Niger’s Pivot To Moscow: What’s Next For US Engagement In Africa? – Analysis


By Raphael Parens, Christopher M. Faulkner and Marcel Plichta

(FPRI) — On March 12, a delegation of US officials arrived in Niamey in a highly anticipated meeting on the future of US-Niger relations. The entourage of high-level US diplomats and military officials included the AFRICOM Commander General Michael Langley, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee, and Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Dr. Celeste Wallander. What many saw as a sign of renewed commitment after months of tenuous relations and the adoption of a pragmatic approach to dealing with Niger’s coup leaders, ended with Nigerien officials from the National Council for Safeguarding the Homeland (CNSP) releasing a statement calling the American presence in Niger “illegal.” While it is unclear what was exactly said in the meeting, the conversation certainly did not go well. As at least one scholar explained, the US side appeared to have “stumbled in several ways.”

The apparent rejection of a 2012 status of forces agreement has sent the Pentagon and State Department into a frenzy. The Pentagon has stated that it is seeking clarification on the CNSP’s statement and is reportedly engaging with Niger’s junta on ways to ensure the continuation of a  US troop presence in the country. Niger has been a key security partner in the Sahel and a crucial linchpin for US counterterrorism efforts, as it is host to a strategic US air base in Agadez. Further, it is unclear if the entire military wishes to move away from US assistance and whether the junta has been able to convince a broad enough swath of forces to support this decision.

What appears to be an abrupt shift in the CNSP’s position toward US forces in Niger is shocking but perhaps not all that surprising. Niger’s military regime revoked security agreements with the European Union back in December 2023. That move came on the heels of a visit by a Russian delegation led by Deputy Defense Minister Yunus Bek-Yevkrov, raising concerns about a burgeoning partnership between Niamey and Moscow. In January 2024, the Russian Defense Ministry released a statement confirming that Niger and Russia had agreed to develop closer military ties.

Niger’s pivot to Moscow has been slowly unfolding since a military coup toppled a nascent democratic government back in July 2023. According to one recent analysis, Niger’s junta has been “waiting for an opportunity to push US forces out of the country, as [doing so] was the prerogative for any Russian direct or indirect involvement.” Shortly after the coup, media reports alleged that Niger’s coup leaders sought assistance from the Wagner Group amid threats of a looming ECOWAS intervention. Despite his own precarious position at the time due to the June 2023 mutiny, Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin praised the coup leaders and rhetorically extended offers of Wagner’s assistance. The Russian Foreign Ministry, however, was slower to cozy up to the coup plotters.

Early analyses suggest that a key point of contention in meetings between the CNSP and US delegation was over US officials’ concerns over Niger’s relationship(s) with Russia and Iran. Researchers noted, however, the apparent contradiction in the Biden Administration’s Africa policy—one that champions African states’ rights and ability to choose their own partners but then lobbies against certain choices. In this case, early reporting suggests that US delegation warned Niger’s junta about forging closer relations with Moscow. The CNSP raised these specific points in its televised address, emphasizing the apparent contradictions and condescending attitudes from the US delegation—denying “the sovereign Nigerien people the right to choose their partners and types of partnerships capable of truly helping them fight against terrorism.”

For Niger, the shift away from the United States and apparent preference for alternative security partners is almost certainly a signal of a growing interest in aligning itself with Russia, a relationship that would most likely unfold with the arrival of forces from the Africa Corps. This may be easier said than done for Moscow given resource constraints in Ukraine and through its existing operations across Africa. However, Russia has not shied away from offering up security partnerships, even in the form of a small footprint. For instance, 1,000 Wagner forces arrived in Mali just two months before Russia invaded Ukraine, and despite the ongoing war and the Prigozhin mutiny, Moscow’s mercenaries have not gone anywhere. In addition, the Russian Ministry of Defense deployed roughly 100 personnel from the new Africa Corps to Burkina Faso in January, with promises to scale up that mission. Even a small force can put a nation firmly in Moscow’s camp and the Kremlin has aggressively pursued this strategy.

