Protesters in Niger Call for U.S. Military Exit

Protesters in Niger Call for U.S. Military Exit

Thousands of protesters gathered in the capital of Niger on Saturday called for the withdrawal of U.S. armed forces personnel stationed in the West African nation, only days after Russia delivered its own set of military equipment and instructors to the country’s military.

The demonstration in the capital, Niamey, fit a well-known pattern in some countries in the region, run by military juntas, that have severed ties with Western nations in recent years and turned to Russia instead to fight extremist insurgencies.

“U.S. Army, you leave, you move, you vanish,” read one sign brandished by a protester. “No bonus, no negotiation.”

About 1,000 American military personnel are stationed at a remote drone base in Niger’s desert, from which they fly drones tracking movements of extremist groups in Niger and throughout the region.

But the United States suspended its military cooperation with Niger’s military last summer, when mutinous soldiers seized power in the country. That rupture has kept the drones grounded and the troops inactive. Last month, Niger ordered the U.S. troops to leave, declaring their presence illegal.

A U.S. State Department spokesman said that America remained in discussions with Niger’s authorities about its military presence and cooperation in the country.

But the sudden arrival of 100 Russian instructors and an air-defense system in Niger this past week will make the prospect of cooperation in the short-term even more uncertain. According to Russia’s state-owned news outlet Ria Novosti, the Russian personnel are part of Africa Corps, the new paramilitary structure intended to take the place of the Wagner group, the military company whose mercenaries and operations spread in Africa under the leadership of its former leader, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin.

“We are here to train Niger’s Army to use the military equipment that is here,” a Russian trainer said in a broadcast on Niger’s national television this past week, standing in front of a Russian military plane. “We are here to develop military cooperation between Russia and Niger.”

Mohamed Bazoum, the democratically elected president of Niger who was detained by his own presidential guard last July, has been held captive in his private residence in Niamey since then, with no access to the outside world nor with his lawyers. He has refused to resign.

The demonstrators in Niamey on Saturday waved Russian flags as well as those of Burkina Faso and Mali, two neighboring countries where military-led governments have also called in Russian assistance to help fight insurgents affiliated with the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.

All roads leading to the U.S. Embassy, a few miles from the square, were blocked.

Unlike previous protests — against France, a former key partner of Niger that withdrew its troops last year amid a fallout with the junta — the demonstration on Saturday remained mostly calm. But the message was clear.

“We can’t understand that the American base on our territory isn’t stopping terrorists from killing our soldiers,” said Mariama Saley, 40, who described herself as a civil society activist. “The Americans are going to leave Niger like the French have before them.”

“We need partners that will finish off terrorism,” said another protester, Amadou Soumana.

The spokesman for Niger’s government and a close aide to the country’s current ruler, Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, attended the demonstration.

A senior U.S. official said that despite the demonstration and public calls for U.S. troops to leave, senior ministers in Niger’s military-led government were privately requesting to revise the security partnership with the United States, not to abandon it. The U.S. official spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment on diplomatic discussions.

Niger’s alliance with Russia goes back years: Niger bought military helicopters from Russia in 2016, and the two countries signed an agreement on military cooperation and training two years later. But at the same time, governments in the Sahel region, the arid strip of land south of the Sahara that includes Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, had begun to rely on the United States and European countries to train their troops and collect intelligence on armed groups.

That era is over, Western diplomats and analysts say. A delegation from Washington and the top U.S. commander for Africa, Gen. Michael E. Langley, that visited Niger last month left without being able to meet with General Tchiani, the country’s leader.

Niger later criticized the delegation’s “condescending attitude” and blamed U.S. officials for threatening reprisals if Niger was to partner with American rivals like Russia and Iran.

“The United States asked Niger to pick a side,” a Western diplomat based in a country of the Sahel said on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing diplomatic tensions. “Well, now they have.”

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.

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