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Why has Niger declared US military presence in its territory illegal?

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A Boeing C-17 Globemaster III takes off June 19, 2021, at Air Base 201 in Niger. Only months after forcing its former coloniser France to withdraw its troops, Niger, West Africa’s largest country, has said the presence of US troops is illegal. This could be a major blow to the US military’s power-projection capacity in the region. Picture: Airman 1st Class Jan K Valle / US Air Force / Wikimedia

By Pavan Kulkarni

Niger declared the US military deployment in its territory “illegal” on Saturday, March 16, after a US delegation allegedly threatened “retaliation” against the largest country in West Africa for its ties with Russia and Iran.

Confronted with the prospect of losing three strategically crucial military bases, including one of the world’s largest drone bases in the central Nigerien city of Agadez on which it has spent a quarter billion dollars, the US is yet to give a statement in response. A press conference that was scheduled on Sunday at the US embassy in Niger’s capital Niamey — outside which protesters had gathered on Saturday to denounce American interference — was cancelled.

“We are in touch” with Niger’s government “and will provide further updates as warranted”, is all that the US State Department’s spokesperson, Matthew Miller, has been able to muster so far in response, via a post on his X account.

The lack of response well over three days after its military presence was declared illegal betrays a state of surprise over this action of Niger’s transitional military government, the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP).

In December, Niger’s former coloniser France was forced to withdraw all its troops from the country. This followed an order by the CNSP, which was formed in late-July 2023 after the ouster of the then president, Mohamed Bazoum.

Mass demonstrations welcomed the military coup against Bazoum, who had reinforced his domestic image as a French puppet by cracking down on protests demanding the withdrawal of the French troops.

General Abdourahamane Tchiani, the then chief of the Presidential guard who had led the coup, went on to form the CNSP with popular support including from the trade unions and the protest movement against French presence.

France initially refused to comply when the CNSP terminated Niger’s military agreements with it in August and ordered the withdrawal of its troops. However, after a tense standoff for over a month, during which increasingly angry protests became an almost daily feature outside the French base and its embassy, France stood down in September, and withdrew its troops by December. The smaller deployments of other EU countries also withdrew on the heels of France.

France’s attempt to mobilise the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) into a war against Niger failed to materialise. Its has left the bloc in an existential crisis, facing the prospect of losing half of its land area after Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger announced their withdrawal in January 2024.

Distancing itself from the tensions in the capital city during the stand-off with France, the US, which had about 1,100 troops in Niger at the time, repositioned some of its assets and troops from Airbase 101 in Niamey over 900 kilometres (km) away to Airbase 201 in Agadez in September.

US ‘invested hundreds of millions of dollars into bases’

Sprawling over an area of 25 km², Airbase 201, operational since 2019, is the largest ever construction undertaken by the US Air Force at a cost of US$ 110 million. Its maintenance costs approximately US$ 30 million annually. Since the start of construction in 2016, the US has spent US$ 250 million on this base, The Intercept reported last September.

With C17 transport planes and a fleet of drones including unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) such as the MQ-9 Reaper, it is the second largest US base in Africa after the one in Djibouti.

Soon after the ouster of Bazoum, the US had readied a contingency plan to evacuate this base. However, “the goal is to stay” in both the bases — in Niamey as well as in Agadez — General James Hecker, USAF commander for Europe and Africa, had explained in August.

Apart from the Pentagon-run airbase 101 in Niger’s southwest and 201 in its central region, the CIA has also been running another base further to the northeast in the small oasis town of Dirkou. The existence of such a base was a secret until it was exposed in 2018.

“All I know is they’re American,” a tight-lipped Bazoum, who was the interior minister of the regime in 2018, had told New York Times when asked about this base. “It’s always good. If people see things like that, they’ll be scared,” Boubakar Jerome, the then mayor of the town with a population of a few thousands added in his comment, casually betraying how the regime entertained foreign military presence to keep its own population in fear.

When this regime was ousted in July 2023, with Bazoum at its helm as the President since 2021, much was at stake for the US. Until October, it had not even declared his removal and the takeover by the CNSP as a ‘coup’, because “we don’t want to see that partnership go”, the US Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh told a press conference in August. “We’ve invested, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars into bases there.”

Barely two months after it finally designated the CNSP’s takeover as a coup in October, which kicked in laws restricting aid and military support to Niger, Molly Phee, the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, offered to restore both to Niger.

After meeting with the CNSP-appointed ministers in December, by when the size of US deployment was reduced from 1,100 to 648, Phee told a press conference, “I have made clear to the CNSP that we want to be a good partner again, but the CNSP has to be a good partner to the United States.”

Niger, it seemed, was not particularly keen on the US partnership. Like in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, the presence of Western troops in Niger for nearly a decade only saw an increase in the spread of violence by Islamist insurgencies they were ostensibly deployed to fight, after spawning them across the Sahel by destroying Libya in 2011.

The West continues to pressure the transitional military governments in these countries to hold elections. However, the reality on the ground is that the majority of the people will be left out of the voting process because these states have lost control of vast territories to insurgencies over the last decade under the security ambit of the Western troops. France is even accused of providing support to these very groups after being ordered out of these countries.

Under the circumstances, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger — which came together to form the Alliance of Sahel States (AES) last September — are exploring alternative security relations, including with Russia.

It is a very popular idea, evidenced in the frequent occasions during the anti-French protests when Russian flags were waived with the Nigerien tricolor, often alongside the flags of other BRICS countries.

However, Molly Phee, who flew back to Niger on March 12 with a delegation including Michael Langley, the commander general of US Africa Command (AFRICOM), allegedly threatened “retaliation” against Niger in a meeting with the CNSP-appointed ministers.

To justify this threat of aggression, Phee also falsely accused Niger of entering into a secret agreement with Iran to supply it with Uranium, the CNSP spokesperson, Colonel Major Amadou Abdramane said in a speech televised on Saturday.

“It is widely known that the exploitation of Niger’s Uranium is completely controlled by France,” he said, condemning Phee’s accusation as a lie “reminiscent” of the weapons-of-mass destruction claim peddled ahead of the Iraq war. “The international community still remembers the false evidence brandished by” the US “before the Security Council to justify American aggression” on Iraq, he added.

‘US had unilaterally imposed its military on Niger’

Reiterating that Niger deals with Russia “state-to-state, in accordance with the military co-operation agreements signed with the previous government”, Abdramane went on to insist that it is the presence of the US troops and bases in Niger that is “illegal”.

“[T]hrough a simple verbal note (in 2012) … the American side unilaterally imposed on Niger an agreement on the status of United States personnel and civilian employees of the American Department of Defence,” he said.

Describing this agreement as “profoundly unfair” and against “the aspirations and interests of the Nigerien people”, he announced that this agreement stands revoked “with immediate effect”.

Pavan Kulkarni is a journalist and an author at Peoples Dispatch

This article was first published on Peoples Dispatch