Niger's future after the end of military cooperation with the US

Niger's military junta turns to Russia, Iran and Turkey after US and French withdrawal
PHOTO/AFP - Partidarios ondean banderas de Níger mientras se reúnen en apoyo de la junta de Níger frente a la Asamblea Nacional en Niamey el 30 de julio de 2023
Demonstration in support of Niger's junta in front of the National Assembly in Niamey on 30 July 2023 - PHOTO/AFP
  1. Military regime moves away from the West to consolidate its power
  2. Russian military presence increases instability in the Sahel
  3. In addition to Russia, Niger moves closer to Iran
  4. The role of the Gulf countries and Turkey
  5. Niger capitalises on Morocco-Algeria rivalry

A few weeks ago, Niger's ruling military junta announced the suspension with immediate effect of the military agreement allowing the presence of US military and civilian personnel on its territory. The coup government spokesman stopped short of demanding that US personnel leave, but stressed that their presence violates sovereignty.

Following this declaration, defence cooperation between Niger and the US is expected to end, as well as the departure of US forces from Niger, which will facilitate the deployment of Russian paramilitary personnel in the country, as has happened elsewhere in the Sahel.

Las fuerzas de seguridad de Níger se preparan para dispersar a los manifestantes pro-junta reunidos frente a la embajada francesa, en Niamey, la capital de Níger, el 30 de julio de 2023
Niger's security forces prepare to disperse pro-junta protesters gathered in front of the French embassy in Niamey, Niger's capital Niamey July 30, 2023 - REUTERS/SOULEYMANE AG ANARA

In 2023, the year of the coup d'état, there were around 1,100 US troops in Niger. Bilateral defence cooperation between Niamey and Washington includes, in particular, an agreement allowing the presence of around 1,000 US civilian and military personnel, as well as two military installations in Niger, including Air Base 201 near Agadez, which is essential for US surveillance and counter-terrorism operations in Niger and neighbouring Libya.

However, the US is not the only country in the crosshairs of Niger's new military regime. After the July 2023 uprising against democratically elected president Mohamed Bazoum, the new government immediately suspended military cooperation with France, prompting Paris to withdraw its forces in December.

France criticised Niger's coup immediately after it took place, unlike the US, which initially adopted a more cautious approach towards its leaders in the hope of retaining its military facilities in the country. Attempts to ensure a rapid transition to civilian leadership were unsuccessful, however, and US President Joe Biden's administration eventually labelled Bazoum's overthrow a coup d'état in October 2023.

PHOTO/FILE - El presidente de Estados Unidos, Joe Biden
US President Joe Biden - PHOTO/FILE

This led the US authorities to suspend all forms of non-humanitarian security cooperation, including defence. This was accompanied by France's decision to withdraw its forces from the country, which reinforced the military junta's need to develop relations with new partners such as Russia, further deteriorating relations with Washington.

These tensions came to a head during a US diplomatic trip to Niger last March. During the visit, the US delegation reiterated its demands, calling for a credible transition timetable for civilian leadership before the US resumes defence cooperation. They also warned Niamey against further cooperation with Russia and Iran.

Military regime moves away from the West to consolidate its power

Niger's military leaders cannot respond to Washington's demands without compromising their control over the country. Indeed, the military junta decided to take advantage of tensions with the West to strengthen its power and end defence cooperation in order to reinforce its image in terms of sovereignty and anti-imperialism in the eyes of the Nigerien public.

Regarding relations with Russia and Iran, it is worth noting that Niamey and Tehran have strengthened their ties in recent months. There has even been talk of a possible deal whereby Niger would supply uranium to Iran, although the logistics of this alleged deal remain in doubt, as Niger has only one major uranium mine in production, currently run by the French state-owned company Orano.

PHOTO/President of the Islamic Republic of Irán - El presidente Ebrahim Raisi y su ministro de Defensa, general Amir Hatami, recorren una exposición repleta de los principales sistemas de misiles y lanzadores espaciales
 President Ebrahim Raisi and his Minister of Defence General Amir Hatami - PHOTO/President of the Islamic Republic of Iran

In addition to strengthening ties with Iran, Niger has signed a defence protocol agreement with Russia in which both sides pledge to strengthen bilateral cooperation in the fields of defence, agriculture and energy.

All of these moves by Niger's authorities are forcing the US to withdraw its forces in the nation, which will undermine Washington's ability to monitor jihadist activity in the Sahel.

