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Analysis: US military mission in Niger in focus after coup

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General Abdourahmane Tiani, who was declared as the new head of state of Niger by leaders of a coup, arrives to meet with ministers in Niamey, Niger July 28, 2023. REUTERS/Balima Boureima/File Photo

Last month’s coup in Niger has raised questions over whether the United States can continue the 1,100-strong military presence in the country that officials and analysts say has been key to fighting Islamist militants in the Sahel region.

Over the past decade, U.S. troops have trained Nigerien forces in counterterrorism and operated two military bases, including one that conducts drone missions against Islamic State and an Al Qaeda affiliate in the region.

After ousting President Mohamed Bazoum from office on July 26 and placing him under house arrest, the junta revoked military cooperation agreements with France, which has between 1,000 and 1,500 troops in the country.

So far the United States has not received any request to remove its troops and does not have any indication that it will be forced to do so, said two U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

But with the West African regional bloc ECOWAS threatening military intervention and Russia’s Wagner mercenary group offering help to the coup leaders – both of which could pose safety risks for U.S. military personnel – U.S. planners could find themselves contemplating a future without a foothold in a part of Africa facing insurgencies and where the U.S. vies with Russia and China for influence.

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“Our drone base in Niger is extremely important in countering terrorism in the region,” one of the U.S. officials said. “If that closed down, it would be a huge blow.”

FOREIGN ASSISTANCE

The Biden administration has not formally labeled the military takeover in Niger a coup, a designation that would limit what security assistance Washington can provide the country.

Still, the United States last week paused certain foreign assistance programs for Niger and said on Tuesday that included funding for international military education and training and programs that support Niger’s counterterrorism capabilities. Military training is on hold.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken declined to comment on Tuesday in a BBC interview on the future presence of U.S. troops, who are in Niger with the approval of the ousted government.

The U.S. drone base has grown in importance due to a lack of Western security partners in the region.

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Military juntas have come to power through coups in Mali and Burkina Faso – both neighbors of Niger – in recent years. More than 2,000 French troops left Mali last year and a 13,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force is due to shut down by the end of the year after the junta abruptly asked it to leave.

The drone base, known as airbase 201, was built near Agadez in central Niger at a cost of more than $100 million. Since 2018, it has been used to target Islamic State and Al Qaeda affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), in the Sahel.

Since the coup, U.S. troops are largely staying on their bases and U.S. military flights, including drones, are being individually approved, according to the U.S. officials.

Cameron Hudson, a former U.S. official who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said he thinks it is likely Washington will try to keep using the drone base irrespective of who was in charge of Niger.

“From a political or from an optics perspective, it’s certainly easier to defend,” said Hudson, explaining that while the cooperation of Niger’s authorities was needed to stay, it helps the U.S. gather intelligence on militant targets across the region and would not directly benefit the junta.

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The U.S. may have to reconsider its presence if the members of ECOWAS, who will meet Thursday, decide to intervene militarily. The junta defied an Aug. 6 ECOWAS deadline to reinstate ousted President Mohamed Bazoum.

Terence McCulley, who previously served as U.S. ambassador to Mali, Nigeria and Ivory Coast and is now at the United States Institute of Peace, said that the U.S. military would make a “force protection decision” if conflict erupted, adding that such an intervention was theoretical at this point and he did not expect ECOWAS would stage such an operation rapidly.

WAGNER COMPLICATION

Another complicating factor could be any decision by Niger’s coup leaders to seek help from Wagner Group, which the U.S. has designated a transnational criminal organization. Wagner’s chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has welcomed the coup in Niger and said his forces were available to restore order.

Wagner mercenaries teamed up with Mali’s junta in 2021 and has about 1,000 fighters in the country, where jihadists control large swathes of the desert north and center.

One of the U.S. officials said if Wagner fighters turn up in Niger it would not automatically mean U.S. forces would have to leave.

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The official said a scenario where a few dozen Wagner forces base themselves in Niger’s capital Niamey was unlikely to affect the United States’ military presence.

But if thousands of Wagner fighters spread across the country, including near Agadez, problems could arise because of safety concerns for U.S. personnel.

Regardless, the U.S. will put a high bar for any decision to leave the country.

“The only way this mission ends is if the Nigerien government asks us to leave,” the first U.S. official said. “It’s too important for us to abandon.”

-Reuters

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Kunle Solaja is the author of landmark books on sports and journalism as well as being a multiple award-winning journalist and editor of long standing. He is easily Nigeria’s foremost soccer diarist and Africa's most capped FIFA World Cup journalist, having attended all FIFA World Cup finals from Italia ’90 to Qatar 2022. He was honoured at the Qatar 2022 World Cup by FIFA and AIPS.

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King Mohammed VI Invites Tinubu To Morocco –

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Morocco’s monarch, King Mohammed VI has invited Nigeria’s President Bola Ahmed Adekunle Tinubu to Morocco after having a telephone conversation with the Nigerian leader. According to a statement  during a phone exchange that took place today.