It is important to recognize Russia’s counterterrorism offer for what it is, though. Despite rhetoric that the United States and Europe have failed Niger, it is an illusion to think that the Africa Corps will fare any better. Rather, as in Mali, terrorist violence has significantly increased since the arrival of Russian Private Military Companies, not to mention the violence inflicted by the mercenaries themselves. Should Niger reach some sort of agreement that results in Africa Corps personnel in the country, Niger’s junta will be signaling a clear intention of shoring up their own security in an effort to hold on to power like those in Mali and Burkina Faso at the expense of counterterrorism overall. Moscow is keen to help them achieve this objective.

What then is the forecast for Niger? In the short and long term, a break with the United States in favor of Russia increases the potential for terror groups to use Nigerien soil for their operations. The Islamic State’s Sahel branch, for instance, appeared to increase its operational tempo as France ended its nearly decade long counterterrorism operation in the region. Additionally, the move by Niger’s leaders to break with the United States will also seriously challenge the fledgling Alliance of Sahel States—especially in the tri-border region where jihadists have benefited from porous borders and coordination challenges among the Burkinabe, Malian, and Nigerien armed forces. The nascent security partnership also lacks important aerial resources, which further complicates counterterrorism operations. Just a week after the CNSP’s decree on the legality of US troops in Niger, twenty-three Nigerien soldiers were killed conducting offensive counterterrorism operations in the tri-border area.

For the United States, Niamey’s cold shoulder creates serious questions as it erodes their footing in the Sahel. Defense officials continue to negotiate with the Nigerien junta over maintenance of some security presence despite the CNSP’s strong rhetoric on the legality of the US presence. Should the United States be unable to walk back the diplomatic hiccup and salvage some semblance of a security partnership, it will likely result in a necessary pivot toward another country to relocate intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets for counterterrorism efforts. Early reporting suggests that the United States had already been in preliminary talks with several coastal West African states—including Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, and Benin—that are under the threat of terrorism themselves.

Chad, a longtime US counterterrorism partner, also remains an option, but an upcoming election in May has seen increasingly repressive tactics by the current regime, including the killing of the head of the primary opposition party by Chadian security forces in February. Senegal and Nigeria also provide options, although both have downsides given their locations at the periphery of Sahelian conflict, domestic political problems, and stronger connections to other partners.

Looming over the entire counterterrorism approach is another key concern, Niger’s uranium. Niger is likely suffering due to France’s pivot away from its uranium supplies, which took up 75 percent of its export market in the past. Russia or Iran may provide appealing trade partners, although it is unclear whether Niger could successfully ship nuclear materials to either while evading international sanctions. But as the US delegation reportedly made clear to CNSP leadership, a uranium deal with the Iranians would be considered a red line. This clearly backfired with the junta and the United States has a mixed track record when it comes to red line rhetoric. For its part, sanctions have pushed Tehran to look for a variety of places to bolster its economy. Iran has moved quickly to establish full diplomatic relations with Niger and capitalize on the CNSP’s fractured relationship with the United States and Europe. Click here to enter text.For Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, finding alternative export markets for its uranium may prove essential for the junta’s grasp on power.

US engagement with Africa does not end with Niger. While many question the value of the US-Niger partnership, the United States will ultimately need to grapple with the second and third order effects of a potential withdrawal. Investing in more palatable regimes will be costly and carry the same risks as those in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. Ultimately, American policymakers will need a coherent strategy for engaging the democratic states in littoral West Africa in a manner that benefits all parties.

Niger faces an even tougher way forward. The junta’s choice to slam the door on the United States, whether justified or not, only increases the likelihood that terrorist groups thrive and expand while the junta and its partners adopt more extreme counterterrorism practices. Niger’s junta is clearly aware of this reality but puts self-preservation above lasting security for Nigeriens. The only question is how long they can stay in the eye of the storm.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

About the authors:

  • Raphael Parens is a 2024 Templeton Fellow and a Fellow in the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is an international security researcher focused on Europe, the Middle East, and Africa and specializes in small armed groups and NATO modernization processes.
  • Christopher M. Faulkner is an assistant professor at the US Naval War College. He researches and writes on issues related to irregular warfare, militant financing and tactics, private military and security companies (PMSCs), maritime terrorism, and civil-military relations. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US Naval War College, Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or US Government.
  • Marcel Plichta is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of St. Andrews and a former analyst at the US Department of Defense. He has written on Wagner and US-Africa policy for Foreign Policy, Newsweek, and Lawfare. All views are his own.

Source: This article was published by FPRI

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

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