Africa was ostensibly a counterterrorism effort, but like the US and European presence it was meant to bolster, Canada failed to bring security or development to the region.

In fact, the tangible results of this Western-led “War on Terror” have been catastrophic. Over the last two decades, deaths in Islamist militant attacks in the Sahel have risen a shocking 50,000 percent.

A Nigerien security analyst stated: “This security cooperation [between the US and Niger] did not live up to the expectations of Nigeriens—all the massacres committed by the jihadists were carried out while the Americans were here.” Even so, General Langley claimed in March that “USAFRICOM needs to stay in West Africa… to limit the spread of terrorism across the region and beyond.”

Despite the claims of US, Canadian, and European officials, the people of West Africa know the grim realities of Western military intervention and economic domination. That is why so many West African states are forging an alternative path—most recently Senegal, whose President-elect Diomaye Faye has supported “left-wing pan-Africanism” and the end of France’s “economic stranglehold” on his country.

The reality is that the military and economic presence of the US in West Africa—and the presence of Canada, and the Europeans—has greatly aggravated violence, insecurity, and poverty. Is it any wonder that Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso (and now Senegal) are seeking new arrangements?

Owen Schalk is a writer from rural Manitoba. He is the author of Canada in Afghanistan: A story of military, diplomatic, political and media failure, 2003-2023.


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