LATE IN THE morning of October 4 last year, a convoy of Nigerien and American special forces soldiers in eight vehicles left the village of Tongo Tongo. As they made their way between mud-brick houses with thatched roofs, they were attacked from one side by dozens of militants, if not hundreds. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Nigeriens and Americans fled, some on foot, running for cover behind trees and clusters of millet, their boots caked in the light brown earth. By the time the fighting was over, five Nigeriens and four Americans were killed, their bodies left naked in the bush after the militants took their uniforms.
The news went straight to the front pages in the United States and sparked a conflict between the family of one of the soldiers and President Donald Trump, after the president made insensitive remarks during a condolence call to the soldier’s widow. But the story also spread like wildfire throughout Niger, where the big news wasn’t so much that American soldiers had been killed, but that Americans soldiers were fighting in the country in the first place.
“I was surprised to learn that Americans had died in the Tongo Tongo attack,” Soumana Sanda, the leader of an opposition party in the Nigerien Parliament and taekwondo champion, told me in an interview in his pristine and sparsely decorated office in Niamey, the country’s quiet capital on the banks of the Niger River. “That was the moment I found out, as a Nigerien, as a member of parliament, as a representative of the people, that there is indeed (an American) base with ground operations.”
It was the same on the street. Moussa, a middle-aged man who sells children’s textbooks and novels on a busy corner in Niamey, captured the feelings of many I talked with. “We were surprised,” he said. “For us, this is another form of colonization.” Out of apprehension that he could get in trouble for voicing his views openly, he declined to give his last name.
In fact, U.S. Special Operations forces have been in Niger since at least 2013 and are stationed around the country on forward operating bases with elite Nigerien soldiers. What happened in Tongo Tongo is just a taste of the potential friction and instability to come, because the pièce de resistance of American military engagement in Niger is a $110 million drone base the U.S. is building about 450 miles northeast of Niamey in Agadez, a city that for centuries has served as a trade hub on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, not far from Mali, Algeria, Libya and Chad. In January, I hopped aboard an aging plane that followed a roundabout route to one of America’s largest-ever military investments in Africa, its latest battleground in an opaque, expensive, and counterintuitive war on the continent.
FLYING INTO AGADEZ requires a tour around Niger’s countryside. I boarded a 30-year-old Fokker 50 propeller plane that is owned by Palestinian Airlines and leased to state-owned Niger Airlines with a Palestinian crew. After stopping in the southern cities of Zinder and Maradi, we descended on Agadez, its rectangles and triangles of compounds and dirt roads forming a mosaic, with the surrounding reddish beige of the desert stretching out in all directions as far as the eye can see.
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. So far, there is one large hangar, ostensibly where the drones could be housed, a runway under construction, and dozens of smaller structures where soldiers live and work.
The air strip will be large enough for both C-17 transport planes and MQ-9 Reaper armed drones, as The Intercept’s Nick Turse found out in 2016. A Nigerien military commander with direct knowledge of the base, who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the press, told me that it will be mainly used to surveil militants like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al Mourabitoun, Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, and local Islamic State affiliates including Boko Haram, which operate in border zones in neighboring countries. 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.
American Special Forces operate separately from the drone base, which is run by the Air Force. The Green Berets are on the ground “training” Niger’s special forces and carrying out capture missions with them from the outposts of Ouallam near the Malian border, Aguelal near the Algerian border, Dirkou along the main transport routes between Niger and Libya, and Diffa, along the southeastern border with Nigeria and Chad, according to the same Nigerien commander. I’ve actually seen them at the Diffa base, a prominent local journalist has seen them at Dirkou, and I spoke to a person who worked at the Aguelal base.
When asked to confirm the American presence in those areas of Niger, U.S. Africa Command spokesperson Samantha Reho replied, “I cannot provide a detailed breakdown of the locations of our service members in Niger due to force protection and operational security limitations. With that said, 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.
