Will Niger get stuck on the Russia-West seesaw in the Sahel?

The West African nation has shown stability in an unstable part of the world, but long-term pressures remain

A Nigerien special forces soldier takes part in a US Africa Command annual special operations event in Jacqueville, Ivory Coast, this month. EPA
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Last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken travelled to Niger where he announced a $150 million humanitarian package. Mr Blinken's visit was the first by a US secretary of state to the West African country, thereby emphasising Niger’s growing importance in western policy circles. Whether this newfound prominence turns out to be a blessing or a curse for its nearly 26 million citizens remains to be seen.

Niger sits at the crossroads between the Sahel and the Lake Chad basin, two regions that have become hot spots on the transnational terrorism map. It is a landlocked country sharing borders with eight others, five of which have witnessed either a coup or a revolution in the past decade.

Political systems in Mali and Burkina Faso collapsed over the past two years, with the governments of both countries struggling to deal with the security crisis stemming from a steady rise in the number of terror attacks. The military coups that followed not only exacerbated domestic instability in both countries but also created rifts with key western partners in their war against terror. Chad, meanwhile, is following an uncertain trajectory after its longstanding leader, Idriss Deby, was killed in battle in 2021. He was swiftly replaced by his son, Mahamat Deby, a military officer, but it is yet unclear if he can address the numerous challenges facing that country.

During this time, regional initiatives against terrorism have garnered modest results. The G5 Sahel, of which Niger is a member, is facing an existential crisis since Mali left the organisation in May last year. Many worry that Burkina Faso could follow suit. Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum himself declared that "the G5 Sahel is dead".

Amid all this uncertainty, however, Niger remains an outlier.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum in Niamey last week. AP Photo
When viewed through the lens of great-power competition, western support risks becoming a doubled-edged sword for Niger

Almost two years after elections and a successful political transition saw Mr Bazoum assume the presidency, his steady leadership has encouraged the West to put most of its bets in the region on Niger.

Mr Blinken's visit last week is a reminder of this new centre of gravity. Today, the US African Command stations 800 men from its special operations forces in Niger. They train their Nigerien counterparts as part of operation Juniper Shield, a US counterterrorism initiative in West Africa.

France, too, is giving centrality to Niger as part of its Sahel policy, with the democratic nature of the government in Niamey providing legitimacy for its support. But there is also a military imperative: over the past two years, the diplomatic crises between France and the military juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso forced Paris to close its bases there and redeploy its 1,200 men to Niger.

Other European countries have personnel there, too, including Germany and Italy. Support also takes the form of military supplies, including airlift capacity provided by the US and Turkey.

All this foreign security assistance is vital for a country with limited resources such as Niger. With GDP valued at $14.6 billion in 2022, an annual defence budget nearing $244 million, and an army of 33,000 men, the country is ill-equipped to face the regional security challenges on its own.

The West’s Sahel agenda is not limited to fighting terrorism, however. Policies are also driven by a fierce competition with Russia, which has increased its influence in the region over the past five years by positioning itself as an alternative to western partnerships.

Moscow courted the region’s countries at a time when France's military presence in the Sahel was growing unpopular among the local populations. In recent months, however, some western governments have alleged that private security forces such as Russia's Wagner Group are playing a destabilising role in fragile countries such as Mali.

Although the competition between Russia and the West in Africa predates the war in Ukraine, it has intensified over the past year. French officials view recent developments in the Sahel as part of a broader Russian campaign to evict Paris from its traditional sphere of influence. They fear that their falling out with authorities in Mali and Burkina Faso could pave the way for similar crises to erupt in Niger, Mauritania and Chad. For the French government, such a scenario would amount to a significant setback.

The Nigerien government has yet to show any signs of pivoting to Russia. The two countries signed a military co-operation agreement in 2017 that involved mostly arms sales, but it did not lead to a deeper rapprochement at the strategic level.

However, when viewed through the lens of great-power competition, western support risks becoming a doubled-edged sword for Niger. It brings Niamey unwanted international attention, and while foreign military support remains essential in its war against terror, over the long term, it could place the country at the mercy of external powers' agenda. It also exposes its leadership to accusations from political opponents that it is subservient to western powers.

Niger may be a democracy today, but it is a fragile one. Since its independence from France in 1960, the country has experienced four military coups; a fifth was thwarted shortly after Mr Bazoum assumed power in 2021.

So far, the government has proved capable of balancing its myriad partnerships while containing the ever-present terrorist threat. But nationwide stability over the long term will depend not only on the success of its counterterrorism campaign but also its ability to avoid getting caught up in the competition between Russia and the West.

Published: March 24, 2023, 5:00 AM