American military engagement in Niger is a $110 million drone base the U.S. is building about 450 miles northeast of Niamey in Agadez…Its existence was partially confirmed in February 2018, inadvertently, when it was discovered that Strava, a fitness app used mostly by westerners, had released location data that showed the global movements of the users of workout trackers like Fitbit — and the data showed unusual activity in far-off Aguelal, Agadez, Niger.
On the southeast edge of the civilian airport, accessible by tracks in the sand used mainly to exit the town, is Nigerien Air Base 201, or in common parlance “the American base.” The base, scheduled for completion in late 2018, is technically the property of the Nigerien military, though it is paid for, built, and operated by Americans. It is being constructed on land formerly used by Tuareg cattle-herders. … The U.S. currently flies drones out of an airport in Niamey, but those operations will be shifted to Agadez once the new base is completed.
When asked to confirm the American presence in those areas of Niger, U.S. Africa Command spokesperson Samantha Reho replied, “I can confirm there are approximately 800 Department of Defense personnel (military, civilian, and contractor) currently working in Niger, making that country the second-highest concentration of DoD people across the continent, with the first being in Djibouti at Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa.”
The U.S. is just one of several Western militaries that have established and strengthened military ties to Niger over the past few years. France has had soldiers in the country since 2013, when it launched Opération Serval in neighboring Mali. In 2015, France reopened a colonial fort in Madama, close to the border with Libya — unthinkable during the times of Moammar Gadhafi; the Libyan leader maintained a sphere of influence in the region that would have been at odds with a French military presence. Germany sent its own troops in Niger to support the United Nations peacekeeping mission across the border in Mali, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel even visited Niger in 2017. And Italy recently announced it would send 470 troops to a French base in the north of Niger to fight migrant transporters….
The base in Agadez is about 6 square kilometers, though most of the land is yet to be developed. ….. The base is tucked away and hidden from Agadez first by the 8-to-10-foot wall that separates the city of 125,000 from the airport, and it is surrounded by a barbed wire fence with sandbags, so despite there being a few hundred Americans in Agadez, you would hardly know they were there unless you went looking. Both the Nigerien and the American governments prefer to keep it this way…
The man the middle is Mahamadou Issoufou, the president of Niger. In power for six years, he has adopted a clear strategy for trying to keep control of things – by aligning himself closely with Europe and the United States, while presiding over an electoral system that his opponents describe as rigged. This is not a recipe for stability in a country that has had little of it since its founding in 1960, at the end of French colonial rule.
Issoufou is a trained engineer and a former secretary-general of Somaïr, a uranium mine that was run by the French company Areva. Until migration and terrorism, uranium was the focal point of outside, particularly French, interest in Niger. France’s electricity grid is powered by nuclear energy, and Areva’s uranium concessions in Niger provide up to one-fifth of the uranium necessary to power that grid. Issoufou’s predecessor, Mamadou Tandja, had sparred with the French over the concession, and in 2009, then-French President Nicholas Sarkozy visited Niger to negotiate a deal on opening a new mine called Imouraren. After a $1.2 billion deal was struck, Tandja tried to reverse the constitution to stay in power for a third term, and after street protests, a group of low-ranking army officers carried out a coup d’état.
When the transition period ended with Issoufou’s election in 2011, the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan caused a sharp downturn in global uranium prices. Areva dropped its plans for Imouraren, and Issoufouacquiesced to the French firm’s plans for delaying the mine until prices rose, denting economic growth prospects for the country. But despite losing out on Imouraren, Issoufou quickly became a donor darling and found that the closer he was to France and the West, the better his image and the more firm his hold on political power. Issoufou was criticized heavily for going to Paris to attend the “Je Suis Charlie” march in January 2015, and some human rights organizations view him as a lackey of the West. He works with Image Sept, a French firm with close ties to the Parisian political elite, to manage his image.A couple of months before his re-election in 2016, Issoufou jailed his main political opponent and former close ally, Hama Amadou of the Moden Lumana party….
Many people I spoke to in Niger feel their country has had its autonomy usurped by Westerners. “The reality is that Niger is not at a level where it can say yes or no to the French or Americans. … We only have sovereignty on paper,” said Djibril Abarché, president of the Nigerien Human Rights Association.
Exceprts from Joe Penny, Drones in the Sahara, the Intercept, Feb. 18, 2018