Why Washington Failed in Niger

Flintlock 2017 training in Niger

Nigerien Prime Minister Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine pulled no punches in explaining the country’s decision to expel U.S. forces: “The Americans stayed on our soil, doing nothing while the terrorists killed people and burned towns. It is not a sign of friendship to come on our soil but let the terrorists attack us.” He went on to single out what he saw as the “condescending tone and a lack of respect” shown by a high level U.S. delegation that visited the country in mid-March. According to Zeine, Nigerien officials were insulted not only by the tone of U.S. messaging but also by demands to limit security ties with Russia and threats to impose sanctions if Niger sold uranium to Iran.

Although self-serving in many ways, Zeine’s accusations reflect an already strained relationship between the United States and Niger. This was partly linked to Washington ending security assistance after the country’s July 2023 coup and the junta’s unwillingness to accede to regional and international demands to step down.Nonetheless the root causes of the U.S. failure in Niger run deeper. The end of the U.S. military presence in Niger is above all the result of political and social dynamics driven by the American and wider Western presence there.

This reflects a broader problem in developing security partnerships with politically fragile regimes. Large influxes of security assistance can inadvertently erode the legitimacy of local state authority, reinforcing favorable conditions for coup-making. Indeed, if U.S. authorities move forward with plans to substantially expand security relationships with coastal West African states, they may face similar results.

There is no simple policy fix for this problem. Most broadly, Washington would do better to de-prioritize security and global geopolitical competition in its regional relationships. The United States simply does not have the capacity to significantly contribute to an improved regional security environment in a direct way. Instead, it should focus on issues that could have wider positive impacts such as improving export access to U.S. markets, filling humanitarian funding gaps, and investing in regional climate mitigation and adaptation measures. Although notionally unrelated to security, such measures could improve livelihoods, save lives, and, marginally but more effectively, address some drivers of regional insecurity.



No Longer Welcome

On April 24, the State Department announced the final decision to withdrawal U.S. forces from Niger. According to a May 19 joint announcement made by the Defense Department and Nigerien Defense Ministry, U.S. troops will complete their pullout by Sept. 15. These forces, numbering just under 650 troops, will also hand over key installations, including an expensive drone base in the northern town of Agadez. This follows the Nigerien junta’s unilateral abrogation of a 2013 status of forces agreement that served as the legal basis for U.S. military activities in the country.

The move is both embarrassing for the United States and a minor strategic setback. Niger had, at least until the July 2023 coup against former President Mohamed Bazoum, served as America’s main regional intelligence hub. However, the move should not have come as a surprise. It follows the junta’s expulsion of the roughly 1,500 French forces deployed in the country to help fight jihadist groups, and Niamey’s very public rapprochement with Russia. In both respects, the junta has followed the examples of those in Burkina Faso and Mali, which both compelled French forces to leave, with Mali further expelling a major U.N. peacekeeping operation last year.

The arrival of Russian military personnel in Niger has fed a narrative emphasizing growing Russian regional influence. Washington will likely see this in Cold War terms as a Russian success, with the deployment of Russian soldiers or mercenaries to the same base hosting U.S. forces in Niamey viewed as an additional humiliation.

Western Versus Local Perspectives

For outsiders, Niger appeared to be an island of relative stability in a region plagued by major jihadist insurgencies and a wave of military coups. Niger’s counter-insurgency strategy, implemented under Bazoum, appeared to be working. It mixed military activity with community-level dialogues to limit intercommunal conflict and outreach to jihadist rank-and-file to secure defections. Jihadist activity in Niger had been declining since Bazoum took office in April 2021. In other words, he was an ideal African ally for his Western partners. This was especially the case for France, which was already on the backfoot with its troops forced out of both Mali and Burkina Faso due to antagonistic relations with intransigent juntas.

With the deployment of Russia’s Wagner Group to Mali in late 2021, Niger’s pro-Western orientation was also valued by French and U.S. policymakers anxious to block Russian expansion in the region. Moreover, with some 1,100 troops stationed in the country to conduct security assistance missions and support intelligence gathering from major drone bases in the country, Niger was critical to U.S. regional security policy. The State Department’s 2022 Integrated Country Strategy described the country as a “linchpin for stability in the Sahel.”

However, a better understanding of the regional and Nigerien political context may have avoided such misperceptions and exposed the fragile basis of Western security policy in the Sahel in general and in Niger in particular.

