How the United States Lost Niger

When senior U.S. officials descended on Niger’s capital city, Niamey, recently, they had little idea that the sands of the Sahara were shifting under their feet. The trip—the highest-level visit to the country since Niger’s military leaders overthrew Washington’s preferred ally in the region last July—was intended as a last-ditch attempt to salvage a security relationship that would allow Washington to continue operating a drone base in the country despite suspending military aid to Niger’s new coup government.

But after three days of waiting, the delegation left without having met the country’s military commander, Gen. Abdourahamane Tchiani. A day later, a junta spokesperson announced the termination of the military partnership that Washington had come to secure.

Over the last decade, the United States has spent nearly $1 billion in Niger, helping to provide a vast range of assistance to deliver clean water and health care; counter the pernicious effects of climate change; and train and equip a beleaguered army against the highest concentration of jihadi attacks in the world.

However, it turns out, in a world of rapidly changing power dynamics, Washington’s development aid counted for little. In this new multipolar world, it seems that the United States, still arguably the richest and most powerful country in the world, needs Niger, one of the world’s poorest and weakest countries, more than Niger needs it.

Washington’s interest in Niger, and other Sahel states, emerged in the months after the 9/11 attacks when it saw the region’s vast, sparsely populated desert and porous borders as an ideal incubator for new terrorist groups. Launching the Pan Sahel Initiative in 2002, Washington found in Niger a willing partner to help “in detecting and responding to suspicious movement of people and goods across and within their borders.”

By 2013, President Barack Obama had authorized the first 100 U.S. troops in Niger for intelligence collection. By 2016, with the region still reeling from the collapse of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime in Libya, the United States doubled down on its presence by announcing the construction of a drone base in the country’s northern city of Agadez, where more than 1,000 U.S. troops would eventually come to be based.

Initially, Niger was concerned that such a sizable and public U.S. presence would have the opposite effect on its security and that it would instead attract even more terrorist groups. But after five years of operations, Niger was experiencing fewer terrorist attacks as compared with neighboring Mali or Burkina Faso—making the decision to end more than 20 years of counterterrorism cooperation all the more jarring.

Part of Niamey’s explanation for abrogating its military accord with Washington, according to a junta spokesperson, was U.S. officials’ “condescending” attitude, as well as an assertion of Niger’s “sovereign” right in deciding its partners. As valid as those arguments might be, they are also a convenient cover for the junta to duck Washington’s leading demands: Niger’s return to civilian, democratic rule and the release of ousted President Mohamed Bazoum.

However, there is no longer patience for promises—such as Washington’s pledge to restart military assistance and development aid worth more than $260 million annually, suspended in the wake of last July’s coup—only if Niger embarks on a path to restoring civilian rule.

With alternatives for security assistance and investors that come with no lectures on democracy, African countries have increasingly low tolerance for even perceived slights. In only two weeks since announcing the end of security ties with Washington, Niamey has hosted a delegation of Chinese oil executives seeking to expand mining operations there; spoken directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin about strengthening security ties; and received the Iranian ambassador to finalize the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with Tehran, which is reportedly eyeing investments in the country’s uranium sector.

The expectation that Niger, or any country, would willingly allow the United States to operate an intelligence collection platform on its soil for Washington’s sole benefit—sharing none of the intelligence with a host that is itself battling the same violent extremist organizations—is indeed condescending. That such a senior delegation thought it reasonable to even make the request while Russian military advisors fan out across the region and others scramble to make long-term investments suggests a U.S. approach that is wildly out of touch with the geopolitical moment, ignorant of historical context and lacking in self-awareness.

The same can be said for the French next door in Chad, where Paris has claimed a permanent troop presence, with great pride, since 1899. Recently expelled from Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, France sent an emissary to meet Chad’s hereditary autocrat, fresh off the assassination of his cousin and principal rival in the upcoming presidential election, in a bid to extend the lease on Paris’s last remaining military outpost in the Sahel.

With fawning “admiration” for Chad’s stated transition to democratic rule, France also showed that it needs Chad far more than Chad needs it. But Paris has long subordinated its values to its interests in Africa, willing to endorse whatever regime is willing to countenance France’s presence.

But while France has a more complicated legacy with its former colonies, the United States today finds itself viewed through a similar lens. Many African leaders see their countries as victims of the post-World War II order. In their view, Washington uses international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to advance its interests while imposing painful conditionalities on African countries. Russian propaganda efforts today only underscore this view.

Similarly, Washington’s longtime support for African strongmen, from Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko to Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang—as well as its willingness to topple those opposed to its interests, as in the 2011 NATO war against Qaddafi—has hurt Washington’s credibility with African partners that it now tries to sell on an agenda of shared values. Unlike its European allies, Washington might not have carved up the continent more than a century ago, but its relentless pursuit of its own interests over time has left it with a reputation as perhaps the world’s premier neocolonial power.

The irony, of course, is that many officials have seen this moment coming for some time. The Biden administration’s 2022 Africa strategy promised that no longer would the continent be relegated to a second-tier concern where U.S. policies “inadvertently treat sub-Saharan Africa as a world apart.” For his part, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has acknowledged that “too many times, the countries of Africa have been treated as junior partners—or worse—rather than equal ones.” Though these are important sentiments, they still lack any tangible resolve.

Another argument the United States has made is that it does not want to limit African partnerships with other countries. “We don’t want to make you choose. We want to give you choices,” Blinken said in a 2021 speech. However, alongside that sentiment, the United States has continued to privately lobby African countries such as Niger and the Central African Republic to abandon security ties with Moscow in exchange for caveated commitments from Washington.

That gap between rhetoric and reality is what sent U.S. officials packing from Niamey and what will see Washington continue to lose ground as new suitors come to Africa in search of a military footprint, strategic minerals, and political partnerships.

Instead of just giving countries choices, Washington should focus on making more attractive offers than its competitors. Rather than selling countries on shared values, Washington would do well to engage them around shared interests, too—they are not mutually exclusive (as France’s model has been). If the Biden administration is truly in search of what it now calls “21st-century partnerships,” based on a relationship of equals, then it must be prepared to also accommodate Africa’s vision of what those partnerships will look like.

For Angolan President João Lourenço, that has meant announcing a multibillion-dollar infrastructure investment from the White House last November and less than four months later concluding an official visit to Beijing to negotiate industrial investments and loan agreements. In Niger’s case, such a partnership might ultimately see Washington providing intelligence to counter a jihadi threat to a military that is also working alongside Russian forces while focusing its democratic assistance not on the country’s government sector but instead on its beleaguered civil society.

Some of those partnerships may cross a red line for both U.S. values and interests—but so too might pulling out or getting kicked out of these same countries. In a region that now is defined as the epicenter of global terrorism, Washington is on the back foot, increasingly blind to the plans of jihadi groups and dangerously low on the goodwill required to maintain a foothold there, imperiling its vital strategic interests.

In an era of enhanced geopolitical competition, African countries have become newly empowered by their abundant choices that are upending traditional power dynamics. Either Washington accepts this new reality and finds a way to truly engage these countries as equals, as it says it intends, or else it will continue to see both its values and interests diminished on an increasingly strategic continent.

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