Termination of US-Niger Military Cooperation Agreement: The Challenge of the Franco-US Vacuum

Bola A. Akinterinwa 

The military cooperation agreement between the United States and the Republic of Niger was denounced on Saturday, 16th March, 2024 in a televised statement made by Mr. Amadou Abdramane, the official spokesperson for the Abdourahamane Tchiani regime in Niamey, the capital city of Niger Republic. The denouncement is of geo-political importance at many different levels. First, the denouncement is a direct protest and message of caution to the Washingtonian authorities. The denouncement came after the visit of a US delegation sent to Niamey to discuss with the Tchiani government about Niger’s allies. 

Secondly, the denouncement should be understood against the background of the attitudinal disposition of the Western leaders who generally consider the Tchiani junta as illegitimate, not recognised, and therefore, should not be related with. Thirdly, the US delegation reportedly objected to the Niamey government’s choice of military allies. Undoubtedly, the United States showed its concerns about, and rejected the deepening of ties with, China, Russia, and Iran. And true, the US objection appeared to have also angered the Tchiani junta, thus prompting the need to stop the bilateral military ties between the US and Niger. Fourthly, the denouncement is an expression of affirmation, not to say reaffirmation, of political independence and non-dependent sovereignty and, perhaps most significantly, an expression of determination of non-acceptance of foreign dictates henceforth.

It is important to note that one major rationale, not only for the Tchiani coup d’état, but also particularly why the coupists enjoy popular support, is the growing animosity of the people vis-à-vis the French government which is seen to have been taking the political independence and sovereignty of Niger Republic for granted, hence the need to put a full stop to it. The United States delegation arrived in Niamey, acted in the same imperial mania of the French, and the Tchiani junta reacted on behalf of the people and consolidated its controversial legitimacy. Fifthly, and above all, the denouncement raises the question of what future is there for the United States’ and France’s military cooperation in Africa.

Military Cooperation Agreement 

At the level of the United States, the US government has told the world that it is in contact with Niger and wants ‘to see our partnership continue if there is a pathway forward.’ This statement is loaded with some implications: First, the United States is not quite sure if there can be a pathway forward. Second, it is the wish of the United States to have the status quo maintained. Third, US national interests appear to be under threats by Iran, China, and Russia. Most unfortunately for the United States, the Tchiani junta has pitched its tents with the Russians and with the perceived other enemies of the United States. This is one major fear that the US government wants to have the Niamey government consider.

There is no disputing the fact that the United States is much ‘troubled on the path that Niger is on,’ that is, particularly strengthening ties with Russia and Iran. US ties with both Russia and Iran are generally at their lowest ebb. The ties are predicated on mutual animosity for one another. It is therefore quite understandable if the United States was hostile to Niamey’s choices of allies. The critical questions however, are not far-fetched: why should the friends or enemies of the United States be the same as those of Niger Republic? 

The strategic fears of the United States cannot also be far-fetched: difficulties in reconciling Russo-American interests in Niger Republic. Without doubt, the United States has two military bases for manned and unmanned flights and has not only invested about $100 million on its drone base in central Agadez, more known as Airbase 201, but also has over 1000 troops in Niger as at 2023. The number has now been reduced by about 50% following the Tchiani coup on July 26, 2023. By implication, not only has the US drone base that has been serving as the epicenter for monitoring terrorists and jihadists linked to the Al Qaeda thrown into désuétude, a vacuum has also been created for many uncertainties to exist. Put differently, who is to fill the gap? Will it be occupied by Russia or China or by both? Can the European Union be chanced to also serve as a replacement?

These questions are interesting in light of the suggestion made by Mr. Valérie Giscard D’Estaing, when he was French President. He proposed a sort of Triumvirate, comprising the United States, European Economic Community by then, and Africa. The strategic calculation by then was that Africa should remain the major source of raw materials for the development of Europe and to which Nigeria, under the military administration of General Yakubu Gowon, vehemently opposed. Dr. Okoi Arikpo, then Commissioner for External Affairs, made Nigeria’s policy crystal clear, particularly on non-acceptance of foreign military bases in Africa. In D’Estaing’s strategic calculations, the roles of the Europeans and the Americans should be limited to provision of funds and military assistance for the protection of such Africa’s resources. And perhaps more interestingly, France was to continue to serve as agent of the development partners in Africa in the strong belief that France knew Africa more than all other development partners. And true enough, France was more culturally present in Africa than all the other colonial masters, as Francophone Africans were then considered as other metropolitan French.

Most unfortunately, too, the same France of Giscard d’Estaing that strengthened defence agreements between France and Francophone Africa through establishment of military bases, has also been declared a persona non grata like the United States in the area of security cooperation. As noted in the Round Table (The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs), ‘the French colonial tradition has been characterized by its assimilative tendencies (the representation of colonial territories in the mother Parliament, and the strong cultural influence of France), by its paternalist policies, which made the colonies economically, as well as politically dependent on France, and by a constitutional rigidity, which up to 1956, made adaptation to modern conditions both politically and psychologically difficult’ (vide Volume 51, 1960, Issue 201, pp.29-38). 

