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Did Western Military Presence Help Foster Coup in Niger, Where U.S. Has Drone Base & 1,000+ Troops?

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Image Credit: U.S. Air Force

We look at the growing crisis in Niger, where the country’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, was overthrown last week by his own presidential guard. One of the coup’s leaders, Brigadier General Moussa Salaou Barmou, was trained by the U.S., making the Nigerien coup the 11th in West Africa since 2008 to involve U.S.-trained military officers. The U.S. has approximately 1,000 troops in Niger, where it’s also spent $100 million building a drone base in its ongoing “war on terror.” The Biden administration has so far refused to describe last week’s event as a coup, because doing so would force Washington to cut security aid to Niger. While the reasons for the coup are still unclear, it is part of a worrying trend in the region, where “countries that have oversized involvement of the military in political life … are far more likely to have an ongoing pattern of military coups,” according to Stephanie Savell, the co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at the growing crisis in Niger, where the country’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, was overthrown last week by his own presidential guard. The former president has been detained since Wednesday. Many of his top political allies have been arrested.

Over the weekend, ECOWAS, the bloc of 15 West African nations, slapped sanctions on leaders of the coup and threatened to expel them by force unless they cede power within a week. This is ECOWAS President Omar Touray of Gambia.

OMAR TOURAY: In the event the authorities’ demands are not met within one week, take all measures necessary to restore constitutional order in the Republic of Niger. Such measures may include the use of force.

AMY GOODMAN: But three other African nations — Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea — have warned that any military intervention in Niger would be seen as a declaration of war against them, as well. The countries also warned that military intervention in Niger could destabilize the entire region, which has faced a spike in attacks from Islamic militants. A Burkina Faso government spokesperson made the announcement Monday.

JEAN EMMANUEL OUÉDRAOGO: [translated] We warn that any military intervention against Niger is tantamount to a declaration of war against Burkina Faso and Mali. We warn that any military intervention against Niger would entail a withdrawal of Burkina Faso and Mali from ECOWAS, as well as the adoption of self-defense measures in support of the armed forces and the people of Niger.

AMY GOODMAN: Niger is a former French colony which gained its independence in 1960. Over the weekend, Niger’s new rulers accused France of plotting to intervene militarily. Niger is a major supplier of uranium to France and the European Union. France is planning to start evacuating French and European Union residents today. On Sunday, thousands of supporters of the new junta attempted to storm the French Embassy in the capital Niamey.

Niger has also been a close ally to the United States. The U.S. has approximately a thousand troops in Niger. Following the coup, the troops have been restricted to a U.S. military base in the northern city Agadez, where the U.S. spent over $100 million building a drone base. The Biden administration has so far refused to describe last week’s event as a “coup,: because doing so would force Washington to cut security aid to Niger.

The Intercept reported last week that one of the leaders of last week’s coup, Brigadier General Moussa Salaou Barmou, who had been trained by the U.S. military at Fort Benning in Georgia. According to The Intercept, U.S.-trained military officers have taken part in 11 coups in West Africa since 2008, including in Burkina Faso and Mali.

In Moscow the Kremlin has described the situation in Niger as a, quote, “cause for serious concern.” But the head of the Russian mercenary group Wagner has reportedly welcomed the coup. Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been quoted saying, “What happened in Niger is nothing other than the struggle of the people of Niger with their colonizers,” unquote.

To talk more about the crisis in Niger, we’re joined by Stephanie Savell. She’s co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. She’s an anthropologist who has researched U.S. militarism in West Africa and beyond.

Professor Savell, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Can you start off by just explaining how this coup took place, the involvement of the presidential guard, etc.?

STEPHANIE SAVELL: Sure, yeah. On July 27th, the members of the presidential guard — so, the President Mohamed Bazoum’s own guard — detained the president. And the spokesman for what they’re calling the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland — this is the name of the junta — declared that the Nigerien president was overthrown, on national television, and that General Tchiani, who oversees the presidential guard, declared he was leading a transitional government.

So, the exact reasons for the coup are actually still unclear. Tchiani, he talked about the need to stop the country’s demise, and he was referring to the similar reasons for coups in neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali, because there’s been so much insecurity, a rise — a huge rise of Islamist militant terror attacks, as you mentioned, and so he was saying that because the country is kind of spiraling into [in]security, the military needed to step in. And so, he was kind of the head of this council, and a bunch of senior military leaders stepped in to support him.

