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

Yves here. Even though this post is from a known official America propaganda outlet, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, it contains enough admissions against interest about US prospects for getting its way in Niger that I found it revealing. It also has some observations about Wagner forces in the theater that sound accurate. Readers are very much encouraged to sanity check that and other views presented below. Of course, there is no mention of the USSR and now Russia having cred in the region for its past anti-colonial efforts.

By Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty staff. Cross posted from OilPrice

  • 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.

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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  1. Darthbobber

    One elephant in the room: They fail to mention the-ermm- something or other that somebody or other did in Libya a dozen years ago, and it’s subsequent collapse as having a major impact on several of the Sahel governments both as detonator of crises early on, and as an ongoing source of arms and combatants.

    They DO admit that any massive influence of Wagner in the region is more hype than reality, but manage to continue the hype in any case.

    I love this pearl: “Other countries in the region, including Senegal, have recently experienced major political turmoil.” (What the government of Senegal has done is to jail the leader of the main opposition, ban the existence of his party, and shut down the internet while taking repressive measures against the ensuing unrest. None of which interferes with it’s “Democratic” bona fides, nor will as long as it remains reliably in the western camp.)

    Couldn’t help noting that in Blinken’s homily, aside from the obligatory reference to democracy, it was military cooperation with the US that counted as progress.

    Is it drones, troops and arms that the people 9f the Sahel desperately need? Of course not. Has what they do need been forthcoming from their ever so humanitarian western friends? Don’t be silly.

  2. The Rev Kev

    As I said in a comment yesterday, as far as that coup in Niger is concerned, all Washington sees is Russian bogymen hiding under the bed. How many coups have we seen in the past decade in Africa? A dozen. Maybe more? And what is a coup? It is regime change when you get down to it and the present one in Niger is popular with most of the people. But when DC saw those Russian flags being on display in those crowds, it was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. They even accused Russia of shipping in Russian flags but it has come out that it is local tailors that are making them and are hard pressed to keep up with demand. For Washington, that might be worse. So right now I am waiting for old Joe to make things worse by stuffing things up – at the advice of Blinken and Nuland of course.

    1. Polar Socialist

      I wonder if those Russian flags represent the same phenomena as voting for Brexit or Trump: people are just sticking it to the Man the only way they can.

      1. Synoia

        An old joke about African Democracy: One man, one vote, one time.

        If I recall correctly, many Africans believe the French were worse colonists than the British.

        1. Rajesh

          As an Indian, I can tell you that it’s only because the Brits had a much better PR department, and even managed to convince their victims that they were gentlemanly. The French were bad at emotional manipulation.

    2. flora

      It shows how blind DC and the West are to their own strategic weaknesses. Blow up a pipeline, declare sanctions, and move NATO ever closer to RU, who said repeatedly that was crossing a red line.

      Then they act shocked that RU might offer an alternative to countries like Niger as a way to cut off more EU critical supplies. I’m not sure the “great minds” in the US/NATO foreign policy establishment have any idea what they’re doing.

      1. JTMcPhee

        Heaven forfend that the Empire would ever simply offer negotiation and fair compensation to the mopes of Africa for the resources the Empire can just steal in the usual “market-based” way. Not sure if Russia and China are on that side of Heaven in all particulars, but both seem to be, at least presently, very pale shades of grey, compared to the black heart of the colonial imperial beast.


    Friday food for thought: the Prigozhin “coup” earlier this summer was a military intelligence operation to take eyes off Niger so that Russia could facilitate the removal of Bazoum and add another front to the New Cold War, stretching the West thinner

    1. Bsn

      I was wondering if the Niger was chatting on the side to some Wagner and/or Russian representatives in St. Petersburg recently. PS. love your “Permaculture” handle, big gardeners us.

  4. nippersdad

    I was reading last night that France gets most of the uranium that it needs to fire its’ nuclear power plants from Niger. It pays Niger pennies on the dollar for its’ yellowcake (hence Niger being “one of the poorest countries in the world” and why they no longer want to export uranium to France) and then over charges for the power produced to both its’ own population and that of neighboring European states to shore up domestic budgets and balance its’ foreign exchange deficits. It is transparently clear why they are sending in the mirages.

    It must have been a real shock for Victoria Nuland to go there and find out just how intransigent her former assets have become. She should just be happy that they want to continue their relationship by keeping the US bases there and not wade into France’s issues lest they become ours as well. This has the rank odor of another Viet Nam in the making.

    It is really no wonder that 78% of the Nigerien population supports the coup and why the Sahel is such fertile ground for Russian “disinformation”. I imagine our presence is about as popular there as it is in Pakistan now that we have intervened to get rid of their favorite pol, Imran Khan. Our neocons are just lighting off powder kegs all across the world , and I do not see how this ends well.

      1. nippersdad

        Yep, not most at all. Further reading shows it to be between fifteen and twenty percent. Niger having one of the largest uranium deposits in the world and a largely French owned company managing it must be another factor, though. Canada may never become a problematic supplier, but I can’t imagine as much faith could be put in Kazakhstan.