Sugarcane vendors stand outside during a ceremony at a police station in Agadez, Niger, Jan. 15, 2018. Photo: Joe Penney
I TRIED TO FIND out what people think of the base and the drones that will soon be hovering overhead. After all, this was the biggest foreign military base in the region, an unprecedented uptick in Western involvement, as well as a major economic investment. But after a few days in Agadez speaking to a host of different people, I got the impression that the issue was taboo, and that very few people wanted to openly voice their concerns lest they be tagged with criticizing the current Nigerien administration, which could come back to haunt them.
I visited a school in Agadez and the principal, extremely hesitant about my presence, called me into a back room and declined to give his name. He told me that he couldn’t have an opinion on the Americans because he couldn’t figure out why they were really here. In my two weeks in Niger, I heard theories that the Americans were fomenting the terrorists themselves, digging for gold, or they’re after uranium, or oil, or even possibly the natural water aquifer beneath the Sahara, one of the largest in the world. Other than government officials, no one believed the Americans were here for security.
The base is a mystery for a reason. AFRICOM, which is the division of the Department of Defense that oversees U.S. military operations in Africa, has only allowed access to one news outlet so far that I know of, CNN, and denied me entry for this reporting trip. The public affairs office of the U.S. Embassy in Niger responded to repeated requests for an interview by saying they were processing the request and then eventually refused to answer my questions, explaining they were understaffed due to the three-day government shutdown in late January.
AFRICOM is notoriously restrictive in its access to reporters. A journalist for The Intercept was not allowed to visit another drone base in Cameroon, and people there were also cautious about discussing or criticizing it. This underlines a transnational fact: It’s not clear that American drones in Africa have made things safer. They are often more a source of fear than anything else.
The base in Agadez is about 6 square kilometers, though most of the land is yet to be developed. American troops patrol its perimeter, according to a neighboring village chief I talked with. 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.
THERE IS AN unusual question floating around Niger: Is the American base even legal? Activists, lawyers, and opposition politicians say it is isn’t, arguing that it violates Articles 169 and 66 of the Nigerien Constitution. These state that defense treaties require parliamentary approval – which hasn’t happened with the base — and that the defense of Niger is carried out only by Nigerien armed forces, not foreign forces. In an interview, opposition Member of Parliament Soumana Sanda told me that while he and his party, Moden Lumana, support the American military presence in his country, “just because we don’t respect democracy or rule of law in Niger doesn’t mean we should drag the great democracies of the world into illegality.”
The government’s defense of the base’s legality often fluctuates. The interior minister, Mohamed Bazoum, said in January during a speechfor the 27th anniversary of the president’s political party that because the American and French parliaments never debated the bases, Niger shouldn’t have to either. “The protocols we signed are not defense agreements. If they were, they would be for our partners, too,” Bazoum told a cheering crowd of cadres clad in the ruling party’s signature pink sashes.
Moussa Tchangari, an activist and head of Alternatives, an NGO, holds a copy of the Nigerien Constitution at his office in Niamey, Niger, on Jan. 10, 2018.Photo: Joe Penney
I showed the U.S.-Nigerien Status of Forces agreement, which is available to the public on the State Department website, to Soumana Sanda and Justice Minister Marou Amadou, as well as a leading constitutional lawyer, a member of Niger’s constitutional court, and a prominent NGO head. None of them had ever seen the document and were surprised that it was available online. When I read one sentence from the agreement to Sanda — that “the Parties waive any and all claims (other than contractual claims) against each other for damage to, loss, or destruction of the other’s property or injury or death to personnel of either Party’s armed forces or their civilian personnel arising out of the performance of their official duties in connection with activities under this Agreement” — he responded, “I wasn’t aware of all this.” He added, “Today I learned a little more” about the terms of American engagement. The base is rarely reported on by the Nigerien media, and most people who knew about it before Tongo Tongo got their information from foreign media reports.
