Blowback in Africa: U.S.-Trained Officer Overthrows Pro-U.S. Leader in Niger, Site of U.S. Drone Base
Written by GRB on 04/08/2023
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to Niger, a week after a military coup ousted President Mohamed Bazoum. The leader of Niger’s new military junta has vowed to defy any attempts to restore the ousted president to power. ECOWAS, a bloc of West African countries, have threatened to take military action unless the coup is reversed by Sunday. That’s August 6th. Meanwhile, the leaders of Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea have all warned against foreign intervention in Niger.
On Thursday, President Biden issued his first statement on the crisis, saying, quote, “I call for President Bazoum and his family to be immediately released, and for the preservation of Niger’s hard-earned democracy.”
Bazoum is a close ally of the United States and France. The U.S. has over a thousand troops in Niger, where the United States also runs a major drone base. Earlier today, Niger’s new leaders announced they would end military cooperation with France, which ruled Niger until 1960.
On Thursday, thousands of supporters of the coup rallied to decry international sanctions being placed on Niger, which is one of the poorest nations in the world despite being a leading exporter of uranium.
COUP SUPPORTER: [translated] People are coming. The people are coming. And we’re going to demonstrate to all the ECOWAS countries and all those who are taking unpopular and inhumane measures against Niger, which is in the process of freeing itself from the yoke of colonization.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two guests. Olayinka Ajala is senior lecturer in politics and international relations at Leeds Beckett University. His new piece for The Conversation is titled “What caused the coup in Niger? An expert outlines three driving factors.” He’s joining us from Glasgow, Scotland. And in New Jersey, we’re joined by Nick Turse, investigative journalist, contributing writer for The Intercept, recently revealed one of the leaders of the coup in Niger, the Brigadier General Moussa Salaou Barmou, was trained by the U.S. military, recently met with the head of U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Lieutenant General Jonathan Braga, at the U.S. drone base in Niger. African officers trained by the U.S. military have now taken part in 11 coups in West Africa since 2008.
We’re going to start there, Nick Turse. If you can explain what’s taken place in the last week, and particularly the U.S. connection to the coup leaders?
NICK TURSE: Yes. Thanks so much for having me on, Amy.
You know, as you said, the United States has trained a number of coup leaders in West Africa over recent years. And this is part of the U.S. security strategy. I mean, they’ve flooded this region, the West African Sahel, with a tremendous amount of security assistance, really, since 9/11. They’ve poured a tremendous amount of security assistance dollars into the region. They’ve built a plethora of small U.S. outposts. You mentioned one of them, the U.S. drone base at Agadez. You know, they’ve built up militaries in the region at the expense of building up civilian institutions and civil society.
And this U.S. security assistance-U.S. counterterrorism paradigm really hasn’t been successful over this time. Back in 2002, 2003, when security assistance to Niger first began, the State Department counted just nine terrorist attacks in sub-Saharan Africa. Last year, in just Niger and its neighbors Burkina Faso and Mali alone, the Pentagon counted more than 2,700. So you’re talking about something like a 30,000% increase. So, there’s been a tremendous amount of security assistance poured into the region, but the metrics have all gone in the wrong way.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Olayinka Ajala, if you can talk about the significance of that U.S. connection? I mean, on the one hand, you have President Biden saying he wants democracy to be assured, although he didn’t, interestingly, say Bazoum must be restored. He just said the family must be protected, and democracy must be preserved. But the significance of the U.S. connection, the French connection, and the fact that those who are involved with the coup are couching this as an anti-colonialist move?
OLAYINKA AJALA: Yeah, absolutely. The U.S. and France have significant interests in the country, military and economic interests. You mentioned the fact that Niger is the seventh-largest producer of uranium in the world. And most of these mineral — natural resources are mined by French companies. So, the citizens in the country are seeing a lot of military installations, the drone base in Agadez, lots of military formations around the country, without substantive economic growth. So, this is one of the reasons why we’ve seen quite large protests in support of this. So, the role of the U.S. and France is one of the reasons, especially in terms of the lack of economic development. But increase in military development and [inaudible] is one of the reasons why all the citizens are actually revolting and supporting this coup.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about who goes out in the street, and also the U.S.-Russia connection? You had some out in the streets after the coup shouting, “Putin! Putin!” But who is going out, and who is staying home?
