Supporters of the military takeover with a Russian flag in Niamey, Niger’s capital, in July. (Photo: Associated Press - Sam Mednick)

A critical US partner in northwest Africa is turning toward Russia amid warnings from the top US commander in the continent that the Russians are trying to “take over” the entire Sahel region of Africa.

Niger, which has served as a crucial foothold for US counterterrorism operations in the region for nearly a decade, announced Saturday that it was ending the accord that has allowed US military personnel and civilian staff to operate in the country since 2014.

The announcement came days after a tense meeting between Niger’s military junta, which seized power in a July 2023 coup, and US diplomatic and military officials including Gen. Michael Langley, commander of US Africa Command, and Celeste Wallander, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, defense officials told CNN. In that meeting, the US delegation expressed concern about the escalating Russian military presence in Niger, officials said, and particularly about the future of Air Base 101 in Niger’s capital and whether it will be ceded to the Russians, officials said.

The discussion angered the junta leaders, who felt like they were being lectured to, despite the US cutting off much of its military and foreign assistance to Niger late last year following the coup.

“When it comes to choosing diplomatic, strategic and military partners, the government of Niger regrets the willingness of the American delegation to deny the sovereign people of Niger the right to choose its partners and the types of partnerships likely to help it to truly fight terrorism, even though the United States of America has unilaterally decided to suspend all cooperation between our two countries,” Col. Maj. Amadou Abdramane, a Nigerien military spokesman, said in a statement Saturday, adding that the US delegation had a “condescending attitude” toward the Nigeriens.

The intensifying military cooperation between Russia and Niger is central to the dispute between the US and the Nigerien junta, officials said. Russia and Niger agreed to strengthen their military ties in January, Russia’s Defense Ministry said at the time.

Still, while US counterterrorism operations and training with the Nigerien military largely paused after the coup, the junta did not ask the US to leave, even after kicking out French troops and cutting remaining ties with the EU in late 2023.

Several of the junta leaders have worked with and been trained by the US as part of the US’ security cooperation with the country over the years. And the Pentagon has been eager to keep a force presence in the country, with many administration officials believing it is vital to efforts to tackle terrorism in the region and arguing that it’s feasible even amid the political turmoil there.

Now, however, there is concern among US military officials that with Russia’s increasing presence in Niger, the Kremlin has established another foothold in the Sahel region and the West is losing its influence, a military source with knowledge of the situation said.

Langley, the AFRICOM commander, told lawmakers this month that the US has been “drowned out” by Russian disinformation across Africa in previous years, leading to Russia’s success in stoking “a lot of the instability across the Sahel.”

He added that both Russia and China “want that ground. They want power projection capabilities. … But I think at [an] accelerated pace, the Russian Federation is really trying to take over Central Africa as well as the Sahel.”

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Saturday that the US remains in touch with the junta, which calls itself the National Council for Safeguarding the Homeland, or CNSP.

“We are aware of the statement from the CNSP in Niger, which follows frank discussions at senior levels in Niamey this week about our concerns with the CNSP’s trajectory,” Miller said in a statement. “We are in touch with the CNSP and will provide further updates as warranted.”

It is not yet clear whether the military junta in Niger will actually force the US military to leave the country, where US forces have conducted anti-terror operations and trained the Nigerien military since 2014.

If the US were forced to withdraw, counterterrorism efforts across the region could take a hit, officials said. US drone flights out of an air base in Agadez, Niger, have given the US the ability to monitor threats in the Sahel region from a relatively close and stable position, especially as violent terror organizations have carried out a growing number of attacks in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso.

Officials are also concerned that withdrawing the approximately 650 US troops stationed in Niger could leave a vacuum that Islamist militants and Russian mercenaries, including what’s left of the Wagner Group, would try to exploit.

Russia has kept its sights on Niger as the US-Nigerien relationship has deteriorated. In December, the Kremlin reopened its embassy in neighboring Burkina Faso, positioning itself closer to the capital of Niger, and it has increased its effort to court Niger’s military junta, a senior intelligence official told CNN.

Part of the appeal for Niger is that Russia can offer to sell its own weapons and equipment without the same conditions to respect human rights and abide by international law that the US calls for, the official said. And, for a country looking for an immediate supply of military hardware, Russia is able to sell its weapons much faster than the United States. In return, Russia is profiting off the region’s natural resources, another official said, including the gold mines in Niger.

Abdramane, the Nigerien military spokesman, said Saturday that Russia “is a partner with which Niger deals on a state-to-state basis, in accordance with military cooperation agreements signed with the previous government, to acquire military equipment necessary to its fight against the terrorists who have claimed thousands of innocent Nigerian victims under the indifferent eye of much of the international community.”

The US-Nigerien relationship has gone downhill quickly. Late last year, the US believed the junta government was in a “better place,” according to the senior intelligence official, and was refocusing on countering the rise of violent extremist organizations in Western Africa. The groups include ISIS-Sahel and Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam Wal-Musliminim, more commonly known as JNIM, a radical Islamist organization operating in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.

A reduction in US surveillance missions in the region following the coup in Niger gave ISIS-Sahel and JNIM an opportunity to expand, the official said. But even with cooperation between the US and Niger reduced, the US military’s goal remained the same: to provide support to counter the spread of extremist organizations. Several European countries shared this goal, offering a measure of support to the junta, the official noted.

But with Russia exerting more pressure and the US limited in what it can provide to Niger by law because of the coup designation, the Nigerien government has been cracking down even harder on the remaining Western military presence in the country, the sources said. US operations in the country require stricter Nigerien oversight and approval, even as the Russian presence in the country has grown increasingly visible.

“Northwest Africa is getting carved up in real time by half a dozen or more countries,” one of the officials said, “and the United States is losing its foothold.”

Source: CNN By Natasha Bertrand, Oren Liebermann and CNN staff, CNN

 

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