Will the US Support Armed Intervention in Niger?

There is no US National Security Justification

4 mins read
U.S. Victoria Nuland in Niger; Request to Meet Detained President Bazoum Denied by Junta

Victoria Nuland came to Niger and demanded to see the former President, currently under house arrest in the Presidential Palace.  She was turned down and met with a few of the coup leaders in Niamey, Niger’s capital.  She threatened the US would stop providing aid to the country and demanded that the coup leaders restore the former president, Mohamed Bazoum, to power.  She left empty handed, but with the threat of military action, looming, either coming from the ECOWAS countries or from US and French troops in Niger, or even both.

The US trained most of the leaders of the Niger coup and maintains a force of around 1,500 troops in the country.  While Niger has asked France to remove its 1,100 soldiers, France has not complied.  US troops have not been ordered out of the country, although that remains a possibility if the situation deteriorates further.

Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world.  Its main assets are uranium mines primarily owned by French companies.  Recently Niger also is producing modest amounts of oil, around 14,000 barrels of oil a day, all of which is domestically consumed.  Seventy percent of Niger’s electricity is supplied by Nigeria.  Nigeria has halted the supply of electricity since the coup, according to news reports.

Niger’s main uranium mine, SOMAIR (Société des Mines de l’Aïr​), gets its electrical power from a local coal burning generator facility.  Niger accounts for around 5% of world uranium production (in the form of Yellowcake).  But France is much more dependent with 20% of its uranium coming from Niger, its number two supplier.  The top supplier is Kazakhstan.  Uzbekistan is the number three supplier, just below Niger.  If Niger’s production is halted for any significant period of time, pressure will grow on other suppliers and uranium prices will likely increase.  At present the French company Orano, which is the majority owner of SOMAIR, says that the SOMAIR is operating.  Prices have ticked up a little, but not dramatically.

At the present time Niger’s airspace is closed.  Roadways are blocked and the import of foods, medicines and other supplies from outside the country also are blocked.  There is increasing concern that any sustained supplies halt could trigger a humanitarian crisis.

The  Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has threatened military intervention, but not all of the 15 members of ECOWAS favor military action.

The most germane threats to Niger come from the US and French contingents in the country and the potential for either or both to be reinforced.  Officially the US military presence is based 127 E (or Echo) of the US Code, which authorizes the US military Special Operations to be used to combat terrorism.  It does not authorize US forces to play any role whatsoever in the internal governance of a host country.  The US contingent in Niger falls under the authority of the US African Command (AFRICOM).  This poses a major problem for Washington, since it would have to declare a national security contingency.  There is no conceivable national security contingency one can think of, and US troops are not threatened.

Anthony Blinken and Victoria Nuland both have stated that one of their main concerns is the possibility of Russia’s Wagner forces moving into Niger.  So far as is known, there are no Wagner forces in Niger at present, but Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner’s Co-Founder, who was recently active at the Russian Africa conference in St. Petersburg, celebrated the coup d’état in Niger and, at least indirectly, has offered Wagner services to Niger.  Wagner currently has operations in Mali, Sudan, Central African Republic and Libya.  Mali is a member of ECOWAS.  

Niger’s army is one of the poorest equipped in Africa.  Its Air Force has only two jets (2 Russian-made Su-25s) and a handful of helicopters. The army relies heavily on Toyota trucks with guns mounted on them, although it has some armored personnel carriers.

There are jihadist groups operating in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso in a tri-border region known as Liptako Gourma. Liptako-Gourma is the area adjacent to the River Niger bend between the cities of Gao (Mali) and Niamey (Niger), which includes the regions of Gao in Mali, Sahel in Burkina Faso, and Tillabéry in Niger.  

Some jihadist groups are linked to al-Qaeda, others to ISIS, others still independent operators.  There are also ethnic groups, also strict Islamists, that have threatened Niger in the recent past.  One group is the Fulani or Fula people. They are generally speaking nomadic people and cattle herders, often conflicting with settled farmers fighting over grazing areas.  In Niger they represent 3.6 million people.  The other ethnic group that has staged at least two insurrections in recent years are the Tuareg.  The Tuareg’s are Berber people, also nomadic.  The population of Tuareg’s is about 2.6 million.  In the past few days an important Tuareg leader, who was rehabilitated by the previous two Niger governments, Rhissa Ag Boula, has come out strongly against the coup and has been demanding the restoration of the democratically elected government.  Whether Ag Boula can mobilize the Tuaregs isn’t yet known, but if he can it could pose significant internal problems for the military junta.  Boula heads the Council of Resistance for the Republic and supports ECOWAS military intervention.

While the US supports democratically elected governments and their leaders, it would be difficult to justify armed intervention unless a real threat to US national security exists. US intervention would also seriously damage US credibility in Africa and elsewhere in the world as it would be seen as just another colonialist operation against a poor nation. If it was carried out in partnership with France, it would even be worse. Washington will have to make a decision: to line up with Blinken and Nuland, both interventionists, or act more sensibly and let Africans sort this out for themselves.

Stephen Bryen

Stephen Bryen is a former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense and is a leading expert in security strategy and technology. Bryen writes for Asia Times, American Thinker, Epoch Times, Newsweek, Washington Times, the Jewish Policy Center and others.

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