Russia and Nigér have agreed to strengthen their military cooperation, as the West African country faces a security and political crisis following a coup in July. A Russian delegation led by the deputy defence minister met with Niger’s military leaders in Niamey on Monday, in the first official visit by a member of the Russian government since the army ousted the civilian government of President Mohamed Bazoum¹.
The delegation, headed by Colonel-General Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, was hosted for talks by the head of Niger’s military government, General Abdourahamane Tiani. The parties “signed documents to strengthen military cooperation between the Republic of Niger and the Russian Federation,” according to Nigerien authorities. The details of the agreement were not disclosed, but it is likely to include training, equipment and intelligence sharing.
The visit comes as Russia seeks to expand its influence and presence in Africa, especially in the Sahel region, where it has already established close ties with Mali, Niger’s neighbour and main ally. Russia has been providing military and technical assistance to Mali, as well as supporting its development projects in the fields of energy, transport and mining. Russia has also been involved in the Central African Republic and Sudan, where it has deployed the Wagner Group, a paramilitary group funded by the Russian state, to provide security and training for local forces.
Russia’s role in the Sahel has been seen as a challenge to the traditional influence of France, the former colonial power, which has been leading a counterterrorism operation in the region since 2013. France has deployed about 5,000 troops in the Sahel as part of its Operation Barkhane, which aims to support the local forces in fighting the Islamist insurgency that has spread across the vast and arid region south of the Sahara.
However, France has faced growing resentment and criticism from the Sahelian countries, who have demanded more autonomy and dignity in their security affairs. Niger, along with Mali and Burkina Faso, have ordered the French forces to leave their territories, following the example of Chad, which expelled the French troops in April. France has also announced its intention to reduce its military presence in the region and to focus on a more international and multilateral approach.
In August, Russia warned that military intervention in Niger by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) would lead to a “protracted confrontation” and destabilize the wider Sahel region. The Russian foreign ministry said that such an intervention would be a “grave mistake” and would only serve to prolong the crisis in Niger.
The US, which backs efforts to restore deposed leader Mohamed Bazoum, has also threatened military intervention against Niger. The US says that Russia’s Wagner mercenary group is taking advantage of the instability in Niger to further its own interests in the region.
The military regimes in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso have also formed their own regional bloc, called the Alliance of Sahel States (AES), which was established in September. The AES aims to enhance the cooperation and integration of the Sahelian nations in the areas of diplomacy, defence and development, as well as to protect their sovereignty and territorial integrity from external threats. The AES has also expressed its willingness to cooperate with other regional and international partners, such as the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the United Nations and the European Union.
The creation of the AES and the military cooperation agreement with Russia have raised questions about the future of the regional security architecture and the role of France and other external actors in the Sahel. Some analysts have warned that the fragmentation of the anti-jihadist coalition could undermine the effectiveness and legitimacy of the fight against terrorism, and that the AES could face challenges in terms of resources, capacity and governance. Others have argued that the AES could offer an opportunity for a more inclusive and sustainable approach to the Sahel crisis, and that Russia could play a constructive role in coordination with the AES and other partners.
Niger’s junta on Monday scrapped two key military agreements that the West African nation signed with the European Union to help fight the violence in Africa’s Sahel region as the country’s army leaders and a senior Russian defence official discussed military cooperation.
In a memo, Niger’s foreign affairs ministry said the government has decided to “withdraw the privileges and immunities granted” under the EU Military Partnership Mission in Niger that was launched in February and consequently “has no legal obligation” related to that partnership.
It also dismissed the EU Civilian Capacity-Building Mission established in 2012 to strengthen Niger’s internal security sector, effectively revoking its approval for the missions.