US, Russia lock horns in Niger

What remains in the grey zone is the extent to which Russia and China could be coordinating their actions.

5 mins read
Nigerien Air Base 201, Niger, in December 2018. (Daniel Asselta/U.S. Air Force)

Such a thing never happened in the past one hundred years since the United States stepped out of the Western Hemisphere as an imperial power — an adversary barging into one of its military bases abroad. 

A military base is deemed sovereign territory and an unauthorised entry constitutes an affront, especially by Russia, a rival superpower. Yet, Washington and Moscow are playing down the co-habitation of their military personnel in the American air base near Niamey, capital of Niger, known as Airbase 101. 

In the cacophony over the proxy war in Ukraine, perhaps, the news got submerged that the US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin insisted that there was no “significant issue” in such co-habitation in Niger. Austin explained: “The Russians are in a separate compound and don’t have access to US forces or access to our equipment. I am always focused on the safety and protection of our troops. But right now, I don’t see a significant issue here in terms of our force protection.” 

Such uncharacteristic restraint by the Pentagon chief would probably be because Washington is in no position to evict the Russians now that Nigerien authorities have annulled the Status of Forces agreements with the US.  

On the other hand, the Russian military personnel — reportedly drawn from the newly formed Africa Corps comprising erstwhile Wagner Group — arrived in Niger some three weeks ago at the invitation of the Nigerian government. 

Equally, Washington must also have factored in that Niger’s military, which had in the past worked closely with the US, while seeking cooperation with Russia, is stopping short of the full-fledged embrace of Moscow by military-run neighbours Mali and Burkina Faso. Arguably, it signals Niger’s so-called “diversification of international partnerships” plan that keeps open prospects of a US comeback.    

At any rate, Austin must be aware that this impasse in the US-Niger ties is largely to be attributed to the State Department’s mishandling by officially designating the military takeover in Niamey last July as a “coup”. The Rubicon was crossed in October when Washington triggered laws restricting the military support and aid that it can provide to Niger.

This punitive step ignored that Niger remained a key partner and ally in a region swept by coups in recent years, where the US had invested over $100 million in its Agadez base, which has been critical to US drone operations in the Sahel, and poured hundreds of millions of dollars also into the training programmes for Niger’s military since 2013. 

Looking back, some of the coup leaders were actually trained in US military academies. Succinctly put, the state department blew it. It was after a stormy meeting in Niamey in mid-March, when senior US officials objected to the expected arrival of Russian forces that the Nigerian generals decided that enough was enough and asked for the removal of US troops. Washington didn’t expect such an extreme thing to happen.

No doubt, Russians (who didn’t even have an embassy in Niamey) have come prepared for the long haul. The Russian military “trainers” have even brought with them an air defence system. However, when asked about the deployment, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov parried, saying, “We are developing ties with various African countries in all areas, including in the military one. They are interested in it, we are also interested in it. And we will continue to develop our relations with African states.” 

Russia is taking advantage of alignment of opportunities following a telephone conversation between the head of Niger’s military regime General Abdourahamane Tiani and President Vladimir Putin on March 26 about “strengthening security cooperation.” Moscow had previously promoted the formation of the so-called Alliance of Sahel States, a mutual defence pact created between Mali, Niger and Burkino Faso in September last year, thereby effectively neutralising the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which is in the West’s orbit and at one point had toyed with the idea of a military intervention in Niger (with French backing) to restore the ancien régime of the deposed president Mohamed Bazoum who is under detention.

Suffice to say, Russia’s Africa Corps has a job cut out for it — there is a big challenge ahead as Moscow assumes the role of provider of security. The more the US gets paranoid about Russia’s foreign trade in the conditions under sanctions, the greater becomes the relevance of Africa as a partner in Moscow’s scheme of things. There are indications that Russia is coordinating a strategy for regional regional security in West Africa.  

In the downstream, Washington seems to have undertaken an honest appraisal of what went wrong with Niger. The PBS held a riveting interview last week on this steamy topic with Peter Pham, former U.S. ambassador and special envoy for the Sahel region. Ambassador Pham noted that the eviction from the two bases in Niger  “is going to be very significant loss and setback.” 

He admitted with extraordinary candour that “we [US] could have been more attuned to the fact that winds of change were sweeping across Africa. 

“Political elites are widely discredited in these Sahel countries. Just because there’s an extra overthrow of government doesn’t mean what came before was necessarily a Jeffersonian democracy. 

“And also, quite frankly, our French friends and allies are partners but they have a lot of baggage in this region. There is widespread unrest about them. There has been some tainting by association [with France]. 

“We could have probably managed the situation much better  in terms of being attuned to what was happening, the dynamics, and also engagement with the regimes that have emerged… The region had a crisis of state legitimacy. The governments were not providing basic goods, services, and protection to their people. People want protection, security.”  

Pham underscored: “The one big mistake we make is to try to force them to choose us or the other guy… But they [China and Russia] are offering faster solutions. We tell them [African elites] ‘us or them’ very often. Because they [Russia and China] can deliver quickly and immediately that becomes the easy one for the junta or other leaders to opt for… In the short term, what they provide these new regimes, military regimes, is a security blanket. It is about regime survival.” (here) 

There is merit in the ambassador’s remarks. By the way, China National Petroleum Corporation has invested close to 5 billion  dollars in Niger’s petroleum industry and constructed a 2000 km long  pipeline from landlocked Niger to Benin’s Atlantic coast, while also holding two-thirds equity in Agadem oil fields. CNPC signed an agreement with Niamey last month on a $400 million loan as a “lifeline” after the generals cut ties with France and the US — which is to be repaid with crude oil shipments within twelve months at an interest rate of seven per cent. 

What remains in the grey zone is the extent to which Russia and China could be coordinating their actions. But that falls in the domain of geopolitics. Russia’s interests on the west African coast lie in look to be in securing military, diplomatic and economic pacts with leaders of these nations in exchange for strategic access to the Atlantic Ocean. And, of course, to the east, Niger and Chad border Sudan where Russia seeks a submarine base in the Red Sea. This has profound geopolitical implications.

Significantly, in the best traditions of the great game, Ambassador  Pham did not waste breath to vilify Russia. On the other hand, the state department let it be known that it is already charting  out a re-engagement with the regime in Niamey. Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell “will travel to Niamey in the coming months to discuss ongoing collaboration in areas of joint interest.”

M. K. Bhadrakumar

M. K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat by profession. Roughly half of the 3 decades of his diplomatic career was devoted to assignments on the territories of the former Soviet Union and to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Other overseas postings included South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, and Turkey. He writes mainly on Indian foreign policy and the affairs of the Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

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