Niger’s military junta recently announced that it would end military cooperation with the United States, a move that has serious implications for U.S. counterterrorism interests across Africa’s Sahel region. It also highlights changing dynamics in the region, due in part to Russia’s rapidly expanding ties with more countries. In crafting its response and possible mechanisms for future engagement with Niger and across the region after a series of coups, the United States should prioritize – and deliver on — its expressed values of human rights and democracy to strengthen outcomes and recover its stride.

Geopolitical history seems to be repeating itself with the developments in Niger. The United States established diplomatic relations with Niger shortly after its independence from France in August 1960. This came at the peak of the Cold War, with U.S. diplomats presenting credentials to Niger’s government exactly three days before, unrelatedly, Moscow-aligned Fidel Castro nationalized American and foreign-owned property in Cuba. Similarly to Niger today, where the fraying of U.S. ties after the July 2023 military coup created an opening for Russian influence, Cuba in the 1950s was a U.S. ally, with little attention from Russia until relations with the United States broke down after the 1959 Castro-led revolution that spurred the United States to impose sanctions and an embargo.

Niger is an important country both militarily and economically. Though ranking next-to-last on the U.N. Human Development Index as of 2021, Niger is the sixth-largest African country by landmass and the world’s seventh-largest producer of uranium, a mineral critical for naval propulsion and nuclear energy. That factor raised particular alarms in France and the European Union after last year’s coup. The landlocked West African country lies at the heart of the Sahel, a strategic location for U.S. surveillance and reconnaissance operations needed to support counterterrorism operations across the region. It’s also home to the world’s largest and most expensive military drone base, built by the United States in 2014.

Aftermath of the Coup

U.S. relations with Niger have been shaky since last year’s coup that removed President Mohamed Bazoum. The military junta, led by officers from the Presidential Guard, in a broadcast that followed the coup highlighted the deteriorating security situation and poor economic management as justifications for overthrowing the government. However, disagreements between the president and high-ranking officers of the military may have contributed as well. Months before the coup, Bazoum replaced key military officers and forced others to retire, in a move that put him at loggerheads with the military high command. Niger has experienced five successful coups and multiple failed attempts — the last attempted coup occurred two days before Bazoum was inaugurated 2021.

In response to the coup, the EU, France, and Germany immediately canceled financial aid to Niger. The Economic Community of West African States issued a one-week ultimatum to the junta to restore Bazoum or face military action, but never carried out the threat. The African Union suspended Niger from its activities. The U.S. government chose a more measured approach, initially describing the situation as an “attempt” to remove the president rather than calling it a coup as such, in hopes of staving off the immediate suspension of military aid to the country that U.S. law requires in the event of a coup. It was only three months later that the U.S. formally declared Bazoum’s removal a coup and cut off most military and other security assistance.

In contrast, Russia — which has cultivated relations across the Sahel with countries such as Mali that became disaffected with France, the United States, and other western partners — quickly moved to exploit the opportunity. While it condemned the situation and called for restoration of legal order, the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group hailed the coup as a victory over the West and immediately offered its services to the junta.

Moreover, Russia quickly became popular in Niger, with Nigeriens chanting “long live Russia” in the streets of the capital Niamey and brandishing Russian flags as they protested in front of the French Embassy, in a sign of possible influence of Russian-fueled disinformation that has played a role in support for coup leaders elsewhere in West Africa. This January, Russia and Niger announced an agreement to strengthen military ties and increase the combat readiness of the country’s military. With security cooperation and funding from Russia and others like Iran, Niger is unlikely to change its stance against U.S. cooperation.

U.S. Military Presence and Its Values

The United States now needs to balance its military presence in the Sahel with its values within the context of current geopolitical tensions. In determining modalities for future engagement with Niger and designing its new posture in Africa, the U.S. must hold steadfast to its values of human rights and democracy. It should consider democracy and human rights as part of the fabric of its relations with the people of Niger, the Sahel, and Africa writ large. Such an approach would leverage the U.S. advantage over Russia, which largely aligns with and exploits failed democracies and weak institutions, to the detriment of the societies. As in Niger, six other African countries  have experienced coups since 2020 – Mali and Burkina Faso twice each, Gabon, Chad, Guinea, and Sudan. And like Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso already have military arrangements with Russia. The junta leaders in the other countries have also sought to deepen relations with Russian in recent times – the Chadian leader met President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in January only one week after the Nigerien prime minister made a similar visit to the Kremlin.

In light of this pattern, the United States obviously has a need to reappraise its approach to military partnerships across Africa, especially in the absence of thorough human rights assessment protocols. U.S. military bases should not be hosted in countries with weak democratic credentials. Expanding an already massive U.S. footprint could trigger a race-to-the-bottom, with military bases littered across the continent and little or no consideration given to respect for human rights on the part of the hosting government or its own forces or to other impacts such as civilian casualties.

Congress should strengthen the laws governing the U.S. military’s overseas basing location decisions and other security assistance, and it should exercise closer oversight over Department of Defense installations, especially — but not only — in Africa. In particular, subsequent Military Construction Authorizations in the annual National Defense Authorization Acts should require independent assessments of human rights and democratic status of potential host countries for overseas military bases, and should require the involvement of local civil society in planning and monitoring of activities, to maintain the integrity and effectiveness of such installations and ensure their local impact of security assistance is constructive rather than destructive.

In addition, the U.S. government should more seriously reconsider the role some of its overseas bases have played over the years and whether they have actually served a constructive purpose. The Biden administration conducted a “Global Posture Review” in 2021 but ultimately appears to have made few changes. Any serious process should include a mandatory, independent assessment of the status of these bases, their true effectiveness in relation to the purpose, and their human rights impacts, especially on the surrounding communities and on human security. The results of such examinations should weigh heavily on decisions about basing currently and in the future.

Finally, the United States must take a clear and unambiguous stance on election integrity in countries that are or might become security partners before, during, and after elections. In a year with 19 general elections in Africa, the U.S. government should support civil society and citizens groups’ efforts towards ensuring credible, free, and fair elections, as it did recently in Senegal. The constructive activism of civil society ahead of the recent Senegal elections, which were almost upturned by the incumbent president, is a great example of pro-democracy efforts the United States should also support in other contexts in ways that make room for local citizen expression.

Greater engagement with civil society, including through regional and continent-wide mechanisms in Africa such as the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, also would enable the United States to fully understand the priorities of the people in partner countries and reflect those priorities in its foreign policy for more effective, sustainable collaboration and impact.

IMAGE: A man wearing military fatigues is covered with a Russian flag as supporters of Niger’s National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP), formed after a military coup, gather to demonstrate outside the Niger and French airbases in Niamey on August 27, 2023. The supporters were backing the coup leaders’ demand that French military forces leave Niger, after 10 years of jointly fighting the region’s jihadist militants. (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)