Did Russia, Iran provoke Niger walkout from US military pact?

Niger’s ruling military angered by US accusations of ‘secret deals’ with Iran and partnering with Russia.

Mohamed Toumba, one of the soldiers who ousted Nigerian President Mohamed Bazoum, addresses supporters of Niger's ruling junta in Niamey in August 2023.
General Mohamed Toumba, one of the military leaders who ousted Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum in July 2023, addresses supporters of Niger's military government in Niamey [Sam Mednick/AP]

Niger has suspended a military agreement with the United States that gave American troops a key base and launchpad in Africa’s Sahel region.

The move, announced on Sunday, follows a row about the African nation’s ties to Russia and Iran, which erupted when US officials visited Niger last week to express their concerns.

What happened and what does it mean now?

What was the military pact between the US and Niger?

The “status of forces” agreement, signed in 2012, allowed about 1,000 US military personnel and civilian defence staff to operate from Niger, which plays a central role in the US military’s operations in the Sahel.

The US military operates Airbase 101 in Niger’s capital, Niamey. Additionally, it operates a major airbase, Airbase 201, near Agadez, a city 920km (572 miles) southwest of Niamey, using it for manned and unmanned surveillance flights and other operations in the Sahel.

Air Base 201 was built from 2016 to 2019 at a cost of more than $100m. The base has been used since 2018 to launch drone operations against armed groups linked to ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda in the Sahel.

“Niger is the centre of US operations in West and North Africa, notably at its Air Base 201,” Al Jazeera’s correspondent Shihab Rattansi said from Washington, DC.

Having a base in the Sahel is important for Washington’s operations against armed groups in the region, “but it’s really there also for great power projection against countries like Russia and China,” Rattansi said.

Why has Niger suspended the pact?

Senior US officials – led by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee and the head of US Africa Command, General Michael Langley – visited the West African country last week.

In their meetings, “US officials expressed concern over Niger’s potential relationships with Russia and Iran,” Sabrina Singh, a spokesperson at the US Department of Defense, said at a news briefing on Monday.

While announcing the suspension of the pact, Niger military spokesperson Colonel Amadou Abdramane referenced pressure from the US on which countries the nation could partner with.

“Niger regrets the intention of the American delegation to deny the sovereign Nigerien people the right to choose their partners and types of partnerships capable of truly helping them fight against terrorism,” Abdramane said.

He denounced the “condescending attitude” of the US diplomats and said Washington had not followed diplomatic protocol because Niger was not informed about the composition of the delegation, the date of its arrival or its agenda.

Niger’s military leader, General Abdourahamane Tchiani, refused to meet the delegation. Local media reported that Phee met the prime minister in Niamey.

“The crux of it [Niger’s decision] is Niger’s choice of military partners – specifically, the choice of Russia. The US clearly seems to be frustrated that Niger is moving closer and closer in terms of military partnerships with the Russians,” Alexis Akwagyiram, managing director of the news platform Semafor Africa, told Al Jazeera. Akwagyiram added that the “condescending attitude” of the US towards Niger may have been a contributing factor in Niger’s decision.

From Niger’s perspective, the US presence in the country has failed to crush the activities of armed groups there.

“At the moment, the Sahel region, in spite of these partnerships, remains the centre spot for terrorism in the world,” said Kabir Adamu, a security and intelligence specialist focussed on West Africa and the Sahel region and based in Abuja, Nigeria.

Where do Russia and Iran come in?

Niger has been under military rule since July when an elite guard force led by Tchiani detained democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum and declared Tchiani ruler.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the late founder of the Russian state-funded Wagner military group, hailed the coup as a long-overdue liberation from Western colonisers.

After the coup, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) called for the immediate reinstatement of Bazoum, threatening the military government with force. Russia warned ECOWAS against taking such action.

Niger then ejected French and other European forces, following the example of neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, which have both also had military coups in recent years.

France closed its embassy in Niger. The US also suspended some aid after the coup but offered to restore ties under some conditions in December. ECOWAS also lifted most sanctions in February.

After the coup, the US military consolidated its forces in Niger, moving some of its soldiers from Air Base 101 in the capital to Air Base 201.

Meanwhile, like Mali and Burkina Faso, Niger has turned to Russia for support.

A Russian delegation visited Niamey in December. In January, Nigerien Prime Minister Ali Mahamane Lamine Zeine visited Moscow to discuss military and economic ties.

And it is not just Russia that Niger is strengthening relations with. In late January, Zeine also visited Iran, where he met President Ebrahim Raisi. The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday that the US delegation that visited Niamey last week accused the Nigerien government of also working on a deal to supply uranium to Iran. Niger is the world’s seventh-largest uranium producer.

Could the US negotiate to keep its troops in Niger?

When asked whether there is potential for US forces to remain in Niger, Singh said on Monday: “We remain in contact with the CNSP [the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland – Niger’s ruling military body]. We’re continuing to conduct those conversations at a diplomatic level, so I don’t have a timeframe of any withdrawal of forces.”

Akwagyiram said the suspension could leave Niger vulnerable, much like Mali and Burkina Faso, adding that he does not think the West African countries could match US military force in numbers or capability. “When you push out those Western troops, you could see an attempt to try and make up the numbers by forming a security pact between themselves and turning to Russia, but I don’t think that is going to make up the shortfall.”

He predicted that, in time, the security situation in Niger will “deteriorate”.

How does this affect the US?

The Niger base is one of the biggest drone facilities the US has in Africa. Singh confirmed in the Monday briefing that the US has not been using its troops and drones at the base for “counterterrorism” operations since the July coup.

If the US has to withdraw its forces entirely, it could lose access to the facility – built entirely by the US – reducing the West’s military footprint further in a part of the world where Russia’s influence is growing steadily.

In February, France withdrew its troops from Burkina Faso, which has been under military rule since a 2022 coup.

In Mali, Russian soldiers have been training the military government’s officers. Wagner, the Russian paramilitary group, has a presence there. And relations between Mali and the US are strained: In July, the US sanctioned officials in Mali’s military for ties with Wagner fighters.

The latest “unfortunate development” in Niger could prove particularly embarrassing for US President Joe Biden in an election year, Adamu said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies