Niger

U.S. threats led to rupture of vital military ties, Nigerien leader says

Author: Editors Desk, Rachel Chason Source: The Washington Post
May 14, 2024 at 06:05
Demonstrators in Agadez, Niger, last month demand the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country. (Issifou Djibo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
Demonstrators in Agadez, Niger, last month demand the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country. (Issifou Djibo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

NIAMEY, Niger — A crucial military relationship between the United States and its closest West African ally, the country of Niger, ruptured this spring after a visiting U.S. official made threats during last-ditch negotiations over whether American troops based there would be allowed to remain, according to the country’s prime minister.

 
 

In an exclusive interview, Prime Minister Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine put the blame for the breakdown squarely on the United States, accusing American officials of trying to dictate which countries Niger could partner with and failing to justify the U.S. troop presence, now scheduled to end in the coming months. Niger has been central to efforts to contain a growing Islamist insurgency in West Africa.

The rift between the former allies has created an opportunity for Russia, which has moved quickly to deepen its relationship with Niger, dispatching troops to the capital, Niamey, last month to train the Nigerien military and supplying a new air defense system. Russian and U.S. troops now occupy opposite ends of an air base.

After a military coup d’état ousted Niger’s democratically elected president last year, the United States froze security support as required by U.S. law and paused counterterrorism activities, which had involved intelligence gathering on regional militant activities from a massive drone base in the country’s north. The United States has kept more than 1,000 military personnel in place while negotiating with Niger over their status and urging the junta to begin restoring democracy.

“The Americans stayed on our soil, doing nothing while the terrorists killed people and burned towns,” Zeine said. “It is not a sign of friendship to come on our soil but let the terrorists attack us. We have seen what the United States will do to defend its allies, because we have seen Ukraine and Israel.”

 

 

Prime Minister Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine in Niger's capital, Niamey, in December. (Balima Boureima/Anadolu/Getty Images)

 

Niger’s insistence that American troops depart culminated in the U.S. announcement last month that it would withdraw them. The pullout, which two U.S. officials said would begin in coming months, represents a significant setback for the Biden administration and will force it to reconfigure its strategy for countering Islamist extremists in the volatile Sahel region.

Though tense discussions between U.S. and Nigerien officials have been previously reported, Zeine’s remarks revealed the extent of the disconnect between the two countries. While the Americans were pressing their counterparts over democracy and their relations with other countries, Niger was asking for additional military equipment and what it considered a more equitable relationship between the two forces, according to his account. He also revealed just how exasperated the Nigeriens had become with the United States.

Relations with the United States have been strained since the junta took power, appointing Zeine, an economist, as prime minister two weeks later. The U.S. government condemned the coup and called for the release of President Mohamed Bazoum, who was put under house arrest.

Zeine said leaders of Niger’s new government, known as the National Council for Safeguarding the Homeland, or by its French initials CNSP, were bewildered that the United States had frozen military support while insisting on keeping the troops in the country without justifying their continued presence. The American response in the wake of Niger’s coup contrasted sharply with that of other nations, including Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, he said, which have welcomed the new Nigerien leaders with “open arms.”

He said the Nigerien leaders took particular umbrage at remarks by Molly Phee, the State Department’s top official for African affairs, who he said had urged the government during a March visit to Niamey to refrain from engaging with Iran and Russia in ways objectionable to Washington if Niger wanted to continue its security relationship with the United States. He also said Phee had further threatened sanctions if Niger pursued a deal to sell uranium to Iran.

“When she finished, I said, ‘Madame, I am going to summarize in two points what you have said,’” recounted Zeine, who has led negotiations with the United States. “First, you have come here to threaten us in our country. That is unacceptable. And you have come here to tell us with whom we can have relationships, which is also unacceptable. And you have done it all with a condescending tone and a lack of respect.”

 

A protest in Niamey last month to demand that American soldiers leave Niger. (AFP/Getty Images)

 

In response to Zeine’s comments, a U.S. official said: “The message to the CNSP in March was a coordinated U.S. government position, delivered in a professional manner, in response to valid concerns about developments in Niger. The CNSP was presented with a choice, not an ultimatum, about whether they wished to continue their partnership with us, respectful of our democratic values and national security interests.

