Politics & News

US Out, Russia In: Changing Dynamics in Niger and Counterterrorism in Africa

Russian forces have been operating out of the same military base from which American troops operated in Niger, US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, confirmed.

This comes after Reuters reported that Russian forces were using a separate hangar at Airbase 101, which is located next to Diori Hamani International Airport in Niger’s capital, Niamey, putting US and Russian troops in close proximity.

Downplaying the Risk

During a press conference in Honolulu on Thursday, Austin confirmed that Russian troops are using the base, but said they pose little risk to American troops, downplaying the chance that Russians might use US military hardware. He said: “The Russians are in a separate compound and don’t have access to U.S. forces or access to our equipment.”

“I’m always focused on the safety and protection of our troops … But right now, I don’t see a significant issue here in terms of our force protection,” he added.

According to the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), the arrival of Russian forces occurred several weeks ago. In a statement, quoted by Stars and Stripes, Africom said that the base in Niamey includes several compounds, which were set up for visiting foreign forces, such as the French.

The statement added: “This is not a new development. However, we do continue to monitor the situation and to take all necessary and prudent measures to ensure the security of U.S. forces, facilities and equipment.”

US Out of Niger

Niger has been the centerpiece of US counterterrorism operations in West Africa and the Sahel region. It has hosted around 1,000 US military personnel, in two military air bases, Air Base 101 and Air Base 201, from where the US conducted manned and unmanned surveillance flights and other counterterrorism operations.

However, after a military coup in July 2023, Niger ordered the US troops and other Western forces to leave the country. Several African countries have asked US and its allies to move their troops out following military coups. In recent days, US troops have left Chad, while Mali and Burkina Faso kicked out the French.

After the coup in Niger, the US military moved some of its forces from Airbase 101 to Airbase 201 in the city of Agadez, but it is not clear what military equipment remained at Airbase 101.

US Out, Russia In: Changing Dynamics in Niger and Counterterrorism in Africa
Airbase 101 in Niamey

Dr. Nermeen Tawfik, an Egyptian researcher specialized in African Affairs, said that “The Biden administration’s focus was strengthening the US presence and influence in Africa, particularly West Africa given its significant geographical location and vast natural resources.”

“Due to West African nations’ desire to get rid of Western hegemony, the US presence became threatened, as was seen in Niger’s demand that US troops leave the country,” she told Leaders MENA Magazine.

Russian Efforts

Responding to reports of the deployment, the Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on Friday that Russia was “developing ties with various African countries in all areas, including in the military one,” reported the Guardian.

In recent years, Russia has been making endeavors to strengthen its relations with African nations, by offering African leaders what it calls “regime stabilization” packages through deploying its Wagner group mercenaries.

Mali has become one of Russia’s closest allies in Western Africa, relying on the Wagner mercenaries to fight insurgents in the country.

Dr. Tawfik said this recent development “reflects the ongoing competition between international powers in West Africa, which has become more evident in the past 5 years after Russia sought to be involved politically in the continent.”

She added that “Russia’s role in Africa was largely limited to economy and military ties, but recently it has sought to play a bigger and more effective role in West Africa’s politics, which has been under French control for a long time,” she added.

“Recent coups in West Africa, supported by peoples in those countries, rejected the French presence because they believed France has exploited their resources. So, Russia was the viable option to fill the vacuum,” she said.

Changing Dynamics

Reports about Russian forces operating out of US bases reflect how the competition is intensifying between the West and Russia in Africa.

US Out, Russia In: Changing Dynamics in Niger and Counterterrorism in Africa
Nigeriens protesting US military presence

“Russian troops entering US bases in Niger conveys a message to the US that Moscow will replace Western powers, especially the US and France, in West Africa. This raises chances of friction between both sides, but not militarily. These frictions will cast shadows on other issues such as Ukraine, trade, or bilateral agreements,” Dr. Tawfik noted.

“They will also be reflected in a wider superpower competition, involving the US, Russia and China, where Russia and China are seeking to end unipolarity and establish a multipolar world order,” she said.

Counterterrorism in Africa

Since 2018, Airbase 201 has been used to target Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) fighters with drone operations. The departure of US forces and the absence of intelligence capabilities raise concerns in Washington over the possible expansion of militants’ sphere of influence in the Sahel region.

“The US and French presence didn’t make a significant change in countering terrorism in West Africa. France was present from 2013 to 2023 but it failed to root out terrorism. The same is true for the US AFRICOM,” Dr. Tawfik said.

She added that when France announced its departure, “African nations in the region were concerned this would leave them facing terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda, on their own. This prompted them to strengthen their relations with Russia to fill this vacuum.”

“Russia has already forged military agreements to train national militaries, in addition to Wagner Group presence in West Africa. The coming years would tell if Russia succeeded in countering terrorism in Africa, or it is just another foreign actor and the people of those countries would pay the price,” she said.

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