        1. Greg

          I have wondered if those numbers are % by $ – since the Nigeriens are getting pennies on the dollar for the value, it could be a way of downplaying the importance of Niger’s uranium to France’s power.

  5. lyman alpha blob

    “…Niger has twice been the target of Russian disinformation campaigns…”

    Following the included link to see just what this dastardly “disinformation” was, it appears to be “pro-Russian” messaging with no details given as to how said information might be inaccurate and not simply actual valid information the West doesn’t like to hear. And they posted this information on the interwebs – the horror, the horror…

    According to Taibbi, true but disliked-by-the-US information is called “malinformation” not “disinformation” – very difficult to keep track of all the information-based propaganda coming from the Western spooks these days. Where’s the information taxonomist when you need them!

    1. agnieszka gill

      I’ve recently watched France24 reportage of on “Wagner’s propaganda” where reporter went around Sahel looking for someone to complain about the Russians. It was miserable trip as it went like this: Military “we prefer working with the Russians because “they treat us like equals and share the intelligence with us”; or “Russians figured out how to identify militants who melt into civilian population, by using machines that detect gun residue” [as good as shamanic magic if you ask me ], or “Russians help us without giving us conditions” …Plus Putin just gifted grain with delivery free of charge to 6 countries, and last year Russians gifted all fertilizer stuck in EU ports, for free to Africa [ only two countries managed delivery, with majority still stuck, hence grain gift included delivery]. US should try more carrots and less sticks. Maybe Coca Cola delivery ?

  6. ISL

    Seems Eizenga/McFate believes Africans have no form and probably can’t (very condescendingly) – as to dislike the French because of the colonial history alone.

    Also, how the hell does Eizenga have any idea whether Wagner has or doesn’t have pre-positioned armor in the region – I see no evidence he has a high level security clearance

    A polysci wonk with no actual experience in Africa worth noting on his bio. Hmmm.

    1. b

      Commentators agree that French colonialism was icky 60 years ago, and suggest the locals have long memories. If not for NC I wouldn’t know that France still runs West African currencies, still requires half their foreign reserves to be held in Paris–still controls their economic boundaries. Colonialism is very much a going concern, who knew? Not our commentators. It all gets so old.

      1. digi_owl

        Most see colonialism ending when the boss is a local, same as slavery ends when you pay the slaves a token wage.

  7. flora

    The oil pipeline being built from Nigeria through Niger and Algeria to terminal ports on the Mediterranean coast is supposed to carry oil to Europe. (And make up for the oil energy lost from the now destroyed Nordstream pipeline.)

    Coup In Niger Could Derail This Strategic Pipeline

    And, a map.

  8. Lex

    I’m not saying that Russia and/or Wagner has no involvement in fomenting the coup in Niger, but I will say that the US making accusations isn’t worth the electrons used for the accusations. There’s very little evidence to suggest that Russia runs destabilization campaigns of any significance. If it didn’t/couldn’t pull it off in Ukraine, being successful in Africa seems like a stretch. Of course supporting these events after the fact is different and that gets us into the muddy waters of to what degree Wagner is actually a “private military company” rather than a plausibly deniable arm of the GRU.

    Regardless, the fundamental issue is the erosion of France’s neo-colonial empire in West Africa. Russia and Wagner are just convenient scapegoats, though Russia will exploit that erosion to the extent it can. That exploitation may not have anything to do with Russia hoping to establish its own neo-colonial sphere of influence, it may just be a means to erode Euro-American power.

  9. Jeff W

    A more detailed and different (i.e., left-wing) take on Geopolitical Economy Report re the situation in Niger which does mention, albeit briefly, “the USSR and now Russia having cred in the region for its past anti-colonial efforts”:

    Geopolitical Economy Report | Niger coup: 78% of people support military government’s anti-colonial policies [53:30]

  10. Paul Damascene

    Tho I think there are several things Russia *could* attempt–signing up Niger to a uranium cartel to ensure they get fair prices for their resources being one; an offer to mediate the conflict as another–I don’t see any evidence that they’re ready to hit the ground running, or indeed that they wish to have any involvement at all.

  11. Bill Malcolm

    Not sure I’m all that impressed by the RFE article — as usual, all the experts quoted are located in the US, so I’m predisposed personally to believe it’s all a self-serving tub of lard. You know, experts of the ilk who are Russia experts at some US university or think tank, can’t speak Russian, never visited except on a ten day vacation, and haven’t the first clue about contemporary Russian society or how they think. Then blather mindlessly on cue.

    Why does the US even have 1100 troops and a drone base in Niger? Out of the goodness of its philanthropic old heart? As usual, any country dumb enough to ask Americans in finds them impossible to dislodge ever again. The exception to that rule was de Gaulle, who showed America the door from France. Of course! There are French troops there in Niger as well, guarding the uranium mine which is owned by Orano, the French state-owned outfit. One other mine has been recently closed down, but don’t fret, a further one is being dug.

