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The Sahel Tug-of-War: U.S. And Russia Face Off For Influence In Niger

  • U.S. relations with Niger, a key ally, face challenges after a military coup ousted the president, potentially paving the way for greater Russian influence in the Sahel.
  • Yevgeny Prigozhin's Wagner group, linked to the Kremlin, has signaled support to the Nigerien coup leaders, complicating international geopolitical dynamics.
  • With multiple coups destabilizing the Sahel region, experts believe the Sahel's weak governments and anti-Western sentiments offer fertile ground for Russian engagement.
Niger

After a series of coups swept across Africa’s impoverished Sahel states over the past three years, leading to a larger Russian military presence, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in March made a historic trip to Niger, Washington’s key ally in the region.

“Niger is really an extraordinary model at a time of great challenge – a model of resilience, a model of democracy, a model of cooperation,” Blinken, the first U.S. top diplomat to visit Niger, said at the time. “It’s one that we deeply value and deeply respect.”

Now, less than five months later, U.S.-Niger relations are on the verge of collapse after military officials on July 26 ousted the president and seized power. The coup – if it succeeds – also threatens to deepen regional instability, weaken regional security, and possibly open the door to greater Russian influence in the Sahel and beyond, experts warn.

'An Alarming Trend'

Before the coup, Niger’s image in the West had been improving, thanks in part to a peaceful, democratic transfer of power in 2021 – the country’s first since independence more than seven decades ago. Blinken’s trip was designed to affirm U.S. support for Niger and its president, Mohamed Bazoum, who has aligned key priorities with the West.

The United States has invested about $500 million over the past decade to train and equip the Nigerien military to combat militant organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda and ISIS that have been terrorizing the Sahel. The United States, which has 1,100 troops on the ground, also built a large-scale drone base in the north of the country used to surveil the armed groups’ cross-border movements and to gather intelligence.

But a wave of coups across the Sahel now threatens to jeopardize this cooperation and progress.

Three of Niger’s neighbors, including Mali, Burkina Faso, and Chad, have all succumbed to coups since 2020, as have nearby Sudan and Guinea. Other countries in the region, including Senegal, have recently experienced major political turmoil.

“This is an alarming trend,” Sean McFate, an adjunct professor at Syracuse University and an Africa expert, told RFE/RL. “The more coups happen, the more success they enjoy, the more temptation there will be for future juntas around Africa.”

McFate added that the trend has opened the door for increasing Russia’s influence.

This time, the United States and its partners, including the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), have taken a firm stand against the Nigerien junta in the hopes of forcing it to reinstate the democratically elected Bazoum.

Washington has halted some aid to Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, while 11 members of the West African community have imposed tough financial sanctions and cut deliveries of electricity. ECOWAS has also threatened to invade Niger.

What Wagner Offers

By contrast, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Kremlin-connected entrepreneur and founder of the notorious Wagner mercenary group, which is active in Africa, has offered support to the Nigerien coup leaders, although experts question whether his group can do much in the short term.

“The junta needs support and recognition if they're not going to step down,” Daniel Eizenga, a research fellow at the Washington-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies, told RFE/RL. “And that's what Wagner potentially offers them – a big complication to anything that looks like a military intervention [by ECOWAS] to push them out.”

Wagner has up to 1,000 troops each in Mali and Libya as well as nearby Sudan, Eizenga said. It also has forces in the Central African Republic.

But with clouds over Wagner’s future following its failed rebellion in Russia in June and its current commitments in Africa, it is unclear how many men it could muster to support the coup leaders in Niger, Eizenga said.

“What Wagner would be able to mobilize in the short term, I think, is the paramount question here,” he said. “But it doesn't take a lot of boots on the ground on the part of Wagner to create a very complicated international geopolitical situation that might deter ECOWAS from intervening as it's threatened to do.”

Sebastian Elischer, a political science professor at the University of Florida and a sub-Saharan Africa specialist, said Wagner doesn’t appear to have much heavy equipment in Africa to help Niger confront ECOWAS.

He described Wagner assets in Africa as “basically Kalashnikovs and Toyotas” and said troops deployed to neighboring Mali are mainly military trainers, not combatants.

Both Elischer and Eizenga also questioned how Niger would pay Wagner in light of the aid cuts and sanctions. Niger had expected to receive $2.2 billion in foreign aid, loans, and grants this year, an amount equivalent to 40 percent of its budget.

“I don't really see [Wagner involvement] playing out in Niger in the short term,” Elischer said.

He explained that Russia doesn’t have the historical economic and diplomatic ties with Niger that it does with Mali and other countries where Wagner is active to help facilitate cooperation.

He called Wagner posturing as an alternative partner to Niger “largely a performance for the media and especially for the African audience.”

Russia has been pushing to make inroads into Africa since 2014, when the United States and Europe began to isolate Moscow following its forcible seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, experts said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin last month held a summit with African leaders and delegations in St. Petersburg, his second since 2019.

Russia’s interests in Africa include weapon sales, UN votes, and access to natural resources, Elischer said. It also seeks to project itself as a viable player in the Global South “and to make the West worry about it,” he added.

“I think that is more so than anything else, certainly in the Sahel,” he said.

A Toxic Cocktail

The Sahel, a vast semiarid region that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, is wedged between the Sahara Desert to the north and tropical savannas to the south. It crosses through parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and Sudan.

The region has seen an explosion of militant violence over the past decade amid a toxic cocktail of entrenched poverty, weak governments with little legitimacy, disruptive climate change, and other problems, experts say.

The Sahel is fertile ground for Russian engagement because the governments are fragile and the public widely shares anti-French and anti-Western sentiments, McFate said. France left a brutal colonial legacy in the Sahel that is still felt today.

In Mali, Wagner replaced French forces after their expulsion by a junta.

“Russia is exploiting anti-French attitudes across the Sahel so that they can supplant France politically, hegemonically throughout the region,” McFate said. “Russia wants everybody looking toward Moscow and not toward Washington or Paris.”

The Washington Post, citing leaked U.S. intelligence, reported in April that Washington possessed information indicating Wagner was seeking to create a “unified ‘confederation’ of African states” that would include Burkina Faso, Chad, Eritrea, Guinea, Mali, Niger, and Sudan.

Wagner was planning the overthrow of the regime in Chad as part of that larger goal, the newspaper said.

The United States has said it does not believe Wagner was behind the coup in Niger. Experts say it was triggered by Bazoum’s decision to replace military officials appointed by his predecessor.

That said, Niger has twice been the target of Russian disinformation campaigns, according to an April 2022 report by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

Networks connected to Wagner reportedly sought in recent years to trigger rumors of a coup in Niger, the center said.

Eizenga said Niger’s security situation is likely to deteriorate if Wagner moves in, pointing to the explosion of violence in Mali and Burkina Faso following their coups and the departure of French forces.

U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland told reporters on August 7 following a meeting with members of the junta that they “understand very well the risks to their sovereignty when Wagner is invited in.”

Eizenga said if the United States and ECOWAS can coerce the junta in Niger to give up power, it could have positive reverberations in the Sahel.

The coup leaders in Mali and Burkina Faso have repeatedly delayed promises to ECOWAS to hand back power to civilian control in an attempt to entrench themselves, he said.

If ECOWAS can show that it is not “toothless,” then the leaders of Mali and Burkina Faso “may not skip the next deadline,” he concluded.

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By Todd Prince of RFE/RL 

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