What is particularly noteworthy is that the French outline-law of 1956 enabled administrative decentralization. The advisory elected assemblies in the Territories were given the right to control certain local services and their own finances. In fact, Executive Governments were established in such a way that, by 1958, they have become ‘embryo Governments with de facto Prime Ministers.’ This internal autonomy was further strengthened under the 1958 Fifth Republic Constitution which brought about three new innovations: establishment of a semi-federal relationship between the former colonies and France within the framework of a Franco-African Community; withdrawal from the Community by agreement; and provision of clauses enabling the revision of the Constitution without difficulty (ibidem).

Guy Martin drew attention to the factors of continuity and change in France’s relations with Africa in 1994, in a paper he presented to the Conference on “The End of the Cold War and the New African Political Order,” held at the James S. Coleman African Studies Center at the University of California. As identified by Guy Martin, ‘the elements of continuity include enduring historical and cultural ties; their informal, intimate, and secretive politico-diplomatic relations, typified by the bi-annual Franco-African summit meetings; and the fact that when all is said and done, the continent remains of great economic importance to France’ (Vide guy Martin, “Continuity and Change in Franco-African Relations,” The Journal of Modern African Studies, Volume 33, No.1, 1995, pp.1-20).

While these factors of continuity are partly explainable by Cold War politics until 1990 when the post-Cold War era began, there is no disputing the fact that the Doyen of Francophone African politics, President Félix Houphouet-Boigny of the Côte d’Ivoire was both a factor of continuity and change. When he died in December 1993, there was no strong Francophone leader in the then West African sub-region (now West African region) to challenge the leadership of Nigeria or to keep the ECOWAS on its knees like Houphouet-Boigny did. In fact, France had no more such an ally to give troubles to Nigeria. France even became happier as France was quickly able to redirect French foreign trade and capital investments to non-Francophone countries, to Nigeria in particular. France knew that the markets of all Francophone West Africa put together were not up to the size of Nigeria. The same is still true as at today. Nigeria has a bigger market, bigger population, and bigger purchasing power. Kenya, South Africa, and Zimbabwe were also the beneficiaries of the new French foreign trade policy and cannot be compared with Nigeria.

This is not to suggest that France’s pré carré, that is, sphere of influence, was on the decline. Contrarily to the position of Guy Martin, however, Tony Chafer noted in 2002 that France had not been disengaging from its ‘traditional pré carré in black Africa. Instead, he argued that, under pressure from a rapidly evolving international environment and a changing domestic policy context, a partial modernization of French African policy had taken place. This new global environment put constraints on French African policy and also presented France with new opportunities to pursue its national interests in Africa, in the context of globalization and international liberalism (vide Tony Chafer, “Franco-African Relations: No Longer So Exceptional?” African Affairs (The Royal African Society), No. 101, 2002, pp. 343-363).  

Whatever is the case, the Franco-African Community of today is no longer as strong as it used to be. It is on the path of disintegration. The establishment of an Alliance of Sahel States is a case in point. A vacuum has been created. The same is true of the US influence in Niger.

Filling the Franco-US Vacuum

As noted by the United States Department of State, ‘US foreign assistance to Niger plays a critical role in preserving stability in a country vulnerable to political volatility, terrorism and the spread of violent extremism, food insecurity, and regional instability. US assistance seeks to continue to improve food security, build counter-terrorism and peace-keeping capacity, sustain security sector reform, support productive agricultural enterprises, promote democracy and good governance, support justice sector reform, improve health and education, and strengthen security sector education and training.’ Thus, US-Niger cooperation covers several areas of bilateral interest.

The implications of a US vacuum cannot but require asking many questions: will a vacuum be created in all these areas of cooperation? Security area of cooperation is very critical to US foreign policy and defence interest. The US is struggling tooth and nail to keep terrorism far away from its national borders, and never to allow them to have peace in their far-away locations. Explained differently, unrest and instability of terrorists wherever they may be is rest of mind for Americans back home. Consequently, there is the need to fight terrorists outside of America. But, with the operational base for monitoring and containing the spread of international terrorism in Niger being rendered caduc, what happens to threats to US interests in Niger and the West African region?

Another question is whether the United States can be so angered by the policy decision of the Tchiani government to the extent of wanting to move out completely of Niger. This is most doubtful. This is not likely to lead to closure of diplomatic ties. Even when states strain diplomatic relations, they still appoint a third party to help oversee their interests. This is an expression of the extent to which interdependence is still necessary and cannot be limited. The unanswered question, however, still remains what happens to the closure of US military base and the US-Niger security collaboration?

When questions were raised in Mali on how to continue to contain the Tuareg insurrection and the Islamic State terrorism, and particularly in the context of possible joint collaboration with Russia, the French government made it clear that such scenario cannot exist. The Matignon-based government and the Elysée-based presidency ruled out such Franco-Russian cooperation in the Sahel region. This means that the vacuum created by both France and the United States are now free to be occupied by whoever is interested. The Russians are already on ground, especially through the Wagner Group. This also simply means that France’s special privileges, the first preferential treatment often given to French companies when bidding for award of international contracts, etc. will be given to the Russians. This is nothing more than replacing the alleged French and American exploiters with another exploiter. Is there any wisdom in this? Probably there is.