Where U.S. policymakers see the region effectively through the lens of both fighting jihadists and geopolitical competition with Russia, many locals view the Western presence — until recently mostly the French — as defending unaccountable political regimes. This encourages a dynamic in which local governments’ illegitimacy is amplified by their security and economic dependence on Western countries, and in which the legitimacy and desirability of those countries is thus also called into question. The failure of foreign powers, with France at the forefront, to effectively stem the spread of regional jihadist insurgencies, has intensified this downward spiral of mutual illegitimacy, and increased the unpopularity of foreign interventions across the region.

The resulting situation is one in which the interest of the United States and its Western allies in working closely with regional governments may appear to clash with the interest of local populations who see their states as corrupt, predatory, and illegitimate. This is perhaps the fundamental flaw of the U.S. and broader Western security assistance model in both Niger and further afield. This dynamic has helped fuel the rise of a wave of regional “anti-French sentiment” in recent years directed at Paris’ backing for unpopular and unaccountable governments. It is less the product of disinformation campaigns directed by Russia, but rather the lived reality of those who have to survive under predatory governments backed by Western powers.

Hence, when juntas came to power in Mali (in two coups, one in 2020 and another in 2021), Burkina Faso (two coups in 2022), and Niger (2023), an easy way to differentiate themselves from their predecessors and justify their unconstitutional seizures of power was the rhetoric of sovereign independence from foreign powers, particularly France. This has proven effective and has afforded juntas a degree of popular support, especially in core urban areas, that their formally elected predecessors have lacked.

U.S. policymakers appeared to have hoped that Washington’s less visible military presence and lack of colonial past in the region could help them avert France’s fate in Niger. However, despite its lighter footprint, Washington’s position in Niger was still tainted by its backing for elected civilian authorities locally viewed as illegitimate. This fundamental contradiction between domestic and international legitimacy — a dynamic at play across the region — appears to have either been misunderstood by U.S. policymakers or not considered relevant in making Niger’s government a core security partner.

Civil-Military Tensions

Indeed, one key feature of Niger’s political and institutional landscape that should have informed U.S. and Western policymakers’ thinking is the country’s decades-long history of civil-military tensions and coup-making. U.S. policymakers, as well as their French and E.U. counterparts, appear to have seriously underestimated Niger’s coup risk. This is particularly striking as that the risk was widely understood by many Nigeriens as well as regional observers.

If the country’s long history of coups and troubled civil-miliary relations did not make this clear, then a failed March 2021 coup attempt aiming to derail Bazoum’s presidential inauguration should have. The wave of subsequent regional coups should have also raised red flags over Niger’s potential risk. Before Bazoum’s overthrow last year, Niger had experienced four previous coups, the most recent in 2010. These precedents should have served as a warning to Niger’s foreign backers about the fundamentally fragile political basis of their partnership.

As jihadist insurgencies erupted in neighboring Mali in 2012 and subsequently spread across borders, Western powers began to provide increasing levels of security force assistance to Niger, then ruled by Bazoum’s predecessor, former President Mahamadou Issoufou. This aid helped to fuel a series of worrying dynamics within Niger’s security forces and between these and the government. This included massive increases in defense spending which, combined with opaque procurement practices, fueled tremendous amounts of corruption.

Moreover, the increased funding boosted the institutional weight of Niger’s defense and security forces within the state. This was notably the case for specially favored units, including the presidential guard which eventually went on to overthrow Bazoum. Issoufou was reportedly paranoid about coups, especially following an alleged 2015 coup attempt, and resorted to coup-proofing measures that included co-opting high-ranking military officers into patronage networks.

Domestic Fragility

One key mistake made by both U.S. and other Western policymakers was misinterpreting Niger’s comparatively free elections (by regional standards) as conferring real democratic legitimacy. Bazoum’s foreign backers especially tended to exaggerate his democratic credentials. As interior minister under his predecessor Issoufou, Bazoum was at the forefront of government repression of opposition voices and protests. Although international observer missions generally credited his 2020–2021 election as free and fair, it suffered from irregularities, including unrealistic vote totals and levels of turnout in some communes. The opposition alleged widespread fraud and major post-election protests were violently repressed.

Under Bazoum’s rule, journalists were harassed, protest marches banned and non-governmental organization activity restricted. Moreover, Issoufou and Bazoum’s ruling Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism was deeply unpopular in key parts of the country, including the capital Niamey and its surrounding Tillabéri region. Indeed, the opposition won 78 percent of the vote in Niamey in the 2021 presidential polls.

