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West Africa: U.S. Withdrawal From Niger Signals a Shift in Western Influence in the Sahel

Bottom Line

  • US withdrawal from Niger could pose significant obstacles to counter-terrorism efforts in the Sahel region with repercussions for the entire continent.
  • The Sahel is witnessing a new era where Western powers lack substantial influence.
  • China and Russia are both broadening their economic and military footholds in Africa.
  • A variety of factors are leading to the decline of American influence in Africa and on a global scale.

On March 16, observers of peace and security in the Sahel region were taken aback by the sudden announcement by Niger’s military spokesperson Colonel Major Amadou Abdramane that the government of Niger had terminated its military agreement with the United States with immediate effect. Abdramane reasoned that the agreement was an imposition on the country and violated “constitutional and democratic rules” in other words, the sovereignty of Niger. He added that the agreement was “not only profoundly unfair in its substance but it also does not meet the aspirations and interests of the Nigerien people,” thereby demanding that over 600 remaining American troops leave the country.

The recent news emerged after a visit to the country by prominent officials from the US government. This delegation included the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Molly Phee, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Celeste Wallander, and AFRICOM Commander Michael Langley. The governing regime, however, highlighted that the visit did not conform to established diplomatic protocols, leading to the prime minister receiving the delegation out of courtesy, rather than the president. Earlier, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken had also visited Niger prior to March 2023 . This was the first visit by a secretary of state, underscoring the strategic importance of the country to the counter-terrorism initiatives of the United States.

Security Implications

In a geopolitical landscape witnessing growing Chinese and Russian influence, Niger represented the final Western ally and a pivotal collaborator in counter-terrorism operations of the United States and Europe in the Sahel region–stretching from the West African coast (Mauritania) to the Red Sea (Sudan). Niger’s significance was further amplified following the expulsion of France from Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, which severely undermined decades of French counter-terrorism operations in the region. Countering terrorism in the Sahel belt helps prevent the spread of terrorism to the rest of Africa. The military agreement between the United States and Niger forms a critical element of the US counter-terrorism strategy. This accord facilitates a robust US military presence via Airbase 101 in Niamey, the capital of Niger, and Airbase 201 near Agadez, located southwest of Niamey. The latter, a significant airbase operational since 2018, has been utilized for manned and unmanned surveillance flights, among other operations, and to initiate drone operations against armed factions affiliated with ISIL and al-Qaeda in the Sahel.

With France’s withdrawal from the region, the United States and its drone base in Niger represented the last bastion of continued counter-terrorism and stability in an increasingly unstable region and much needed support for the other regional peace and security efforts, such as the Multinational Joint Task Force combating Boko Haram insurgents and transborder armed groups in the Lake Chad Basin. Consequently, the withdrawal of the United States from Niger could have substantial security consequences for Sahelian countries as well as broader sub-Saharan Africa, as both countries in the region and regional peace and security initiatives rely on support from the US base in Niger to combat terrorism proliferation and insurgencies..

Rising Powers and US Declining Influence

The withdrawal of the United States from Niger would not only be a disaster for its counter-terrorism initiatives in the region but would also hinder its efforts to counter the rise of powers like Russia and China, who are striving to expand their influence in the region, across the continent, and globally. US influence in Africa has been waning over the years, hitting a low during the Trump administration. However, there has been some improvement during the Biden administration, although the United States still trails behind China. In the meantime, Russia, primarily through the Wagner Group, is gaining ground, particularly in Mali, Niger, Chad, and Sudan–all of which are heavily affected by insurgencies and terrorist groups.

Moreover, Niger accounts for about 7 percent of the world’s uranium production. It comes as no surprise that Russia and Iran are seeking to form alliances with the country to boost their uranium enrichment capabilities. The rumored partnership between Niger and Iran has particularly alarmed the United States, causing US officials to express concerns about a deal that would grant Iran access to Niger’s extensive uranium reserves.

The American expulsion from Niger has a profound impact on its global leadership role in peace and security. This role is already diminishing as rising powers call for more inclusivity in the decision-making process at the UN Security Council, commensurate with their contributions to global peace and security through troop and police deployments in peace operations. Moreover, American financial contributions to the United Nations declined since the Trump administration, although the United States remains the largest contributor. The reduction of UN funding and general inward-looking policies were largely perceived as the United States withdrawing its engagement and influence in global governance. In contrast, China’s contributions have seen a significant increase from about 2 percent in 2000 to over 15 percent 2022 and is expected to grow. Rising powers are capitalizing on the US withdrawal to push for a more inclusive United Nations that reflects the current global reconfiguration of power, politics, and leadership.

Moreover, in recent times, the United States has been unsuccessful in securing peace deals or preventing conflicts in areas like Gaza, Yemen, Sudan, and Ukraine, where it previously held significant influence. On the other hand, rising powers such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and China appear to be making headway in peace negotiations and agreements. For example, Qatar recently brokered a peace agreement to initiate a national reconciliation dialogue in Chad. Saudi Arabia is spearheading the Jeddah talks in efforts to halt fighting in Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates has made significant progress in mediating Russia-Ukraine conflict, leading to a prisoner exchange. In each of these instances, the influence of the United States as a global power is waning.

A New Dawn in African Agency

The recent incidents in Niger represent a significant setback for the United States and its European allies. These events, along with other developments, particularly in Francophone Africa, signal a new era of African elites taking charge of African affairs on the continent. A decade ago, such openly embarrassing events would have been unthinkable. However, African leaders are increasingly expressing disagreement and defiance towards the demands of Western powers, especially France. This trend reflects a growing awareness among Africans and a belief that African issues are best addressed by Africans themselves. Furthermore, the alternative financial aid provided by the BRICS has given African countries more autonomy and influence over their governance. The days of authoritarian and paternalistic relationships with colonial rulers and Western powers seem to be over. It’s not surprising that Abdramane courteously reminded American delegation that it cannot dictate Niger’s choice of partners, be it Russia, Iran, or otherwise. Whether for good or ill, the events in Niger have far-reaching implications for US counter-terrorism efforts in the Sahel, a lasting impact on US global leadership, and underscore the principle of African agency in solutions to African problems.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities

Image Credit: US Army/Staff Sgt. Mary Katzenberger

Abigail Kabandula is the Director of the Africa Center at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.

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