What’s confusing a little bit about his claim is that this region is a kind of hub for terror attacks. There have been over 1,800 in the first six months of the year, but only 77 deaths occurred in Niger, as opposed to out of about 4,600 in total in the region of Burkina Faso and Mali. So, Niger has really managed to keep a lot of the attacks and the insecurity and the conflict to its border areas. It’s been known to be a kind of bastion of stability and resilience in a region that’s just been spiraling into chaos. So, it is a perplexing claim on the part of General Tchiani.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk to us about this rising presence of not only U.S. forces, but also other European troops in the country? Most Americans are not aware of this growing U.S. military presence in Africa.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: Not at all. I was there in January, actually, and, you know, it was just shocking to me when I was in the airport how many foreigners I was seeing moving in and out of the country, which is, you know, a first for me in many years in West Africa. So, over a thousand U.S. service personnel are in Niger, but lots of other countries are also there: France, Germany, Italy, Belgium — Canada at times has provided assistance.

And a lot of these Western powers really see — saw Niger as, you know, this kind of stable democracy and were pouring security assistance — that is, funding for military and police efforts, training efforts, a lot of weapons sales, as well, from the U.S. and elsewhere. So, they are pouring all this security assistance to kind of bolster this so-called democracy.

And, you know, I went to Agadez to see the U.S. installation, the air base there. So, it was $100 million the U.S. spent on building this air base. It costs about $30 million a year to maintain. And it is a massive, sophisticated installation in the Sahara Desert. And the drones there, the U.S. drones, are being used in the U.S. counterterror operations, what we call the post-9/11 wars, in the surrounding desert area. So, here, it’s strategically located in the middle of Algeria, Libya, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Nigeria, Chad, that whole belt where we’ve seen this kind of growing unrest. The U.S. is right there conducting these, you know, real operations. The U.S. is also located at a couple of other bases in Niger in different parts of the country with special operations forces, trainers that go in and out. So there’s far more people, actually, than those official 1,000 troops. There’s lots of people going in and out who are on short stays, and those don’t even count towards the totals.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you mentioned the coups, recent coups in Burkina Faso and Mali, but those were conducted, from what we understand, by people trained originally by the United States, officers trained by the United States. What do we know about the coup leaders in what is happening here?

STEPHANIE SAVELL: So, we do know that at least one of the coup leaders, General Barmou, has — maybe not a general, but a colonel, he’s — don’t quote me on that. So, he was definitely trained by the U.S. military. I mean, I think we can look at this at an individual level. There are certainly arguments to be made that, you know, U.S. training kind of empowers certain military leaders. But I think we also need to look at this as a structural issue.

So, what happens when the U.S. and other Western powers pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the security assistance sector — this is basically money for the military and the gendarmes, the police, that also fight the insurgency — is that the military is really boosted at the expense of other government institutions. A recent UNDP study showed that countries that have oversized involvement of the military in political life and a very politicized military and a long history of military leadership in government, which Niger and a lot of these countries do, they’re far more likely to have an ongoing pattern of military coups. So there’s a lot of factors at stake that make a coup more likely, but certainly the U.S. pouring all of this money and this kind of outsize reliance on the military as a tool for aid to these countries is a contributing factor.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to just go back to that, who he is, The Intercept reporting that just last month coup leader and, as you said, Brigadier General Moussa Salaou Barmou —

STEPHANIE SAVELL: Thank you. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — met with the head of U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Lieutenant General Jonathan Braga, at the U.S. drone base in Niger. Also, Secretary of State Blinken was there. So, if you could talk about the significance of this? And also talk about uranium. When I saw all of this happening, I thought back to Joe Wilson’s piece, the former State Department ambassador to Gabon, who in 2003, a few months after President George W. Bush invaded Iraq, wrote that famous New York Times op-ed, asking, “Did the Bush administration manipulate intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs to justify an invasion of Iraq?” The piece was headlined “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” and he’s talking about uranium in Niger. So, if you can address all of those things?

STEPHANIE SAVELL: That’s right. Uranium is a big — so, Niger is the sixth- or seventh-largest uranium producer in the world. This is certainly a dynamic of the conflict. You know, when I visited, I visited AFRICOM last year. It’s the head of U.S. military Africa Command. And there is a lot of talk of, you know, not just the uranium in Niger, but all of this region’s resources, natural resources, because there are many other types of mining going on in this area. It’s very rich in terms of some of these, the resources that go into a lot of the — you know, a lot of important — cellphones and other kinds of things like that. So, there’s a talk of the need to provide stability and stable governance in this area because of all these natural resources. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re seeing such a big outcry against this coup in Niger at this particular moment, because there is talk of sanctions against Russian uranium, and so, you know, this uranium has actually become a really important global source. So that’s one answer to your question.

