US signals intention to engage with new military government in Niger

Pragmatic policy aimed at retaining influence in region that is prey to extremism and Russian activity

The US will forge strained but pragmatic relations with the new military government in Niger after recognising as a fait accompli a July coup in the west African nation, said president Joe Biden’s special assistant on Africa.

“We are engaging with the region in ways consistent with our laws so that we can continue to make sure that the region is safe,” Judd Devermont, senior director for African Affairs at the National Security Council, told the Financial Times Africa Summit.

Governments in the Sahel countries of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger as well as Guinea have been toppled in recent years by military juntas. The loss of democratic regimes has limited Washington’s ability to engage in the Sahel, where Islamist groups linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State have infiltrated swathes of territory and carried out multiple deadly attacks.

Washington’s position on Niger contrasts with that of Paris, which has been forced to sever ties with the new regime led by general Omar Tchiani after it expelled France’s ambassador and ordered 1,500 French troops to leave.


France does not recognise the military-led government, the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland, but regards close ally and former president Mohamed Bazoum as the legitimate elected leader. The junta on Friday said it foiled an attempt by Mr Bazoum to escape from custody.

Mr Devermont said the US needed “to add complexity” to its relationships on the continent, and even though it was “not business as usual” in Niamey it could not simply walk away from Niger. The US maintains more than 1,000 troops and two drone bases in Niger, from which it surveils Islamist activity throughout the Sahel, a semi-arid region south of the Sahara.

“If we left Niger, it’s not just about Nigerien security. It’s also about the consequences for Ghana, Togo, Benin,” said Mr Devermont, referring to coastal states with northern borders on the Sahel that are threatened by the spread of terror groups.

“This is a region that is, unfortunately, seeing a real expansion of extremism. And it’s getting close now to the borders, if not spilling over the borders of the littoral countries,” he added.

Under Mr Biden, the US has increased diplomatic engagement with Africa. Top officials to visit the continent include Kamala Harris, vice-president, Treasury secretary Janet Yellen and Antony Blinken, secretary of state.

Mr Biden is expected to visit Kenya, and possibly another African country such as Nigeria, in December, although no details have been announced.

Mr Devermont also sought to play down a diplomatic row with South Africa after the US ambassador Reuben Brigety accused Pretoria of exporting arms to Russia. A subsequent South African inquiry found no evidence of shipments.

“They appointed a very esteemed judge to review the material. And we were very pleased with the outcome,” Mr Devermont told this week’s summit. “We’ve decided perhaps we’ll talk about this in private.”

The US has also rowed back from suggestions that it could deny South African exports tariff-free access under the African Growth and Opportunity Act because of Pretoria’s refusal to take sides on Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. A non-aligned position “makes a lot of sense in the African context”, Mr Devermont said.

US pragmatism did not mean it accepted military governments in Africa, he added. But Washington recognised the reality that more countries were being run by military regimes for longer.

“There was a coup [in Niger], we have a law that requires us to suspend a lot of our assistance and activities,” he said, referring to the suspension of up to $600 million (€566 million) in military training and assistance. “But we’re eager to work with the region, with the Nigeriens, to find a transition as quickly as possible.”

After a 2021 coup in Mali, some US officials, including Peter Pham, former US special envoy to the Sahel, blamed Washington for driving the new regime towards Russia’s paramilitary Wagner Group by refusing to engage with the junta.

Mr Devermont said Wagner’s “predatory” offering was not the answer. “I don’t want to speak for the Nigeriens, but they can just look across at Mali and see that it’s not a great outcome to work with the Russians. It doesn’t actually produce greater stability,” he added, saying that civilian casualties had soared 270 per cent “since Wagner showed up in December 2021″.

US officials have privately voiced hopes that, after the death in August in a plane crash of Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, the paramilitary group would become less nimble and effective in Africa. Wagner also has a presence in Central African Republic, Libya and Sudan.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023