Russia extends Africa ambition to Niger as junta pushes USFri, 22 Mar 2024 12:58:50 GMT

Moscow is vying for greater influence in Niger as the military junta moves to push out the United States, Russia’s latest swoop in the region as the West’s military presence thins.The Niger military announced at the weekend it was breaking off an agreement with the United States “with immediate effect”, although the consequences remain unclear.Niger had been a frontline partner of the West in a fight against jihadists in the Sahel region of Africa. But like military-run neighbours Mali and Burkina Faso, Niger has pursued relations with Russia since the junta seized power.The July 2023 ousting of elected President Mohamed Bazoum by the military has already forced French troops to leave and Paris to drastically rethink its strategy for the region.”Russia has been working to facilitate a closer military relationship with Niger since the coup,” US Naval War College professor Christopher Faulkner told AFP.”I anticipate some type of deal is on the horizon,” Faulkner said. Moscow’s move “illustrates the value Moscow is placing on its influence in Africa”, he added.- ‘Conduct deals’ -Several foreign sources, who asked not to be named, told AFP there was no unanimity within the junta about an alliance with Moscow.But Niger’s foreign policy has been shifting away from Western allies since the junta’s decision to cut off cooperation with France.The last French soldiers left the country in December, but some 1,000 US troops remain, manning a $100 million desert drone base in northern Niger.Then in February 2024, Niamey issued a decree declaring military expenditure would no longer be subject to oversight.”This enhances their opportunity to conduct deals with Russia that become harder to track and empowers the junta” by reducing transparency around defence spending, said Faulkner.Breaking off cooperation with the US and ending controls on military spending were “preconditions for a forthcoming agreement” between Niger and Russia, a European military source, who asked not to be named, told AFP.- ‘Here to stay’ -Niger’s shift towards Moscow is part of a significant trend of former French colonies in Africa distancing themselves from the West and international bodies. Rather than deploying regular troops, Moscow has gained influence through the dispatch of mercenaries from the Wagner mercenary group, which has unofficially served the Kremlin’s aims in Africa since the 2010s.Rebranded Africa Corps and reorganised following the August 2023 death of its founder Yevgeny Prigozhin in a mysterious plane crash, the group is now under the Kremlin’s umbrella, signalling a formal acknowledgement of Russia’s role in the Sahel.Russians are already deployed in Mali, following an agreement between the military regime in Bamako and the Wagner group.And neighbouring Burkina Faso recently acknowledged Russian support in “logistics and tactical training”.Meanwhile, images were shared on social media of large queues of masked Russians — widely believed to be mercenaries — queueing outside the Russian embassy in the Central African Republic capital of Bangui to vote in Russia’s presidential elections.”Russia’s first phase of influence in Africa was not openly acknowledged,” Lou Osborn of the observer group All Eyes on Wagner told AFP.”It was hidden, making Wagner very useful. But now, the Russians are more officially established. In the Sahel or the Central African Republic, photos of Russian delegations are published,” Osborn added.”The message: they are here to stay,” she said.- ‘Some sort of presence’ -The US is concerned about Niger’s growing relationship with Russia, especially because a withdrawal of its own troops would mean leaving critical military installations to the Russians.A state department spokesperson said Washington had been in touch with Niamey “to seek clarification… and to discuss additional next steps”.The Washington Post reported Friday that even now US officials were seeking in closed-door talks to determine if the United States “can retain some sort of security presence in the country”.In France, some close to President Emmanuel Macron are unhappy Washington did not follow Paris’s refusal to recognise the junta in the first place.As high-level US delegations visited Niger in the aftermath of the coup, France showed interest in military intervention to restore Bazoum.”Perhaps this will serve as a lesson to the US who rushed to recognise the junta and did not show solidarity with us,” French ruling party MP Benjamin Haddad wrote on X.Russia’s capacity is limited by the resources needed for the war in Ukraine, said Raphael Parens a fellow at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). Moscow is probably “willing to enter an agreement with Niger”, he said.But he added: “Its ability to back up this operation with military force is an entirely different question.”