Niger’s prime minister blames US for rupture of military pact | Niger

Date: 2024-05-14T14:08:04.000Z


Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine, Niger’s prime minister, has blamed the US for a rupture in an important military pact between the two countries that allows US forces to station in the west African nation.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Zeine said US officials had attempted to dictate which countries Niger could align with, had failed to justify the presence of US troops in the country while “doing nothing” to counter an Islamist insurgency in the region.

“The Americans stayed on our soil, doing nothing while the terrorists killed people and burned towns,” Zeine told the Post. “It is not a sign of friendship to come on our soil but let the terrorists attack us. We have seen what the United States will do to defend its allies, because we have seen Ukraine and Israel.”

Last year, a military coup d’état ousted Niger’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum. Washington then froze security support and paused counter-terrorism activities run out of Air Base 201, where the US conducts drone surveillance of the Islamic State and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the Sahel and stationed more than 1,000 military personnel.

Last month, the US acted on Niger’s demands that US troops leave and agreed to withdraw its forces.

The cancellation of the US-Niger security pact has stirred fears of a loss of US influence and a replacement by Russian power in west Africa. Neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali, where Russia’s Wagner mercenary group has established a presence, are already considered to be close to Moscow.

After last July’s coup in Niger and before his assassination in August, the Wagner group leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, issued a statement welcoming the new military government and offering it Wagner’s services.

US diplomats and military officials made a counter-offer designed to keep cooperation in place, but Russia has dispatched troops to the capital, Niamey. Russian and US troops now occupy opposite ends of an airbase.

In his interview with the Post, Zeine revealed the extent of the breakdown in US-Niger relations.

Zeine said leaders of Niger’s new government, known as the National Council for Safeguarding the Homeland, or CNSP, were unhappy that the US had frozen military support but kept US troops in the country.

Gen Michael Langley, head of the US Africa Command, told a Senate armed services committee meeting in March that while the US was no longer conducting counter-terrorism operations from Niger, a US military presence in the region was necessary to counter Russian encroachment.

“I’d say that a number of countries are at the tipping point of actually being captured by the Russian Federation as they are spreading some of their false narratives across Libya,” he said. “At [an] accelerated pace, [the] Russian Federation is really trying to take over central Africa, as well as the Sahel.”

Zeine said that the US response to Niger’s coup contrasted with responses from Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates that had welcomed the new leadership in Niamey with “open arms”.

“Nigeriens were saying, ‘Americans are our friends, they will help us this time to annihilate the terrorists.’ But there was radio silence,” Zeine told the newspaper, adding that Niger would have not looked to Russia for help if the US had responded to requests for more support, including for planes, drones and air defense systems.

But he also said he had told the US delegation that Niger still desired economic and diplomatic relations with the US. “If American investors arrived, we would give them what they wanted. We have uranium. We have oil. We have lithium. Come, invest. It is all we want.”

Zeine told the Post he took offense at remarks by Molly Phee, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, who he said had directed Niger to resist engaging with Russia and Iran if it wanted to continue its security relationship with the US and threatened sanctions if Niger pursued a deal to sell uranium to Iran. Zeine said that “absolutely nothing” has been signed with Iran.

The Niger leader said he had told Phee that she had “come here to threaten us in our country. That is unacceptable. And you have come here to tell us with whom we can have relationships, which is also unacceptable. And you have done it all with a condescending tone and a lack of respect.”

In a response, a US official told the Washington Post that the message relayed to Niamey was “delivered in a professional manner, in response to valid concerns about developments”.