After the military junta declared the US military presence in Niger "illegal", most of the Nigerien public expects US forces to leave the country. Should this not happen and the authorities fail to deliver on their promises, it would create a political challenge, as the new regime based its legitimacy on promises to restore Niger's full sovereignty, as stated by the head of the military junta, General Abdourahamane Tchiani.

ORTN - Télé Sahel / AFP - Abdourahamane Tchiani
Abdourahamane Tchiani - ORTN - Télé Sahel / AFP 

Should the military regime allow the US to maintain some military presence in the country - there are still sections of the Nigerien army that support it - this could raise the possibility of a new coup d'état by the more anti-Western elements of the military junta.

As Tchiani prioritises the consolidation of his power, it seems likely that the US will be forced to evacuate its forces and military installations from Niger over the next year. However, it is possible that this process could be postponed, as the Biden administration is likely to continue to pressure Tchiani not to suspend defence cooperation altogether.

It is also possible that Washington will accelerate its efforts to establish a drone base in other parts of West Africa, such as Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire or Benin. While the establishment of a new drone base in one of these locations will help the US monitor potential jihadist challenges in West African coastal areas, it will not be useful for monitoring jihadist activity in the Sahel due to its geographical distance from the area.

Daesh members in Niger - AFP PHOTO/AAMAQ NEWS AGENCY

Russian military presence increases instability in the Sahel

This African region is experiencing a deployment of Russian paramilitary personnel, as well as an expansion of jihadist activity. It is possible that this is the future that awaits Niger should it suspend its defence ties with Washington.

Despite instability and violence in many Sahelian countries, Niger's junta appears to be willing to follow in the footsteps of military leaders in Mali and Burkina Faso by requesting the deployment of Russian paramilitary personnel in the country.

While such military backing could help the Niger junta consolidate its power, the arrival of Russian paramilitary personnel in the country will contribute to undermining the country's security in the medium term, as Russia's African Legion does not have the same military capabilities as the US or French armies.

In this regard, it should also be noted that Russian forces deployed in African countries have committed numerous human rights violations against civilians, which in Niger will facilitate recruitment efforts by jihadist groups such as the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic and Muslim Support Group and Daesh in the Sahel.

Despite this, Tchiani held a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the end of March in which the two leaders agreed on the 'need' to strengthen bilateral security cooperation. This conversation came shortly after the suspension of defence cooperation with the US.

Mercenarios del grupo Wagner aterrizando en Mali - PHOTO/FILE
Wagner Group mercenaries landing in Mali - PHOTO/FILE

In addition to Russia, Niger moves closer to Iran

However, Niger will also continue to develop relations with other non-Western countries in order to avoid excessive dependence on Moscow, as has happened to other countries in the region. This may boost competition among Middle Eastern and North African countries seeking closer ties with Niamey.

The deployment of Russian paramilitary personnel in Niger will allow Moscow to strengthen its influence over the junta. But the military council's domestic diplomatic and political needs will push it to further develop its relations with other nations, such as Iran.

Ali Lamine Zeine, Niger's junta-appointed prime minister, met with Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi during his official visit to Tehran in January. The Iranian leader praised Niger's "path to independence and freedom" before the two sides signed agreements to strengthen health, economic and political cooperation.

PHOTO/AFP - Varios automovilistas pasan por delante de la Asamblea Nacional en Niamey el 7 de agosto de 2023, los gobernantes militares de Níger desafiaron el lunes un ultimátum para restaurar el Gobierno electo
The National Assembly in Niamey on 7 August 2023 - PHOTO/AFP

The role of the Gulf countries and Turkey

Arab Gulf states can also play a role in gaining a stronger presence in Niger due to their fears of expanding Iranian influence in Africa. Expanding this cooperation between the Gulf states and Niger could pave the way for much-needed foreign investment in the country.

Niger will also continue to strengthen relations with Turkey, which has provided Niamey with military support before and after the July 2023 coup, in addition to funding development initiatives.

In this regard, Ankara delivered six Bayraktar TB3 drones to Niger during May 2022 and continued its efforts to train the Nigerien army after the July 2023 coup.

Niger capitalises on Morocco-Algeria rivalry

Within the continent, Morocco is expected to further strengthen its ties with Niger, as well as with Mali and Burkina Faso, especially by pushing ahead with plans to help Western Sahel countries diversify their maritime outlets through Moroccan ports.

While the Atlantic Initiative seems unlikely to be achieved in the medium term due to infrastructure problems, this project highlights the Kingdom's ambition to strengthen its position as a regional and continental leader.

These moves are likely to increase competition between Morocco and Algeria for regional leadership. Meanwhile, Niger's junta will seek to exploit this rivalry to maximise investment commitments on both sides.