Above Photo: Sympathizers of the Niger coup hold an anti-France demonstration. Reuters.
French newspaper Le Figaro cited an unnamed diplomatic source over the weekend who alleged that the US backstabbed France during Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s trip to Niger. The piece is paywalled but was summarized here. France reportedly fears that the US might tacitly recognize Niger’s interim military-led government in exchange for being allowed to retain its bases. Should that happen, then the US would proactively replace France’s security role in the Sahel before Russia/Wagner has a chance to.
This concern is predicated on rational calculations. From the US’ strategic perspective, the anti-French sentiment that’s sweeping the Sahel will inevitably result in ousting that country’s military from this part of Africa, which could lead to a security void that would likely be filled by Russia/Wagner. Even if France resorts to force for clinging to its last regional bastion in Niger, whether directly and/or via Nigerian-led ECOWAS, then it’ll only exacerbate the hatred that locals feel for their former colonizer.
A swift victory is doomed to be pyrrhic since another round of anti-French unrest would follow sooner or later to complete the decolonization process that the prior one couldn’t, while the outbreak of a larger regional war risks Russia accelerating its envisaged replacement of France’s security role in the Sahel. Both outcomes are contrary to America’s long-term interests, though some policymakers might find their potential short-term benefits to be alluring.
It’s in this context that Nuland visited the Nigerien capital last week to “push for a negotiated solution” according to what she informed the press during a special briefing after her meetings there. Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin reacted to this development by boasting that “the US has recognized a government that it did not recognize yesterday just to avoid meeting the Wagner PMC (Private Military Company) in the country.” While some might have dismissed his remarks as trolling, they actually convey a stark truth.
Nuland’s trip was likely driven by her government’s desire to determine post-coup Niger’s intended relations with Russia/Wagner. She made contradictory statements about this during her briefing that were analyzed here, but the point is that this was probably the real reason behind her visit. If she assessed that no clear commitment had yet been made to solicit Wagner’s services, then it would be possible to make progress on the vague “negotiated solution” that she claimed to have in mind.
Judging by Le Figaro’s report, France fears that the interim military-led government is willing to explore a deal whereby they’ll agree to keep Russia/Wagner at bay and retain the US bases in their country in exchange for Washington ensuring that ECOWAS doesn’t invade like it threatened to do. In that event, the full fury of the Nigerien people would be directed against France, which could either go it alone in trying to forcibly reverse last month’s coup in vain or chalk up the strategic loss and withdraw.
The US already backstabbed France a few years back by stealing its nuclear submarine deal with Australia via the surprise unveiling of AUKUS so the precedent exists for it to backstab that country again in the Sahel by stealing its “sphere of influence” there through such means. In this particular case, American policymakers might have concluded that France’s military ouster from the region is inevitable so it’s better to proactively replace it with their own forces than risk Russia/Wagner filling the void.
To that end, it makes sense to opportunistically exploit the latest events in pursuit of a pragmatic deal with Niger’s interim military-led government despite being at France’s expense. There’s no guarantee that it’ll succeed, but it’s strategically sound from the perspective of US New Cold War interests in Africa. America could present itself as a peacemaker that averted the wider war that France wanted to spark all while stopping the spread of Russian military-strategic influence on the EU’s Sahelian doorstep.
The reframing of Nuland’s trip in light of Le Figaro’s report compellingly explains France’s alleged fears real intentions of the United States wanting to diplomatically resolve the West African Crisis. The ulterior motive behind its latest “push for a negotiated solution” is to proactively replace France’s security role in the Sahel before Russia/Wagner has a chance to step in. In this way, the US could mitigate the strategic damage from the Nigerien Coup and arguably benefit from it to an extent.