The divide over the base’s legality and its value for Niger tends to fall under sharp lines based on proximity to the power structure. For instance, in Niamey I interviewed Brig. Gen. Mahamadou Abou Tarka, whose brother-in-law, Ahmed Mohamed, was recently named armed forces chief of staff. Tarka heads a $600 million fund for peace in the north of the country set up by the presidency, and he batted away questions about American mission creep. Before being escorted by bodyguards from his air-conditioned office to his chauffeured black sedan, Tarka told me that the government didn’t need to go through parliament because “we have not declared war, so the executive power considers it in its purview to strengthen the capacity of our military by bringing in allies.”
Any member of parliament can ask questions in parliament about the base, and one-tenth of parliament can call for an official inquiry into its legality. There are more than enough opposition MPs to do so, but so far they haven’t acted on their own questions about the base’s legality. Sahirou Youssoufou, journalist and editor-in-chief of L’événement newspaper, said it’s because at the end of the day, the opposition values good relations with the Americans over constitutional law. “These are political calculations. They don’t want to get in power and have all these partners at their back, their relations with them tainted,” Youssoufou told me.
The irony is that while the American presence is supposed to help keep the country stable, the U.S. has participated with the Nigerien government in a constitution-bypassing maneuver that undermines the country’s already-fragile democratic process.
IN THE MEANTIME, sightings of white soldiers in the desert animate residents’ imaginations and WhatsApp conversations. U.S. Special Forces seem to be involved in far-flung operations that go beyond the mandate of training Nigerien soldiers — Tongo Tongo is not the only example — and generate a lot of confusion, even among the government and its military.
For example, on a recent afternoon, local journalist Ibrahim Manzo Diallo received a video of a Tuareg woman and her two small children in the bush. She recounted how Nigerien and white soldiers abducted her husband and her husband’s friends, who had been camping in a nomadic tent outside Arlit, north of Agadez.
Curious about this incident, Diallo and I called the local prefect, Aghali Hamadil, who said that a mixed American and Nigerien patrol had indeed stormed a Tuareg camp, and while they released eight people, including the woman and her children, they detained four others and sent them to Niamey. When I asked Marou Amadou, the justice minister, whether this was true, he affirmed the account. “Yes, it’s the Americans. … They were looking for Goumour,” he said, referring to Goumour Bidika, who is “the main facilitator” for drug traffickers and terrorists in the Agadez region, according to a Nigerien commander with direct knowledge of the operation.
But that commander said Americans didn’t participate in the operation itself — the woman in the video who said she saw white soldiers had probably seen them at the Americans’ Aguelal base where the Tuareg captives were detained. The commander, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press, said Bidika had been communicating with several terrorists they were looking for, and that he had escaped during the raid; four of his lieutenants were detained at Aguelal and sent to a Niamey prison instead.
Aguelal, west of Arlit, is near the Algerian border, and the secret American base there is a recent one. Its existence was partially confirmed in February, 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.
Reached via email after the operation, Reho, the AFRICOM spokesperson, said “U.S. forces were not involved in any arrests in that region within the past week.”
AFTER NATO’S BOMBING of Libya in 2011 and the subsequent fall of Gadhafi, Agadez emerged as a main hub of migration of Africans to Europe – a trend that brought much-needed economic activity to the impoverished Agadez region. However, the economic spurt that surrounded migration has been throttled in the past few years by Nigerien police and military activity in the area, and the addition of American forces in Agadez will not help the situation.
Young men and women from all over West Africa ride buses to Agadez, and then pay hundreds of dollars to sit on top of yellow water jugs in the back of Toyota Hilux pickup trucks, holding onto pieces of wood to keep them aboard as they speed across the desert to enter Libya on their way to Europe. Up until 2015, the pickups were escorted north in convoys led by the Niger military for safety, and the migrants were made to pay bribes to Nigerien officials at checkpoints along the way.
Agadez depended on this industry for vital income, and the authorities profited from bribes the migrants paid. Things began to change when the city attracted media attention for the migration activity. The European Union held a joint summit with African nations in Valletta, Malta, and resolved to “set up a joint investigation team in Niger against migrant smuggling and trafficking.”