“In the coming months, we will work with the CNSP to draw down U.S. forces in an orderly fashion and ultimately reposition them elsewhere, consistent with U.S. security interests,” added the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Since 2012, the United States has maintained a military presence in Niger, with most U.S. personnel stationed at the Agadez drone base, which cost about $110 million to build. That base has been “impactful” for counterterrorism efforts across the region, said Gen. Michael E. Langley, who heads U.S. military operations in Africa. In an interview earlier this year, Langley warned that the U.S. losing its footprint in Niger would “degrade our ability to do active watching and warning, including for homeland defense.”

Before ­­­the July 26 coup, in which Bazoum was ousted by the head of his presidential guard, Abdourahmane Tchiani, U.S. soldiers were providing training, intelligence and equipment to Nigerien troops. After the coup, activities were limited to those needed to ensure the safety of American troops.

 

American and Nigerien flags fly side by side at the base camp for personnel supporting the construction of an air base in Agadez, Niger, in 2018. (Carley Petesch/AP)

 

Zeine said his attempts to meet with officials in Washington were rebuffed for months. He said Salifou Modi, a former army chief now serving as vice president, drafted a new status-of-forces agreement to govern the presence of U.S. troops, but it was rejected. Still, he said, Nigerien officials had remained hopeful that the United States might provide more assistance to respond to extremist attacks, which spiked following the coup.

Shortly after the coup, Niger’s new government directed more than 1,500 French soldiers who had been stationed in Niger to leave but left open the possibility that the Americans could remain.

When Phee first arrived in Niger in December, Zeine said, he showed her photographs of Nigeriens waving American flags during protests against France, Niger’s former colonial power. While protesters set fires and smashed windows at the French Embassy, he noted, they left the U.S. Embassy untouched.

“Nigeriens were saying, ‘Americans are our friends, they will help us this time to annihilate the terrorists,’” said Zeine. “But there was radio silence.” He added that Niger would have not looked to Russia and other countries for help if the United States had responded to requests for more support, including for planes, drones and an air defense system.

Phee said in a previous interview that American officials “made the choice as stark and clear” as they could during the December meeting, emphasizing that U.S. assistance would remain suspended until Niger set a timeline for restoring democracy.

When Phee returned to Niamey in March, Zeine said, he asked Modi whether he knew how many Americans were in the country and what exactly they were doing. “He said ‘No,’” said Zeine, who recalled turning back to Phee and asking, “Can you imagine the same thing happening in the United States?”

 

Boys on top of a car display the flags of Niger, Burkina Faso and Russia during a protest for the immediate departure of U.S. soldiers in Niamey last month. (AFP/Getty Images)

 

That visit proved a turning point, he said, in large part because Phee, in hour-long opening remarks, accused the Nigerien government of reaching an agreement to sell uranium mined in Niger to Iran, which could use it for its nuclear program. He called the allegation untrue. Zeine, who was received by President Ebrahim Raisi and other senior Iranian officials in Tehran in January, said that “absolutely nothing” has been signed with Iran, adding that if a deal had been signed, it would have “not been under the table … but in front of cameras.”

He accused the United States of using the same tactics employed by George W. Bush’s administration before the invasion of Iraq in citing later-discredited intelligence information saying Saddam Hussein’s government had tried to buy uranium from Niger to use in a nuclear weapons program.

A few days after the March meeting, a junta spokesman appeared on Nigerien state television declaring the American military presence illegal. Behind the scenes, U.S. officials continued negotiating, seeking to determine what, if any, security relationship could continue.

But concern mounted last month, when a senior U.S. Air Force leader at the base in Niger alleged that the troops there had been left in limbo and put at risk. When Zeine traveled to Washington last month, he met again with Phee and Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who promised Zeine that the United States would withdraw.

Although Niger is insisting that the U.S. military leave, Zeine said that his government wants to continue economic and diplomatic relations with the United States and that “no Nigerien considers the United States as the enemy.” He said he told Phee and Campbell that Niger would rather have American investors than soldiers.

“If American investors arrived, we would give them what they wanted,” he recounted telling the States Department officials. “We have uranium. We have oil. We have lithium. Come, invest. It is all we want.”

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