BY CARA ANNA
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinkin, left, with Nigerien President Mohammed Bazoum during their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Niamey, Niger, March 16, 2023. Image: Boureima Hama/Pool Photo via AP
More than 1,000 U.S. service personnel are in Niger, which until Wednesday’s coup by mutinous soldiers had avoided the military takeovers that destabilized West African neighbors in recent years.
The country had been seen as the last major partner standing against extremism in a Francophone region where anti-French sentiment had opened the way for the Russian private military group Wagner.
Various Islamic extremist groups are active around Niger, which isn’t to be confused with Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. Niger lies just to the north, part of the sprawling region directly below the Sahara Desert that for years has faced a growing threat from various groups of Islamic extremists.
Here’s what to know:
What does this mean for regional security?
Signaling Niger’s importance in the region where Wagner also operates, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited in March to strengthen ties and announce $150 million in direct assistance, calling the country “a model of democracy.”
Now a critical question is whether Niger might pivot and engage Wagner as a counterterrorism partner like its neighbors Mali and Burkina Faso, which have kicked out French forces. France shifted more than 1,000 personnel to Niger after pulling out of Mali last year.
Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said in a statement Thursday that “what happened in Niger is the fight of its people against the colonizers. ... It effectively means winning independence. The rest will depend on the people of Niger.”
Hundreds of people gathered on Thursday in Niger’s capital, Niamey, and chanted support for Wagner while waving Russian flags.
Niger’s government had been “pretty open in terms of dialogue and engaging both domestically and with international partners,” said Paul Melly, a consulting fellow with the Africa program at the Chatham House think tank in London. “So quite a lot is at stake here.”
Niger has been a base of international military operations for years as Islamic extremists have greatly expanded their reach in the Sahel. Those include Boko Haram in neighboring Nigeria and Chad, but the more immediate threat comes from growing activity in Niger’s border areas with Mali and Burkina Faso from the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and the al-Qaida affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, known as JNIM.
Meanwhile, Niger’s military expenditures reached $202 million in 2021.
What about counterterrorism efforts?
U.S. partners battling extremists in the Sahel are dwindling. Notably, Mali’s military junta last month ordered the 15,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping mission to leave, claiming they had failed in their mission. However, Wagner forces remain there, accused by watchdogs of human rights atrocities.
The United States in early 2021 said it had provided Niger with more than $500 million in military assistance and training programs since 2012, one of the largest such support programs in sub-Saharan Africa. The European Union earlier this year launched a 27 million-euro ($30 million) military training mission in Niger.
The U.S. has operated drones out of a base it constructed in Niger’s remote north as part of counterterrorism efforts in the vast Sahel. The fate of that base and other U.S. operational sites in the country after this week’s coup isn’t immediately known.
“It is too soon to speculate on any potential future actions or activities,” a spokesman with the U.S. Africa Command, John Manley, said in an email. He said approximately 1,100 U.S. personnel are in Niger.
Niger was the site of one of the deadliest encounters for U.S. forces in Africa in recent years, an ambush by extremists in 2017 that left four soldiers dead. The attack again raised questions by some critics in Washington about why the U.S. would be involved on the continent.
How deadly is extremism in the region?
Observers say West Africa’s Sahel region has become one of the world’s deadliest regions for extremism. West Africa recorded over 1,800 extremist attacks in the first six months of this year, resulting in nearly 4,600 deaths, a top regional official told the United Nations Security Council this week.
Most of those deaths occurred in Burkina Faso and Mali, while just 77 occurred in Niger, said the official, Omar Touray, the president of the ECOWAS Commission, the executive arm of the West African economic bloc. Observers have warned that the extremist threat is also expanding south toward states like Ghana and Ivory Coast.
The coup in Niger brings yet more insecurity. “We are witnessing that the whole belt south of the Sahara is becoming an extremely problematic area,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said.
Niger is one of the world’s poorest countries, struggling with climate change along with migrants from across West Africa trying to make their way across the Sahara en route toward Europe. It has received millions of euros of investment from the EU in its efforts to curb migration via smugglers.
Danica Kirka in London and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.