US forces lose strategic African position in Niger

Protesters gather as a man holds up a sign demanding that soldiers from the United States Army leave Niger without negotiation during a demonstration in Niamey, on April 13, 2024. – Thousands of people demonstrated on April 13, 2024 in Nigerís capital Niamey to demand the immediate departure of American soldiers based in northern Niger, after the military regime said it was withdrawing from a 2012 cooperation deal with Washington. (Photo by AFP)

ABIDJAN, May 19, 2024 (AFP) – With the US troop withdrawal from military-led Niger underway and due to be over by September 15, Washington is preparing to abandon its strategic position in the Sahel where Russia and Iran are gaining ground.

The demand for US troops to exit came after French soldiers were also given their marching orders last year by Niger’s new ruling generals following a July coup.

Niger announced in March it was ending a military cooperation agreement with Washington, claiming the presence of US soldiers was now “illegal”.

The country has been a key base for counter-terrorism operations in West Africa, with a major US drone base near the northern city of Agadez that cost a reported $100 million to build.

– Strategic position –

Since 2019, the US military has used drones and aircraft to carry out surveillance missions from the air base on Agadez’s outskirts.

The missions span a vast region where armed groups, particularly jihadists, operate. Drug, human and arms trafficking is also common.

US military service Reaper drones have been flying as far as the borders of neighbouring Libya, Chad, Nigeria and Mali which have limited aerial surveillance capabilities.

– Russian and Iranian advance –

Niger demanded the US troop pull-out after Washington expressed concern about “potential Nigerien relations with Russia and Iran”.

The coup and subsequent breakaway from Western countries in favour of Russia followed similar moves in neighbouring Burkina Faso and Mali.

But Niger’s position as the world’s seventh-largest uranium producer plays an important role in the shifting relations.

Iran has significantly increased its stock of enriched uranium in recent months, while strengthening ties with Niger, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Prime Minister Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine told the Washington Post in an interview published this month that a US official threatened Niamey with sanctions if it signed an agreement to sell the uranium it produces to Iran.

Zeine said that “absolutely nothing” had been signed with Iran on uranium.

– Limited US forces –

US soldiers deployed in Niger were estimated to number 650 by the end of 2023, as well as hundreds of contractors.

Some troops are stationed at an air base in the capital Niamey with other foreign troops, as well as in the US Agadez base.

The United States repositioned some of its troops from Niamey to Agadez in what it said was a precautionary move after the coup.

– Anti-jihadist fight –

US special forces had been working alongside the Nigerien army to fight jihadist groups before the coup, when Washington suspended all military cooperation.

In October 2017, four American soldiers and five Nigerien soldiers were killed in an ambush by the Islamic State group in the village of Tongo Tongo near the Malian border.

US drones were also supporting the Nigerian army against Boko Haram and rival Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) jihadists in the southeast close to Nigeria.

In September, US intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations resumed solely to protect American forces, according to the Department of Defense.

– Equipment and training –

The United States has supplied military equipment to Niger since 1962 after the former French colony gained independence.

Deliveries increased as part of the fight against jihadists, ranging from armed vehicles, surveillance and military transport aircraft to communications and transmission centres.

Niger’s army has also had access to a US security assistance programme, which provides funding for the education and training of foreign military personnel, since 1980.

– Unpopular military presence –

Nigerien public opinion has long been hostile to the presence of foreign forces.

In 2022, around two-thirds of Nigeriens disagreed with government use of foreign military forces to secure the country, according to an Afrobarometer survey.

In terms of security, “the Agadez region finds no use for the presence of the Americans”, civil society leader Amodi Arrandishou told AFP.

“The Americans stayed on our soil, doing nothing while the terrorists killed people and burned towns,” said Prime Minister Zeine, who led negotiations with the United States.