Niger declares American military presence ‘illegal,’ kicks out U.S. troops

Photo: Niger Armed Forces on a U.S. military base before the 2023 coup. Credit: Flickr/U.S. Africa Command (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Earlier this month, Niger, the largest country in West Africa, terminated its longstanding military agreement with the United States, declaring the presence of all 1,000 U.S. troops and contractors “illegal.”

This represents a monumental setback for Washington, which until recently considered Niger the centerpiece of its military operations in all of North and West Africa. A chain of U.S. military bases and outposts cuts across the Sahel aimed at standing in the way of Africa’s growing relations with alternative trading partners like China and Russia.

Niger’s popularly supported transitional military government – the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP) – which came to power in July 2023 after ousting the pro-Western puppet Mohamad Bazoum, revoked the military agreement “with immediate effect” after a high-level delegation of senior Pentagon and State Department officials traveled to Niger’s capital, Niamey and threatened the CNSP over its growing ties with Russia and Iran.

“Niger regrets the intention of the American delegation to deny the sovereign Nigerian people the right to choose their partners,” a government spokesperson said in a televised address, canceling the military agreement and denouncing the “condescending attitude” of U.S. diplomats.

The United States now faces the prospect of losing three military bases — including one of the world’s largest drone facilities located in the city of Agadez — and more generally, its major strategic foothold in the vast Sahel region. U.S. officials are currently scrambling to find diplomatic ways to salvage some military presence.

Unless Niger reverses course, the United States stands to lose more than just a launching pad for its drone assassination and surveillance spy programs. These bases are also anti-immigration hubs designed to clamp down on African migration northward toward Europe, and are platforms that project U.S. power southward toward the Gulf of Guinea where 60% of Africa’s oil production is concentrated.

‘We can’t let China or Russia become the preferred security or business partner’

Days after returning from the United States’ diplomatic debacle, two senior officials from the failed delegation — including the commander of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), General Michael Langley — testified before the House Armed Services Committee, where they bemoaned the likelihood of being booted out of Niger.

U.S. Representative Jimmy Panetta, a Democrat from California, complained to Langley, “Focusing on Niger, clearly we bet big, ok. We bet big on Niger,” in reference to hundreds of millions of dollars the U.S. government invested in bases there. 

“Right now, we’re at a point in which we either want to doubledown or we want to fold, unfortunately,” Panetta continued. “And look, I get the bet. As I called it in my visits there, it was the Alamo.”

In the mind of Panetta, “the Alamo” of 1836 figures as a perfect metaphor for the besieged U.S. presence in Niger. Afterall, the Alamo was a military outpost, albeit one made up of pro-slavery Americans positioned in northern Mexico — where slavery was illegal — who then used the Alamo compound as a staging ground for a pro-slavery revolt that ultimately achieved the goal of amputating Texas from Mexico to create a slaveholders’ republic.

Panetta lamented, “Now, we’re dealing in Niger with a military junta, a military junta that is basically kicking out our partners. It kicked out France. It revoked a security pact with the EU … And then … they ended the security pact with the United States.” 

After some hand wringing over whether he felt called upon to support “democracy and our values” or to “be friendly with this junta,” Panetta beseeched Langley: “What we don’t want is to leave us with nothing, because we know that nothing will be filled by China, by Russia, by Iran.”

Representative Mike Rogers added his two cents: “At the end of the day, it is critical for the U.S. to have a [military] footprint on the continent. Even a little goes a long way … Africa is of vital strategic importance to the United States. We can’t let China or Russia become the preferred security or business partner.”

As if reading from the same script, Rogers asked Langley, “How concerned should we be about China and Russia’s growing footprint in Africa,” to which Langley responded stiffly, “Chairman, we should be extremely concerned … They’re trying to get what they want, they’re trying to replace the West and, moreover, the United States and our access and influence across this crucial continent.”

U.S. imperialism losing its grip on Africa

The theme of the entire House Armed Services committee hearing — an annual exercise which happened to coincide with Niger’s announcement this year — was frenetic concern about “being replaced” in Africa, to which there was a bipartisan delirium to double down on militarization as U.S. imperialism’s main strategic lever on the continent.

This represents continuity more than anything else. Since 2001, every U.S. administration has been keenly focused on building up America’s “military footprint” across Africa. It’s no accident that the United States unveiled AFRICOM in 2008 as the Department of Defense’s newest “unified combatant command.” China, on the other hand, has been focused on building much needed infrastructure. Since 2000, for example, China has built 100 ports across the whole of Africa. That means China helped Africa build about five new ports per year for the last 20 years to expand its maritime capabilities.

During the congressional hearing, Representative Cory Mills grew visibly frustrated as he recounted how China “continues to promise railways like they did between Djibouti and other areas to try and link trade, they promise electrical terminal capabilities with hundred-year leases to try to create these reliances that has weakened America’s ability to be able to compete with them in the non-kinetic [non-military] influence capabilities,” to which Langley robotically admitted, “We know that we can’t keep up with the Belt and Road Initiative of billions of dollars in infrastructure.”

It is clear that Niger and a growing number of other African states view China and Russia as an important counterweight to Western imperialism that increases their own leverage in relation to the United States, and opens up new development possibilities. These African states are increasingly looking to China and Russia as business partners, while U.S. imperialism is quickly losing its grip on the continent.

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