OLAYINKA AJALA: Well, speaking with people on the ground in Niger, it’s almost half and half. But a lot of people who are supporters and lovers of democracy are afraid to go out because of the large military presence, especially in Niamey. So, what I’m hearing on the ground is that it’s almost even in terms of people who support the movement or support the military junta and those who are against. But most of the people we’ve seen protesting are the ones who are in support. So, that is quite tricky. We shouldn’t be fooled by the videos of the protests we’ve seen. A large number of Nigeriens are still in support of democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: Nick Turse, talk about the formation of ECOWAS, who they are. They are threatening to — I don’t know if it’s move into Niger, they said, to restore the president. Meanwhile, the leaders of Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea have all warned against foreign intervention in Niger to reverse the coup. Over the weekend, Burkina Faso’s interim leader, Ibrahim Traoré, who took power in a coup in September, made international headlines for remarks he made in Moscow during the Russia-African Summit. He criticized what he called “imperialist neocolonialism.”
IBRAHIM TRAORÉ: [translated] The questions my generation is asking are the following, if I can summarize. It is that we do not understand how Africa, with so much wealth on our soil, with generous nature, water, sunshine and abundance, how Africa is today the poorest continent. Africa is a hungry continent. And how come there are heads of state all over the world begging? These are the questions we are asking ourselves, and we have no answers so far.
We have the opportunity to forge new relationships, and I hope that these relationships can be the best ones to give our people a better future.
My generation also asks me to say that because of this poverty, they are forced to cross the ocean to try to reach Europe. They die in the ocean. But soon they will no longer have to cross, because they will come to our palaces to seek their daily bread.
As far as what concerns Burkina Faso today, for more than eight years we’ve been confronted with the most barbaric and the most violent form of imperialist neocolonialism. Slavery continues to impose itself on us. Our predecessors taught us one thing: A slave who cannot assume his own revolt does not deserve to be pitied. We do not feel sorry for ourselves. We do not ask anyone to feel sorry for us. The people of Burkina Faso have decided to fight, to fight against terrorism, in order to relaunch their development.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Burkina Faso’s interim leader, Ibrahim Traoré, who actually is wearing a hat, harkening back to previous Burkina Faso leader Thomas Sankara, who was assassinated. But, Nick Turse, if you can talk about what he is saying in the — it’s also interesting this happened at the Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg that Putin addressed. Far fewer leaders from Africa came than last time.
NICK TURSE: That’s right. You know, I actually spoke with a few sources of mine in Burkina Faso over the last couple days. I’ve done some significant reporting there over the past years. And, you know, I’ve heard from some that that speech really resonated a great deal, that the anti-colonialist bent of it made a big impact on people. They thought it was a really strong speech. There is a great deal of resistance to French neocolonialism, the French colonialist past there.
I also have heard from people that, you know, they see the situation in Burkina as deteriorating significantly in terms of both terrorist violence, uptick in kidnappings and also in crackdowns of freedom of expression, freedom of the press. So, you have both these things going on there. You know, there are some that really support the government and believe there is more behind this type of rhetoric, and then others who say that this is a smokescreen, and it’s just entrenching the power of a military junta that really isn’t so interested in fighting against colonialism, neocolonialism, but more interested in entrenching its own power and using that rhetoric for its own benefit.
AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can talk more about the U.S. training that goes on of African leaders, talk more about Secretary of State Blinken just having visited Niger, and the significance of this drone base, where it’s used, the one in Niger, how the U.S. uses it as a launching pad in the world?
NICK TURSE: Yes. Air Base 201, it’s located in Agadez, which is in the central north of the country. And this is really the linchpin of U.S. military outposts, which have proliferated over the last several years in West Africa. This is a surveillance hub. It’s used for anti-terrorist activities. As you said, drones are launched from here, including armed drones, MQ-9 Reapers. So, this is an exceptionally important base. It was built at a price tag of over $110 million and maintained each year at a price tag of about $20 million to $30 million. So it’s a significant facility.
The U.S. Africa Command, the umbrella military organization for U.S. military activity on the continent, they often claim that these aren’t U.S. bases, that the U.S. doesn’t have bases in Africa outside of Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. I’ve been to Air Base 201. They wouldn’t let me on board it, on board the base, but, you know, I traveled to its gates, and I observed it from the ground and from the air. This is a substantial military base. There’s no other word for it.