    As to the recently closed mine, none other than RFI, the state-owned French version of Voice of America, states in an article:

    “Niger’s northern town of Arlit has been left wallowing in 20 million tonnes of radioactive waste after a uranium mine run by French company Orano (formerly Areva) closed down. People living in the area are exposed to levels of radiation above the limits recommended by health experts.” And there’s some good criticism of the company’s rather cavalier operations.

    The Nigerien coup leaders refused to speak to Nuland on her recent trip. The ECOWAS countries are waving their arms saying they’re going to invade, no doubt impelled by Washington and Paris, but the Nigerian senate turned down their President’s call for an invasion force, and recent articles show he was a confidence trickster based out of Chicago, a most unpleasant character who will do anything for filthy lucre. I’m sure the US ambassador is on his back.

    Finally, as actual Africans point out, Northern Nigeria and much of Niger’s population are of the same ancestral tribal nation. When the Europeans carved up Africa for colonies at the Berlin Conference in the 1880s by drawing lines on a map, nobody paid the slightest attention to such matters. Speculation surrounds whether northern Nigerians would oppose any military moves against the Nigeriens and their coup leaders by the armed forces of Nigeria itself, their own nominal country.

    As for what PMC Wagner might do, who knows? Turkey is up to its eyeballs in Libya, and recent anti-Russian moves mean Moscow is likely having a good think about how to treat the Niger situation, and give Erdogan a kick up his fat ass while they’re at it. Niger is supposedly a sovereign country, but with several thousand US and French troops stationed there, and resources being siphoned out on purely Western terms with nominal pocket money handed out to the “country”, it’s hard to believe Niger is any more than a colony in actual fact.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      As I said, I did not run this article as an example of great reporting. I posted it because it is from a US organ and it nevertheless presents the picture that the US will have a hard go in getting its way in Niger.

    2. Piotr Berman

      For few hundred years before colonization, Hausa had a federation of sultanates, the chief one with capital in Kano (largest city in northern Nigeria), with Fulani ruling class (conquerors, feudal system). Of ca. 70 millions Hausa, ca. 55 are in Nigeria, 15 in Niger (majority there). There is also Kanuri nation of former Sokoto sultanate, 5-7 millions distributed between Nigeria and Niger in similar proportion.

      Linguistic groups sometimes form “dialectic continuum”, but ruling classes with persistent long-distance interaction create standard forms, so Hausa and Kanuri are really nations in European sense. Hausa elite like Sultan of Kano (honorary but prestigious position of the descendant of independent rulers), top Muslim cleric of Hausa etc. oppose military intervention. I am guessing that they simply follow popular sentiment, nothing against their interests after all. So for government of Nigeria it is a conundrum, Western pressure and internal political cost.

      It is a bit strange that it is 5th coup in the region that triggered such adamant reaction. In Chad, the coup of 2021 was not overthrowing the government, but perpetuating the military-based rule of Deby family, and it was instantly approved by the French, and hardly causing any comments elsewhere. Dictatorial rule since 1990, with democratic trappings in 1996-2021 period (elections every 5 years with “little space for the opposition activity”), Deby dad was killed one day after 2021 results were announced and his son started to rule as a head of a committee of generals.

      I found little info about Niger political situation, but USA decided to treat it as a model nation, shiny example for Sahel. But aid and trade or not, democracy or not, Sahel is mired in poverty and frustration. West game of influence is to give impunity to corrupted politicians and strongmen (overlapping categories) who show sufficient obedience.

  12. Savita

    ‘The cold war is over’
    ‘Like (family blog) it’s over!’

    French DGSC agent Malotru in Moscow, speaking to Mikhail, an upper level manager of the FSB.
    French TV series The Bureau

  13. john

    France has been giving “development aid” to niger for 64 years…and the result…no development…their “aid” is military and “uranium mining equipment. Next, the market price of one cubic pound of uranium, $211.00usd, the frence pay niger, as per contract, $11.00 usd. Next, Mali, with enormous gold resources…has no gold..France holds 1/4 of worlds gold reserves…If Niger wants the wagner group to help, let them…

  14. Oguk

    Brad Pearce on Wayward Rambler had an interesting post on the Sahel situation very recently. He emphasizes the undeniable popularity of the coup leaders and anger at the French presence in Niger specifically, and the potential for a regional war. He had an earlier article that (I thought) provided a credible background to what’s going on. It traced the instability in Francafrique back to the overthrow of Qaddafi in Libya and the subsequent spread of jihadis with weapons back to the countries south of Libya (i.e. the Sahel). When French forces were invited in ostensibly to control the jihadis, they not only failed to control them, they alienated the locals, and looked too much like they were there to simply protect French economic interests.
    I have my doubts about the regional war actually breaking out, but the US has to be sore if they lose that drone base, and with Nuland and Blinken in charge, they’re not likely to sit by doing nothing.

  15. MFB

    My impression, perhaps based on paranoia, is that the U.S. has been able to exploit the destruction of Libya by encouraging Gulf states to plow cash and leftover armaments into supporting jihadis in the Sahel, thus providing a pretext for Africa Command to have special forces and drones in West Africa. Notably all those Western troops, including the French, have done nearly nothing to reduce jihadi activity in most of those countries. It’s almost as if that isn’t their intention.

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