The other, about General Barmou, so, he, you know, as you said, has a very, very close relationship with the United States. He has been trained by the United States over the years, works closely with all of the special operations forces that are going on in Niger. And the U.S. is certainly — in 2017, there was a special operations maneuver in Niger in which the U.S. had four servicemembers who were killed. Some viewers may remember that. And at the time, in the U.S., people were saying, “Well, what are U.S. servicemembers doing in Niger?” And they were leading a raid on the compound of an Islamist militant leader, and these were special operations forces who were working in close partnership with Barmou and the Nigerien special forces. So, this has been an ongoing relationship.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you — over the weekend, a bloc of 15 West African nations not only slapped sanctions on the leaders of the coup, but also threatened to intervene militarily. I’m wondering your sense of what the potential is for this internal conflict to become a broader conflict in West Africa.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: Honestly, it’s very worrisome. It’s the first time that ECOWAS, this bloc, has threatened military force against a coup in the region. So, when the coups in Burkina Faso and Mali happened in the past few years, ECOWAS enacted sanctions and other kinds of closing the borders and that kind of thing, but they did not threaten military force. And so, now with ECOWAS threatening military force to reinstate President Bazoum, and then Burkina Faso and Mali, which, remember, have these military-led governments, and so, basically, what they’re saying is, “In solidarity with the new military-led government in Niger, we’re going to step in and retaliate, if — you know, if these other ECOWAS countries invade Niger.” So, it’s a real threat, and it’s quite worrisome.

I mean, I think one of the most important things to bear in mind is that this is an incredibly impoverished region. Four-point-three million people in Niger alone are in need of humanitarian assistance. Climate change has been a huge factor in impoverishing people and preventing them from pursuing traditional livelihood pursuits like, you know, nomadism and herding and farming. The land has become increasingly arid. So there’s a lot of dynamics at play in the reasons that the conflict is happening. And, you know, it’s just horrifying to think that this could devolve into a broader conflict between nations.

AMY GOODMAN: Talking about this broader conflict at a global scale, Stephanie Savell, as we said, in Moscow, the Kremlin says the situation in Niger is a “cause for serious concern.” Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin has been quoted saying, “What happened in Niger is nothing more than the struggle of the people of Niger with their colonizers.” This weekend, major protests supporting the coup, people shouting “Putin! Putin!” putting down France and the United States. What about this as a kind of proxy war?

STEPHANIE SAVELL: Yeah. I hate to — I hate to have us see it that way. I think the media, in the U.S. in particular, is quick to frame it as, you know, a kind of a new Cold War-type situation. What I can say is that, you know, the Wagner Group is playing on anti-colonial sentiment, that’s for sure. And so, you know, what I saw when I went to the region is this is a region kind of roiling with the aftermath of colonialism. There is a ton of anti-colonial sentiment directed at the French. And, you know, this is a generation, a young generation, that’s coming to terms with that historical legacy and all of the injustice. You know, there’s so much kind of political and ethnic tensions and rivalries that are kind of a ripple effect of the colonial era, so a lot of the kind of personal grudges and fighting that we see between the political elite are a reverberation of colonial times. And so, people are just kind of grappling with that legacy. A lot of people are just, honestly, furious at this. And, you know, that’s a big part of what’s going on. So, there’s a real sense, a kind of popular sentiment of, you know, the French must kind of leave us alone at any cost.

And I think people popularly see Russia as an alternative, a kind of big power alternative that might provide a possible support and ally. But I don’t think that there’s a lot of action behind that sentiment, right? The Wagner Group has been pretty limited in this kind of Burkina Faso-Mali-Niger region of the Sahel that I’m talking about. It’s really been Mali that’s worked most closely with the Wagner Group, which has been implicated in human rights abuses and mass killings in Mali in the name of counterterrorism. So there is that. But so far, in Burkina Faso, it’s just kind of a rumor that they might be working with the Wagner Group. In Niger, you know, people were telling me, absolutely not, they haven’t worked with the Wagner Group at all. And certainly the Wagner Group may be able to provide some mercenaries on the ground, but they’re not going to be providing the kind of hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance that the West was providing. So I think it’s not quite accurate to see it as either/or. And certainly local governments aren’t seeing it as a situation in which they can ally with either the U.S. and its allies or Russia and its allies. They’re seeing — you know, people have said to me, like, “We’re going to use whatever assistance is offered to us. We’re going to take some guns from China and some military assistance from the U.S. and some something else. Whatever each country is best at offering, you know, we’ll take advantage of that.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Stephanie Savell, we want to thank you for being with us, co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, anthropologist who’s researched U.S. militarism in West Africa and beyond.

When we come back, we remember Juan Ramos, the founder of the Philadelphia chapter of the Young Lords. And we’ll look at the life and legacy of the groundbreaking Irish singer and political activist Sinéad O’Connor. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the Prince song, performed by Sinéad O’Connor, that shot to the top of the charts. We’re going to talk about her in a moment.

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