25 May 2024
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For boosters of U.S. security interests in Africa, the past few days carried grim tidings. At the end of last week, the United States informed the coup-plotting leadership of Niger that it would comply with its request to withdraw U.S. forces from the country, which had been operating in a counterterrorism role there for more than half a decade. Around the same time, reports emerged that authorities in Chad had sent a letter this month to the U.S. defense attaché based there, ordering the United States to cease activities at a base that also accommodates French troops.

The potential withdrawal of a detachment of U.S. Special Forces based in Chad would mark yet another blow for the Western security presence in the Sahel — the vast arid region that stretches below the Sahara desert that has seen a wave of coups in recent years toppling fragile Central and West African governments. Chad is slated to stage elections in May, and the orders to the United States may amount to a bit of nationalist preening by the country’s vulnerable interim leadership.

But elsewhere, the writing on the wall is more stark. Successive coup-plotting regimes in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have ousted weak civilian-led governments; angrily railed against the presence of the former colonial power, France; and turned toward Russia and China for support. Before the coup last year, Niger was seen by Western diplomats as something of a democratic bulwark in a region where juntas and radical Islamist insurgencies were gaining ground. Now its regime has pivoted the impoverished country firmly away from the West, booting out French troops before it moved to end the significant U.S. footprint in the country’s desert uplands.

“The agreement will spell the end of a U.S. troop presence that totaled more than 1,000 and throw into question the status of a $110 million U.S. air base that is only six years old,” my colleagues reported. “It is the culmination of a military coup last year that ousted the country’s democratically elected government and installed a junta that declared America’s military presence there ‘illegal.’”

Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso announced Jan. 28 that they were leaving the Economic Community of West African States, due to foreign interference. (Video: Reuters)

The U.S. exit in Niger follows the arrival of a detachment of Russian military trainers in the country this month. Le Monde sketched what had preceded this deployment of some 100 officers of the Africa Corps, the rebranded Russian paramilitary successor to the mercenary Wagner organization, which had a broad, murky presence in Africa before disbanding late last year.

“Their official mission was to train Niger’s army, particularly in the use of a Russian-supplied anti-aircraft defense system,” the French newspaper noted. “Three months earlier, Niger’s PM had flown to Tehran to outline plans for closer cooperation with Iran, without providing any details of the nature of the envisioned contracts. This was a clear cause for concern for Western countries, particularly the U.S.”

The developments are “a blow to Western counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel and Libya,” Ulf Laessing, head of the Sahel program at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a German think tank, told me. “Perhaps even worse, a U.S. pullout will further open the door for an expansion of Russia and Iran in the Sahel.”

A mess of geopolitical intrigue courses through the region. “Like Libya, this part of Africa has become a playground for foreign powers, not least Russia, which provides security for coup regimes and orchestrates massive disinformation campaigns leading to the ousting of Western forces,” an editorial in Le Monde observed. “This is a major trend, of which Americans and Europeans have too belatedly become aware of its cost, without knowing how to respond.”

The Wall Street Journal was more blunt in its own editorial: “In the new era of great power competition, Africa is one place where the U.S. is losing.”

China, less conspicuous than the opportunistic Kremlin, has steadily shouldered its way into Niger. The country’s junta announced this week that a Chinese state oil company had made an advance $400 million payment for crude purchases from Niger’s Agadem field. The deal, structured with further interest payments to the Chinese company, would help Niger’s cash-strapped government reckon with mounting domestic debts.

Some Nigeriens who spoke to my colleagues in the capital of Niamey see the junta exercising a new kind of sovereignty after years of overweening French interest. “Why is it a problem for the Americans and France that the Russians are helping us?” Abdoulaye Oussein, 51, said. “I think we’re free to make our own choices.”

New polling from Gallup sees strong approval for Russia and China in many parts of the Sahel. “Last year, China recorded its highest approval rating in Africa in over a decade,” Julie Ray, managing editor for world news at Gallup, told me. “It picked up substantial support in countries in Western Africa — which helped nudge it ahead of the U.S. by two percentage points.”

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, it lost significant support across the continent. But, Ray added, “Moscow’s image has recovered since then,” especially in the Sahel, where it scored high approval ratings in Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad.

“Washington was seen in the region as a credible partner without the colonial baggage of France, which is on its way out in the region,” Laessing, who is based in Bamako, Mali’s capital, told me. But U.S. messaging to West African governments may have not been particularly effective, and U.S. officials have been faulted for perhaps bullying their African counterparts in private.

“Washington has a lack of self-awareness about how it is coming across,” Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told my colleagues this month. “They have made Russia the boogeyman in all of this, like what the French have done, but that is a way to deflect responsibility and to avoid any kind of introspection about the policies the U.S. has pursued.”

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