If we borrow a leaf from Nigeria’s policy of non-alignment, as espoused by Nigeria’s Prime Minister, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, Nigeria will not blindly follow the lead of any country or bloc. He said Nigeria can align or not align with anyone. The determining rationale for decision-taking is Nigeria’s national interests. When Nigeria was supporting the Western world during the Cold War politics in the 1960s, many academic observers accused the then Government of Nigeria of not remaining faithful to its policy of non-alignment. Indeed, the problem was not aligning or not aligning, but whether the decision to align truly reflected the protection of, or in compliance with, Nigeria’s national interest.

In the same vein, what is at stake in Niger and in the other Member States of the Alliance of Sahel States is not really about replacement of former exploiters by another exploiter but whether the replacement is in the national interest of the people and government of Niger Republic. The people of Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali are openly saying that they want to take their destiny into their own hands, not even in the hands of the ECOWAS anymore. This is made clear in the many decisions they have already taken.

For instance, exportation of raw materials is no longer allowed in Niger. The new policy decision is that all raw materials meant to be exported, processed abroad and then re-imported to Niger, should be processed on Niger’s territory. This means that more economic opportunities are to be created for the people of Niger. France cannot be expected to like this type of policy-decision, but the Nigeriens have shown much appreciation for the policy. Probably in direct reaction to this development, some French government officials have openly asked President Emmanuel Macron to stage a special ‘operation come back’ to the revolting Francophone West African countries which is not disturbingly, but quite laughably. 

This is so because the French are yet to realise that the people are without conscious mutual consultation, without any instigation, had the spirit of enough is enough, and are therefore gradually removing all stooges in government, no longer by democratic elections but by popular revolt. Therefore, any attempt by the French to come back by manu militari has the potential to fail. Any attempt to come back by first recognizing France’s inadequacies in an apologetic manner can be appealing to the people, but not to the extent that the status quo ante can or should be relived. Even at this, it cannot imply pushing out the Russians that appear to have assisted the governments that gained power through what the African Union and the ECOWAS have dubbed unconstitutional change of government.

Unconstitutional changes of Government as an argument has become meaningless in the face of galloping institutional corruption in Africa, sit-tight presidential systems, coups against constitutions through manipulative reviews, accession to power through rigged elections, and perhaps most disturbingly, through indolence, bad governance, and foreign-backing of reckless elected governments.  What is most needed in the West African region is a priori regional unity. Mauritania was an original member of the ECOWAS. Strenuous efforts should be made to return the country to the organization, more so that the Maghrebin Union to which Mauritania left the ECOWAS to join is now, at best, malfunctioning. In fact, Morocco is making spirited efforts to join the ECOWAS, in spite of the fact that Morocco is geopolitically located in the North African region of Africa. Morocco-Algerian is one major dynamic of the economic setbacks of the Arab Maghreb Union. 

In the same vein, the three members of the Alliance of Sahel States should be brought back to the mother regional organization. Their coming back should not imply the cancellation of their sub-regional organization. They can break away to strengthen sub-regionalism in accordance with Article 1(d) of the 1991 Abuja Treaty Establishing the African Economic Community. Separation is not unconstitutional. It can strengthen regional integration in a catalytic manner. Breaking away in anger is what should not be allowed. The ECOWAS under Nigeria’s President, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, should remove the ECOWAS’ toga of pride and supranational authority and sincerely appeal to the offended. ECOWAS should begin with a new life of always supporting the peoples of the region and not simply defending elected governments in whose hands the peoples are suffering. Integration of peoples should take priority over integration of governments. Governments are to serve the people and not vice versa. The vacuum created with the declaration of France and United States as unwanted cannot be left unattended to.

And true enough, opportunities and new challenges have been created for Nigeria and should be taken advantage of. Firstly, Nigeria as a regional influential, can fill the vacuum. Filling the vacuum requires examining the applicability of some Nigerian foreign policy principles, such as Professor Ibrahim Gambari’s foreign policy concentric circles. In this regard, West Africa may no longer be the first outer circle. The innermost circle still remains Nigeria and her immediate neighbours, because of their intertwined security interests. Secondly, the articulation of what foreign policy interests are to be pursued in the Alliance of Sahel States is another desideratum in the spirit of Ambassador Oluyemi Adeniji’s constructive and beneficial concentricism. Thirdly, since the time of General Gowon’s Okoi Arikpo, Nigeria has been vehemently opposed to the use of African mineral resources only for the development of Europe. So has Nigeria been opposed to the establishment of foreign military bases in Africa. Even though owners of military bases in Africa have always argued that they are in Africa based on the sovereign invitation of other African countries, the vacuum created by the declaration of France and the United States as personae non-grata in the security sector is a unique opportunity for Nigeria as a major player in the conduct and management of ECOWAS affairs to exploit.

Related Articles