A statement from the royal palace said that the two leaders discussed the development of bilateral relations between Morocco and Nigeria over the past few years.

The discussion also covered the African-Atlantic Gas Pipeline, which is a structuring project between Nigeria and Morocco that will be a strategic lever for regional integration and socio-economic development for all West African countries.

Initiated in 2016 first by King Mohammed VI and former president of Nigeria Muhammadu Buhari, the pipeline aims to promote regional integration and reinforce Africa’s energy security. Morocco is set to host over 1600 kilometers of the project, which is 5,600 kilometers long in total.

King Mohammed VI has frequently emphasized the importance of the project, reiterating Morocco’s commitment to the pipeline project with Nigeria.In November 2023, during a speech the King gave commemorating the Green March, he stressed the potential benefits that the pipeline could bring not only to Africa but also to Europe.

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“The Morocco-Nigeria gas pipeline  strategic project is part of that endeavor,” he said, referring to the purpose of the project; to promote regional integration and boost economic growth.
The pipeline is set to connect over 11 countries in the region to benefit from Nigerian gas sources.
Many countries have endorsed the project, including Senegal.

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US reaffirms support for Morocco’s Autonomy Plan on Western Sahara

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The US State Department has affirmed the country’s support for Morocco on the Western Sahara issue.

In a statement of support issued on Sunday, the Americans remarked: “There is no change in the clear and consistent U.S. position regarding the Moroccan Sahara issue.”

 

The statement is published on the eve of the visit to Morocco of U.S. Assistant Secretary for North Africa Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Joshua Harris, the State Department stressed that during his talks in Rabat, the U.S. official will reiterate that “there is no change in the clear and consistent U.S. position.”

This new reaffirmation of the consistency of Washington’s position provides a scathing denial of the fallacious allegations conveyed by some Algerian media outlets which have insinuated, following the recent visit to Algiers made by the U.S. official, an alleged change in the U.S. position on the Sahara issue.

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“The United States fully supports UN Personal Envoy de Mistura in facilitating the negotiations process to achieve a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable solution for the Sahara,” the statement points out.

After recalling that the United States “believes a negotiated political solution should be realized without further delay,” the same source underlines that “the outcome of UN-led negotiations – mutually agreed to by the parties and reflecting their commitment to UN efforts in a spirit of realism and compromise – would constitute the final resolution to this issue.”

“In this regard, the United States continues to view Morocco’s Autonomy Proposal as serious, credible, and realistic,” it says.

The visit to Rabat of Deputy Assistant Secretary Joshua Harris will also focus on the means to further strengthen the U.S.-Morocco partnership in addition to a range of regional security priorities, the statement stress

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Morocco, UAE strengthen ties

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King Mohammed VI of Morocco and President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates

Morocco’s monarch, King Mohammed VI and United Arab Emirate’s President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan on Monday engaged in high-level talks aimed at bolstering bilateral cooperation on Monday.

They issued a press release in which both countries highlighted the mutual appreciation and deep-rooted affection.

King Mohammed VI commended President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan for successfully overseeing the 28th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 28) held in Dubai.

The meeting showcased the two countries’ shared commitment to boost ties, with emphasis on a multidimensional partnership across many spheres.

King Mohammed VI underscored Morocco’s strides in infrastructure and structural reforms, outlining a vision of economic and social development through strategic investments.

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On his part, President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan hailed Morocco’s potential as an investment hub, acknowledging the nation’s diverse assets and conducive business climate. The leaders affirmed their intent to cultivate innovative partnerships, exploring collaborative ventures that would benefit both nations economically and socially.

They also expressed keen interest in implementing joint action plans based on signed agreements, aiming to pioneer common partnerships in regional and international markets.

King Mohammed VI extended gratitude to President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan for the UAE’s unwavering support on national issues and Morocco’s development.

The talks concluded with an optimistic outlook, fostering a renewed sense of cooperation and shared aspirations for the future.

Following the talks, the two leaders signed a joint declaration, committing to boosting bilateral ties and cooperation in a wide range of sectors.

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The declaration is titled “Towards an Innovative, Renewed, and Deep-rooted Partnership,” and aims to strengthen ties between the two countries through win-win economic ties.

The declaration’s text indicates that King Mohammed VI’s visit to the UAE came at the invitation of Al Nahyan.

“During their bilateral talks… the two Heads of State reiterated their firm and resolute commitment to elevate the relations between the two countries and their mutual cooperation towards broader horizons, through active economic partnerships serving their shared supreme interests, generating progress and prosperity for the two brotherly peoples,” the declaration reads.

The declaration expresses the two countries’ desire to work towards elevating bilateral ties in economic, commercial, investment, and industrial aspects to the “level of deep political” ties to serve the development goals of both countries.

The two countries also aspire to establish a model of comprehensive and balanced economic and investment cooperation open to the private sector, attracting benefits for both.

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