Niger will remain the “weakest link” to comprehensive military-economic integration within the Sahelian Alliance so long as it continues hosting the US’ two drone bases there. Its interim authorities aren’t “Trojan Horses” like some might wildly speculate, but are simply ensuring their country’s national interests as they sincerely understand them to be given the very difficult circumstances that they found themselves in after ECOWAS threatened to invade.
The interim military-led governments of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger signed the Liptako-Gourma Charter in Bamako on Saturday that provides for mutual security and closer economic cooperation. This development will reshape regional military-strategic dynamics since it represents the creation of a sub-bloc within ECOWAS among three of the four countries whose participation in the latter was suspended in recent years. Guinea isn’t part of this “Sahelian Alliance” but it could possibly join in the future.
The most immediate effect is that ECOWAS will now think twice before launching a French-backed Nigerian-led invasion of Niger since that would instantly lead to a wider war with the Sahelian Alliance. In the event that this worst-case scenario is deterred, then those three newly allied countries will be able to focus more on helping one another deal with unconventional security threats. They’re each fighting jihadists, while Mali is also struggling to deal with a renewed Tuareg insurgency.
About that, rebels recently seized a northern town and are poised to make further gains in violation of the 2015 peace agreement that each side accuses the other of violating. Russia is Mali’s preferred security partner nowadays so Moscow is expected to assist Bamako in managing this crisis. Interim Burkinabe President Ibrahim Traore confirmed last month that he discussed military cooperation with a visiting Russian delegation so their strategic alliance might expand in that direction too.
In that case, the Kremlin would end up playing a multinational anti-terrorist role in West Africa and thus de facto replace France’s traditional responsibilities in the region, albeit as a truly equal partner of those two as opposed to the hegemon-proxy relationship that characterized Paris’ ties with them. Two out of the Sahelian Alliance’s members would therefore become Russia’s military allies, but this sub-bloc as a whole might not formally partner with Moscow due to the US’ continued military presence in Niger.
The top US Air Force commander for Europe and Africa revealed last week just days before this group’s creation that his country resumed its intelligence and surveillance missions there after having largely stopped them right after this summer’s military coup. It was argued here that this was almost certainly the result of Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s trip to Niamey in early August and the negotiations that she held with the junta during that time.
The US’ goal is to prevent the further expansion of Russia’s regional influence after Moscow’s military inroads in Mali and its impending ones in Burkina Faso, which were brought about by those two’s latest coups. These regime changes were carried out in response to their people becoming more politically aware and accordingly agitating for the full completion of their decolonization processes vis-a-vis France. As French influence receded, Russian influence grew, and this posed a challenge to American interests.
The US therefore seems to have reached a deal with Niger’s military authorities whereby it’ll call off ECOWAS’ threatened invasion of that country in exchange for them keeping its two drone bases and not following in its neighbor’s footsteps by requesting Russia’s military assistance. This informal arrangement would account for last week’s announcement and could also serve to prevent Niger’s incorporation in the federation that Burkina Faso and Mali are seriously considering forming.
Not only that, but the US could contrast its potentially successful anti-jihadist security assistance to Niger with Russia’s struggle in helping Mali and possibly also soon Burkina Faso counteract these same threats, not to mention the first’s renewed Tuareg insurgency. If the situation in US-allied Niger improves while worsening in Russian-allied Mali and possibly also Burkina Faso, with the latter two’s turmoil likely being due to American and/or French meddling, then Washington can divide-and-rule the Sahelian Alliance.
Additionally, the US could artificially manufacture an information warfare narrative alleging that their opposite fortunes supposedly prove the merits of allying with America and the pitfalls inherent in allying with Russia. This might not have much of a tangible effect in Mali or Burkina Faso, but it could manipulate perceptions in other countries by splitting incipient anti-imperialist movements there into American- and Russian-aligned camps over who best to ally with for replacing French influence.
Those who might seize power in any forthcoming military coups carried out in response to their people’s rising political awareness and associated protests aimed at fully completing their decolonization processes vis-a-vis France would therefore be forced to choose between those two New Cold War rivals. Russia wouldn’t automatically be their preferred security partner if the plotters are influenced by the abovementioned information warfare campaign into thinking that there are risks in allying with it.
Truth be told, America’s emerging response to regional multipolar trends isn’t novel since it supported the first wave of decolonization over half a century ago for the same reason related to competing with the erstwhile Soviet Union for hearts, minds, and influence. Back then, the US turned against several of its NATO allies by encouraging their now-former colonies’ independence movements, while this time it’s only turning against France since that’s the only one that still exerts hegemony in parts of Africa.
To that end, the US wants to divide incipient anti-imperialist movements in France’s “sphere of influence” prior to co-opting friendly factions within them. After that, it can either support their representatives’ electoral rise to national leadership (including via Color Revolutions that it could cook up in pursuit of that outcome) or ally with their new military leaders that come to power after a coup. Through these means, the US hopes to slow down, stop, and possibly even reverse Russian influence.
This insight is relevant to the newly formed Sahelian Alliance since it suggests that Niger will remain the “weakest link” to comprehensive military-economic integration so long as it continues hosting the US’ two drone bases there. Its interim authorities aren’t “Trojan Horses” like some might wildly speculate, but are simply ensuring their country’s national interests as they sincerely understand them to be given the very difficult circumstances that they found themselves in after ECOWAS threatened to invade.
Those observers who support multipolarity therefore shouldn’t judge the junta too harshly since it’s literally being forced under the threat of a wider war into keeping America’s two drone bases open. They might have initially been driven by grand ant-imperialist goals into overthrowing their puppet president, but they’re now turning into a laboratory for the US to experiment with its response to regional trends. It’s a disappointing turn of events, but hopefully it’ll at least prevent a wider war from breaking out.