Russia Gains Ground in Niger, Leaving the West on the Backfoot

In recent weeks another Russian military plane landed in the Sahel, this time in Niger’s capital Niamey. Members of Africa Corps, the rebranded Wagner group, touched down on the tarmac along with heavy equipment such as anti-aircraft guns. Ilyushin planes landing in the middle of the night have become a familiar sight as Russia boosts ties with Mali, Burkina Faso and now also Niger. Europe and Western countries are now on the backfoot.

Geopolitics are changing fast in the Sahel, an impoverished desert region grappling for over a decade with a rise in jihadist attacks, state failure and some of the world’s largest population growth rates. For decades Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso had close ties with Western countries, especially the former colonial power France. European countries and the United States remain by far the biggest donors of humanitarian and development aid for the Sahel and in West Africa, at large. But on the political and economic level, the West is fast losing influence in the region, a fact many European diplomats are struggling to adjust to.

How did this happen? The West’s retreat started with France’s quasi-forced military withdrawal first from Mali in 2022, then Burkina Faso some six months later and recently from Niger after the military putsch removed President Mohamed Bazoum, the West’s most important security partner in the Sahel. All three countries have something in common – they are military-run, thrive on widespread anti-French sentiment and want to re-set their relations with France and Europe. And they also want weapons to fight jihadists, thus providing the perfect opportunity for Russian military partnerships that undermine Western interests.

Niger biggest prize for Russia

The new military partnership with Niger is Russia’s biggest success in its expansion in Francophone Africa as the country is – despite its massive poverty and underdevelopment – is strategically very important for Europe. Niger is rich in uranium but more importantly it is the main route for migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, who travel through Libya and North Africa, before trying to reach mainland Europe by boat. Because of this, Russia’s ties with Niger, pose a threat to Europe. Indeed, Moscow has used migration as a weapon in other parts of the world such as the Finland/Russia border. Russia wants to pursue business interests by offering weapons and fighters but clearly also sees the Sahel as a vehicle through which to expand its geopolitical footprint and offer itself as an purportedly credible alternative to the West.

On a recent visit to the smuggler hub in Agadez in northern Niger, some 100 Toyota pickup trucks packed with 30 or more migrants were heading off one night in a convoy to Sabha, the biggest city in southern Libya. The passage had been officially closed since 2015, when the European Union put pressure on Niger to ban any help to migrants, to the dismay of local – thousands got unemployed in Agadez, a former rest point for camel caravans, as moving migrants is the main economic activity since tourists stopped coming due to insecurity since then 2012 Mali crisis. Now the “transporteurs,” as the smugglers call themselves, are back in business, totally legally. Every Tuesday at sunset, a convoy escorted by the Nigerien army makes its way to Libya. Most migrants I met came from Niger who only look for work in Libya before coming home but others clearly have set their eyes on Europe.

It’s impossible to say whether Russia had been “encouraging” Niger to reopen the transit land route to Libya. For the government, the decision was for sure an easy way to win over Agadez residents who had suffered from the ban. But with the announcement of the reopening came as Niger was signing an agreement with Russia to boost bilateral military cooperation – it would be fair to say that Niger felt emboldened enough to turn its back on Europe by legalizing the migration business.

European diplomats have overestimated their sway by making demands on the military governments. France or Germany threatened to pull out troops in 2021 if the government brought in Russian mercenaries. Mali was unimpressed and went ahead with a deal with Russia. In Niger, European countries fell into the same trap by ignoring – at France’s request – the new junta for almost six months, which allowed not just Russia but other new partners such as Iran, China and Turkey to offer their services. The U.S., which has a drone base in Agadez monitoring Libya as part of counter-terrorism efforts, then made the same mistake when a delegation reportedly told the Nigeriens they should not allow Iran to get its hands on uranium. A day later, the Niger government asked U.S. troops to pack up.

African governments are refusing to be bullied by the West 

The Sahel is a showcase for the loss of Western influence. African countries can and will pick their partners, refusing to get bullied into a choice between the West and Russia. Europe is also less credible in the eyes of Sahelians or Africans for that matter due to its close ties with Chad, another military-run Sahel country. Unlike Mali or Burkina Faso Chad still has excellent ties to France – it is one of the last “Francafrique” countries where Paris has held close ties since independence despite a poor record in human and democratic rights. There are many reasons to work with a fragile country such as Chad struggling with an influx of some 700,000 refugees from its war-torn neighbor Sudan. What many draw attention to are the double standards of suspending development aid to Niger due to democratic deficits but continuing on with business as usual with Chad.

It will be difficult for Europe and especially France to regain trust and rebuild relations with Sahelian countries and their very young populations (the average age in Mali or Niger is around 15 years). Unlike the older generation, young people have no preference for Europe and they are fully subjected to Russian soft power and disinformation campaigns seeking to undermine Western values and promote Moscow in countries where most people get their news from social media. France’s former army chief of staff, François Lecointre, just said in an interview that France and Europe would be obliged to intervene in the future again in the Sahel as the Russians won’t solve the security crises. I don’t know which audience the general was targeting but his comments were perceived as arrogant in the Sahel and provided fodder for pro-Russia trolls on social media to undermine even further Europe’s standing in the region.

Ulf Laessing is head of the Sahel regional program in Mali. He previously worked for 13 years as a foreign correspondent and bureau chief at the Reuters news agency in the Middle East, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, focusing on the Arab Spring, conflicts and military missions, political transformations, terrorism and jihadists, migration, the economy and climate change. Laessing is the author of a book about the Libya conflict and studied history, Islamic studies and economics in Hamburg, Leipzig and Kuwait.

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