Hundreds rally in Niger’s capital to push for US military departure

NIAMEY — Hundreds took to the streets of Niger’s capital Saturday to demand the departure of U.S. troops, after the ruling junta further shifted its strategy by ending a military accord with the United States and welcoming Russian military instructors.

Marching arm in arm through central Niamey, the crowd waved Nigerien flags in a demonstration that recalled anti-French protests that spurred the withdrawal of France’s forces from Niger last year after the army seized power in a coup.

One hand-written sign in English read “USA rush out of Niger,” in a show of support for the junta and its decision in mid-March to revoke an accord that had allowed around 1,000 U.S. military personnel to operate on its territory out of two bases.

“We’re here to say no to the American base, we don’t want Americans on our soil,” said protester Maria Saley on the sidelines of the march.

Until the coup, Niger had remained a key security partner of France and the United States, which used it as a base as part of international efforts to curb a decade-old Islamist insurgency in West Africa’s Sahel region.

But the new authorities in Niger have joined juntas in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso in ending military deals with one-time Western allies, quitting the regional political and economic bloc ECOWAS and fostering closer ties with Russia.

The arrival on Wednesday of Russian military instructors and equipment was further evidence of the junta’s openness to closer cooperation with Moscow, which is seeking to boost its influence in Africa.

A few Russian flags were visible at the protest, but some citizens told Reuters Friday they did not want the welcomed Russian defense assistance to lead to a permanent presence in Niger.

“We must not subsequently see the implementation of Russian foreign military bases,” said Abdoulaye Seydou, the coordinator of the M62 coalition of civil society groups that led anti-French protests last year.

His concerns were echoed by student Souleymane Ousmane: “This is how the French and the Americans and all the other countries settled in Niger — from military cooperation, they ended up occupying large parts of our country.”

It is unclear, however, if or when the U.S. troops will leave.

In March, the top U.S. general appeared to suggest there was at least some support from within Niger’s junta for a continued U.S. military presence despite its announced revocation of the accord.

One of the U.S. programs in Niger is a drone base known as Air Base 201, which cost more than $100 million.

Violence in the central Sahel hit a high in 2023, with conflict fatalities in the region rising by 38% compared with the previous year, according to U.S.-based crisis-monitoring group ACLED, citing reports of over 8,000 people killed in Burkina Faso alone last year.

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