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Several American, British and other Western news agencies reported mid-last week that Nigeria’s neighbour to the north, Niger Republic, has signed a deal to allow the United States military to establish a drone base on its territory. Drones are unmanned aircraft that have been variously used by the US military for surveillance operations but also for armed strikes. They have been extensively used in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen to target America’s enemies, very often resulting in casualties among passers-by or what the US military calls “collateral damage.”According to these reports, the U.S. and Niger Republic in recent days signed a “Status of Forces Agreement” spelling out legal protections and obligations of American forces that might operate in Niger in the future. Pentagon spokesman George Little has acknowledged that such an agreement was signed but he declined to discuss U.S. plans for a military presence in Niger. He said, “They expressed a willingness to engage more closely with us, and we are happy to engage with them.”
US media have reported that Niger Republic has agreed to host not only unarmed drones but also conventional and special operations troops, allegedly “to advise and assist Niger’s military on border security.” Niger has however not endorsed armed U.S. Predator strikes or the launching of U.S. special operations raids from its territory, the same media sources said. From our point of view however, that is bad enough.
On the face of it, the US drone expansion into West Africa was precipitated or at least accelerated by events in Mali, which borders Niger Republic to the west and where a French force supported by troops from several African nations is right now engaged in a battle to remove Tuareg secessionist as well as Islamist rebels who took control of the country’s north about ten months ago.
The U.S. military already has a drone base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. In recent times, US media reported that the Obama administration has growing concerns about “extremist influences” in West Africa, and that they are searching for ways “to contain al-Qaida and other militant groups without committing U.S. ground forces in yet another war.” They quoted US officials as saying their efforts “to fight extremists were hobbled by some African governments whose own security forces are ill-equipped to launch an American-style hunt for the militants yet are reluctant to accept U.S. help because of fears the Americans will overstay their welcome and trample their sovereignty.”
In the short run, a drone base in Niger would enable the U.S. to give France more intelligence on the militants that French troops are fighting in Mali. However, it is envisaged that over time it could extend the reach not only of American intelligence gathering but also U.S. special operations missions in West Africa. This has been an American goal for some time; years ago, its efforts to station the headquarters of its Africa Command [Africom] on African soil was strongly resisted by African nations, hence its current stay in Stuttgart, Germany.
Africom’s commander Gen. Carter Ham was quoted as saying last week that the US is worried by the intentions of Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb [AQIM] in West Africa and “the ability of like-minded groups to leverage their capabilities by working together. We’re starting to see the increasing collaboration, sharing of funding, sharing recruiting efforts, sharing of weapons and explosives and certainly a sharing of ideology that is expanding and connecting these various organizations. And I think that’s what poses at least the greatest immediate threat in the region.”
Given such worries, intentions and plans, it should be clear to all that the planned American drone base in Niger Republic will be the spearhead of an American military presence in West Africa that could ultimately develop into the monster that we have tried for some time to ward off. From using drones for surveillance, it is one short hop to using them to fire missiles at suspected terrorist targets, often inside crowded cities. If we are to learn from the example of Pakistan, such use of drone strikes is undertaken without permission from the country’s government even if, like Pakistan, it is an allied one.
The history of resistance to Big Power military adventures in West Africa and Africa generally is a long one in Nigeria. Back in the 1950s, we stoutly opposed French nuclear tests in the Sahara Desert, and in the 1960s this country’s students and labour unions stoutly resisted the signing of a defence treaty with Britain. Even though Nigeria as well as ECOWAS and the African Union have all welcomed international help to rout the Malian rebels and restore stability to that country, that is no excuse for the Americans to sneak in and realise their long hoped-for goal of a military base in West Africa.
The Jonathan Administration clearly cherishes chummy relations with Washington. If however it fails to see this issue of a drone base in Niger Republic for what it is, a long term danger to the independence and sovereignty of African countries, then it would have committed a blunder of historic proportions and would have betrayed Nigeria’s legacy of resisting such Big Power machinations for 60 years now. Mr. President, pull the ears of your friend and neighbour President Mahamadou Issoufou.