U.S., Russia vying for influence in West Africa

NIAMEY, Niger -- U.S. officials are waging urgent diplomatic efforts in West Africa, searching during public tours and private meetings for ways to partner with military governments in a region where violence wrought by Islamic extremists is soaring and Russia's influence is expanding.

But the officials have struggled at times to articulate what that partnership would look like, especially since the types of assistance the United States government can legally provide has been curtailed after the ousting of democratically elected governments by soldiers in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, according to interviews with a dozen current and former U.S. officials, analysts and activists.

The stakes are especially high in Niger, where the U.S. has deployed more than 1,000 soldiers and operates a drone base that officials say is vital for surveillance of extremist groups in the Sahel region, which runs across Africa just below the Sahara Desert.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Molly Phee, the State Department's top official for African affairs, said she did not mince words when she traveled to Niamey, Niger's capital, in December to negotiate with Niger's prime minister and other Cabinet members. Phee said she urged Niger's junta to rebuild its relations with other countries, particularly with the regional bloc of West African states known as the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, which is seen as an ally in efforts to restore democracy in the region. And she stressed that U.S. assistance would remain suspended until Niger sets a timeline for restoring democracy.

"We made the choice as stark and clear as we could," Phee recalled.

But in the two months since that meeting, Niger has largely moved in the opposite direction. The government has yet to announce a timeline for holding elections and continues to detain the democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum under house arrest.

Niger exited ECOWAS last month after nearly 50 years along with Mali and Burkina Faso and they created their own Alliance of Sahel States, deepening the rift in West Africa between the three military-led nations and those with democratically elected presidents. On Sunday, an official with ECOWAS announced that sanctions against Niger had been lifted, marking a softening of the bloc's position as it pushes for the three nations to rescind their decision.

Meanwhile, Russia continues to make gains in the region. Phee's visit to Niger came just after Russia's deputy defense minister, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, signed new security agreements with the junta. In Burkina Faso, more than 100 Russian soldiers with Africa Corps -- headed by Yevkurov and described by Russian officials as the successor group to the Wagner mercenary group -- have arrived in the past two months. In Mali, analysts estimate that more than 1,000 Russian soldiers, initially with Wagner and now with the Africa Corps, are fighting alongside Malian forces against separatists and Islamic extremists.

During a trip last month that included stops in Ivory Coast and Nigeria, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters that the State Department was "intensely focused on challenges to security in the region, in the Sahel." He warned regional countries of the consequences of deepening ties with Russia, noting that those that worked with Wagner have seen problems "get manifestly worse and worse and worse."

Gen. Michael Langley, who heads U.S. military operations in Africa, said in an interview that it would be up to policymakers to determine how much of a Russian presence in Niger could be countenanced before the United States adjusts its troop presence.

While the U.S. is pushing to continue its operations in Niger, Langley said the Defense Department is also "exploring its options" for new security agreements with other West African countries, including Ghana, Togo, Benin and the Ivory Coast. He noted that they are starting to see violence in the Sahel "metastasize over their borders." The Wall Street Journal reported last month that the U.S. was holding preliminary talks about positioning American reconnaissance drones at airfields in Ghana, Ivory Coast and Benin.

The air base in northern Niger, which was built six years ago for $110 million, has been vital for monitoring extremist groups connected to al-Qaida and the Islamic State, which have increasingly made Africa, rather than the Middle East, their main theater, Langley said. Since the Niger coup in July, activity at the base has been limited to surveillance for protection of U.S. forces.

Langley warned that if the U.S. closed the drone base, the move would be "impactful" in Niger and the region, and for the United States' broader counterterrorism strategy. "If we can't see, we can't sense," he said. "If we lose our footprint in the Sahel, that will degrade our ability to do active watching and warning, including for homeland defense."

J. Peter Pham, a former U.S. special envoy for the Sahel region, said the U.S. is hamstrung in negotiations with African countries, especially those run by military juntas, because it cannot offer as much as Russia in security support, including weapons and personnel on the ground.

"It is sort of like the doctor that diagnoses you with the disease but then refuses to write the prescription," Pham said. "If we are not willing to write the script or give the drug, then we can't really complain about the patient who goes to someone else who does dispense a remedy, however noxious."

When soldiers in Mali ousted their president in 2020, the first in the recent spate of coups in the Sahel, the U.S. State Department immediately froze security assistance. But Pham said he remained in close communication with Mali's military leaders, including meeting monthly with interim president Assimi Goïta.

Pham, who left his post in 2021 and has not been replaced, said the relationship between the U.S. and Mali deteriorated in part because of a State Department decision in 2021 to block the sale of a transponder for an unarmed transport plane sought by the Malian government. This effectively killed the purchase, Pham said, leading Mali to look at aircraft offered by Russia. Later that year, Pham noted, Wagner soldiers arrived in the country and Malian officials became increasingly isolationist, asking the French military -- which for years had been running counterterrorism operations in Mali -- to leave in 2022 and the United Nations to close its mission last year.

The United States then shifted its diplomatic focus to Burkina Faso, which experienced two coups in 2022 but was seen then as more amenable than Mali to setting a timeline for restoring democracy and less interested in working with Russia. A delegation from the White House, Pentagon and State Department that visited Burkina Faso in October warned President Ibrahim Traoré that working with Wagner would constitute a red line.

Senior officials at the State Department and the Pentagon were pushing as recently as last summer for a nonlethal security assistance package for Burkina Faso's military, arguing that the threat posed by the Islamist insurgency required action despite concerns about human rights violations by its military and allied militia forces. But such plans appeared to stall after the Niger coup.

Then last month, a contingent of 100 members of Russia's Africa Corps deployed to Burkina Faso to "ensure the safety of the country's leader, Ibrahim Traoré, and the Burkinabe people from terrorist attacks," with another 200 military personnel from Russia to arrive soon, according to the group. Traoré said last month in an interview with journalist Alain Foka that Russians were providing training and equipment but were not yet fighting on the ground, although they would if necessary.

Without naming the United States, Traoré criticized countries that claim to be friends of Burkina Faso but say they cannot sell lethal weapons. "Where is the friendship?" he asked. With Russia, he added, there are no restrictions on arms sales, and it sells Burkinabe soldiers "whatever we want."

In Niger, some residents said the benefits of the American military presence have never been clear, while they can see that the Russians have helped Mali take back territory from rebels. "We want the Russians to come," said Maria Saley, an activist in Niamey. "We are waiting for them, waiting for them eagerly."

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