The junta that took power in July has tapped into this anger to help legitimize their rule. As on many other governance indicators, Niger’s relatively better standing compared to other countries in the region may have distorted the perceptions of its Western partners as to the quality of its governance and its underlying political stability.

Bazoum’s foreign allies were also not wrong in identifying Bazoum as a reformer. He made sincere moves to tackle corruption in some parts of the state and to throttle powerful patronage networks. This also certainly influenced Western perceptions that Bazoum was a reliable partner. However, Western policymakers may have done well to heed Alexis de Tocqueville’s warning that “the most dangerous moment for a bad government is usually when it begins to reform itself.” Bazoum’s anti-corruption efforts and attempts to consolidate power for himself simply threatened too many deeply vested interests, and appear to have played a major role in triggering the coup.

Future Implications

As U.S. forces leave the Sahel, they appear to be looking to expand partnerships with key coastal states threatened by jihadist expansion. The commander of U.S. Africa Command, Gen. Michael Langley, recently visited Côte d’Ivoire and Benin to discuss tighter security ties. This may include discussions over new basing arrangements, particularly in Côte d’Ivoire, which has long been a key regional French partner.

On the surface, Washington has much to offer these states whose more fragile and poorer northern borderlands are vulnerable to regional jihadists. Governments across the region would welcome additional training, equipment, and intelligence cooperation. Most of these states are also wealthier, more robust, and more capable than their Sahelian neighbors on a range of measures, which make them potentially more effective security partners.

However, the democratic legitimacy of the governments of both Benin and Côte d’Ivoire are at best questionable. Benin’s President Patrice Talon has imprisoned prominent opposition figures and critical journalists, and the opposition has little weight in parliament. Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara may seek an unconstitutional fourth term of office in next year’s presidential polls.

Moreover, the past 20 years in Côte d’Ivoire have seen coup attempts, army mutinies, violently contested elections, and civil war. Ouattara himself owes his presidency in part to a French army intervention following his 2010 election victory against outgoing president Laurent Gbagbo.

The increased political salience of popular anger at French policies in part lies behind recent French decisions to substantially downgrade their regional military presence, including in Côte d’Ivoire. As the situation in Niger illustrates, the United States is not immune to the political impact of such popular sentiment. Should there be a change of government in any of its other partners, Washington may see the political foundations of its security relationships quickly melt away. Indeed, its very presence could contribute to bringing this about.

Moving Forward

Africa has a long history of Western military interventions and security engagement aiming at stabilization and countering security threats. Few of these have had lasting benefits for local populations. In the Sahel, Western security assistance has in general garnered limited returns on investment. Even if it has improved capacities at the tactical or operational level (impacts that are hard to measure), its systemic impact has contributed to coup-making and popular anger at the Western backers of regional governments.

This alone should induce caution about expanding security assistance efforts elsewhere in the region. This is especially the case with costly outlays such as the construction of major bases or permanent troop deployments. There is perhaps no way to meaningfully provide security assistance without empowering precisely those military and other state actors responsible for exacerbating regional insurgencies through human rights abuses, corruption, and massacres. Furthermore, it is not possible to train partner militaries to not launch coups.

Instead, U.S. regional policy would be better served by de-prioritizing security issues altogether. A more productive and less damaging approach would build on the recognition that security involvement in fragile states often does more harm than good, and that actions on the margins may prove more fruitful. Such action includes filling massive shortfalls in regional humanitarian funding and affording better access to U.S. markets for agricultural producers across the region, regardless of their government’s relationship with Washington. Deeper engagement in helping to fund climate adaptation and resilience in deeply vulnerable countries could also have beneficial impacts.

More broadly, U.S. policymakers also need to move away from an ideological fixation on regional competition with Russia, whose sway over regional juntas is far more limited than the exaggerated rhetoric coming out of Washington would suggest. Instead, Russian activities are constrained by the political priorities of regional governments and Moscow has little leverage over their politics. Washington should recognize that its African counterparts would rather be dealt with on terms of equality and respect, rather than as pawns in a geopolitical contest. Treating them this way, as the visiting State Department delegation reportedly did in Niamey, will only generate resentment and mistrust.



Nathaniel Powell is a West Africa analyst at Oxford Analytica and an honorary researcher at Lancaster University’s Centre for War and Diplomacy. He is the author of France’s Wars in Chad: Military Intervention and Decolonization in Africa.

 Image: Spc. Zayid Ballesteros