And I think the United States is now doing everything it can to make sure that it can continue operations there. You know, you mentioned Secretary Blinken. He and the State Department as a whole tried to stay away, I think, from calling this a coup, when it’s quite obviously one. But I think they want to keep their options open. You know, once a coup is declared, the U.S. is supposed to stop most of its security assistance. There are ways around that. There are loopholes. I reported recently that in neighboring Mali, where you have a U.S.-led junta there, there is still some trickle of security aid flowing. The United States finds a way when it needs to. But Niger is so central to the counterterrorism paradigm and security interests in that region, I think they’ll do everything they can to keep Air Base 201 in action and as much U.S. military presence there as possible.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Olayinka Ajala, it’s interesting that it’s Guinea, Burkina Faso and Mali that are warning against military intervention by ECOWAS. ECOWAS did not speak in all of these — the cases of their coups. Do you think that has emboldened the junta in Niger to take over? And what would an ECOWAS intervention look like? And if you can talk about how ECOWAS is seen, the African military alliance, in Africa?
OLAYINKA AJALA: Absolutely. That was what I mentioned in the piece which I wrote earlier in the week, where I stated that one of the reasons for this coup was because ECOWAS did not really do anything significant to deter other countries from — the militaries from other countries from taking power. So, when the coups in Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali happened, there were couple of sanctions issued against the military regime, but nothing further was done.
But we need to put this in context. One reason why Niger is quite different, in addition to, lately, the country being allied to the U.S., to France, is also the fact that Niger has land border with seven different African countries. So, whatever happens in Niger impacts significantly on many countries in the Sahel and in West Africa. So this is why it is more of interest than the other three countries.
I think, in terms of what ECOWAS is trying to do, a delegation led by the former military president of Nigeria, Abdulsalami Abubakar, returned to ECOWAS headquarters this morning in Abuja without any significant progress. They didn’t even see General Tchiani throughout the visit. So this tells us that not a lot has been made in terms of progress or in persuading the junta to step down.
The deadline of Sunday for them to hand over back power to Bazoum or hold and face military intervention or the use of force against them, we don’t know how this is going to play out, but it is going to be very bloody. The spokesman for ECOWAS yesterday said this will be the very last option. But any military attack would be very significant, because we’ve heard yesterday the leaders of the juntas in the other three countries have threatened to support Niger, and they stated that any attack on Niger will be an attack on them all. So, ECOWAS, they have to tread very carefully, because it’s a very tricky situation for everyone.
AMY GOODMAN: And the role of your country, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, oil-rich nation, what it is threatening right now?
OLAYINKA AJALA: Well, it’s really interesting, because Niger is a very important ally to Nigeria, especially in the fight against Boko Haram and the Islamic State-West Africa Province around the Lake Chad. So, it is an ally Nigeria is very keen not to lose, especially in this fight, because substantial gains have been made in the fight in the last couple of years, and they won’t want these to be reversed.
Also, in terms of the president of Nigeria, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, being the head of ECOWAS, it has assumed this post in the last few weeks and is keen to put a mark, because it’s issued very strong statements against coup, not only in Niger but across the region. Interestingly, in his acceptance speech as the chairman of ECOWAS, he kept mentioning coup, even before this happened. So, this is in relation to what has happened in the other three countries, which I feel Nigeria felt it was a lost opportunity, because if more pressure had been put on either of these countries or all of these other three countries, perhaps this wouldn’t have happened in Niger.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Nick Turse, what do you think, as an American reporter on Africa, what is the American press and, overall, the press missing when it comes to understanding what’s happening here and what can happen?
NICK TURSE: Well, I think a lot of times we’re missing deep context on this. One thing that really stood out to me, The Washington Post yesterday published an op-ed by the deposed head of state in Niger, President Bazoum. And, you know, he talks about it being the last bastion of democracy in the Sahel. And when I was there earlier this year, I did not find it the most democratic state. If you read State Department reports, you’ll see that there are tremendous amounts of abuses of the citizenry there. The military, that we’ve been backing for years, has committed a tremendous amount of atrocities. And this has built a great deal of ill will within the military itself and within the civilian population. And I think what’s missing is that type of context, the understanding of what pumping all of this money into the security apparatus in the Sahel has meant for the people there.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there. I thank you both so much for being with us, and we’ll continue to follow things closely there in Niger. Nick Turse, investigative journalist, contributing writer for The Intercept, we will link to your recent pieces, “Niger Coup Leader Joins Long Line of U.S.-Trained Mutineers,” as well as “Soldiers Mutiny in U.S-Allied Niger.” And, Olayinka Ajala, we thank you so much for being with us from Glasgow, senior lecturer in politics and international relations from Leeds Beckett University. And we will link to your piece, “What caused the coup in Niger? An expert outlines three driving factors.” I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.