In 2015, the Nigerien government passed a law that targeted smugglersand human traffickers. With the legal backing and the political push from the European Union, by 2016 the government began arresting the drivers of migrants and impounding their vehicles. It also carried out patrols in the desert to turn back cars before they reached Libya. “By all accounts, the impetus behind passing this law was … European policymakers and European governments coming to Niger and saying, ‘You need to have a migrant smuggling law on the books,’” said journalist and researcher Peter Tinti, who has co-written a book on migration in the Sahel.
Once again, Western governments were forcing the Nigerien government to engage in legally dubious activity. Under Nigerien law, all citizens of West Africa have freedom of movement within Niger up until the Libya border, and most migrants making the journey aren’t coerced into doing so. Therefore, because trafficking is against the law only if a person is being transported against their will, the only crime that can be prosecuted is crossing into Libya without a visa. But since 2011, the central Libyan government recognized by the U.N. does not control the border with Niger, and the militias that control the southern towns in Libya ask for money, not visas, according to migrant transporter Bachir Amma. So the EU is trying to stop a flow of migrants that does not appear to break any local laws.
Justice Minister Marou Amadou poses for a picture in his office in Niamey, Niger, Jan. 21, 2018. Photo: Joe Penney
With their cars impounded, Agadez’s migrant transporters are now without jobs. The government does not seem to care. During an interview on the leather sofas in his office in Niamey, Justice Minister Marou Amadou laughed about the travails of Mohamed Anacko, the president of the Agadez Regional Council. “Anacko calls me whining all the time,” Amadou said. “I tell him, ‘Anacko, you can cry all you want, but it will continue’” — referring to regular police sweeps against migrant smugglers.
The EU had promised money to people involved in migrant transportation to start small businesses, but the “people who formerly worked in the migration industry are growing increasingly frustrated,” according to a report by the Clingendael Institute in the Netherlands. Migrant transporter Bachir Amma said that 6,550 people registered as ex-participants in the migrant industry, and he himself had been approved for a $2,800 grant to start a restaurant in Agadez six months ago, but he still hasn’t seen the money. The Niger government also shut down a popular gold-mining site in the north of the country for opaque reasons, compounding the economic hardship.
The European response has been to ratchet up the number of soldiers in the country. The Italians opened an embassy in Niger in January 2018, shortly after they announced that they were sending troops to the north of the country to fight migration. It’s another sign that individual European governments decided they couldn’t depend on the EU as a bloc to protect their borders, and have been aggressively pursuing their own anti-migrant agendas in Africa. In 2017, for instance, Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti struck deals with southern Libyan tribal leaders in an attempt to stem migration before people get a chance to cross the Mediterranean, in effect pushing Europe’s southern border into the Sahara.
The American base isn’t likely to bring reprieve to the region either. Despite the total cost of $110 million for construction and roughly $15 million in operating costs per year, very little of that money will go to the local economy. A young man who worked in the cafeteria of the base showed me the agreement he signed with the contractor that runs the cafeteria, Sakom. He was paid roughly $1.20 per hour, a low salary in Niger, and said he only got one day off every two weeks, working 12-hour days (the contract showed the hourly rate, but not the overtime or the number of days off). Most food, other than some fruits and vegetables, is shipped in from abroad. When I drove around the base’s perimeter with my colleague Diallo, a Sakom security vehicle began following us. Sakom’s representative in Agadez declined an interview request for this article.
Zara Ibrahim, head of the Association of Women Against War, poses for a picture in her office in Agadez, Niger, Jan. 15, 2018. Photo: Joe Penney
The Americans have done very little to help people in Agadez, other than holding a handful of workshops that appeared to be ineffective. Zara Ibrahim, head of the Association of Women Against War in Agadez, facilitated a workshop in which U.S. soldiers demonstrated to a group of mothers how to brush their teeth. Despite the fact that no one in the room needed to be taught how to brush their teeth, over 60 women came, according to Ibrahim, who told me about the workshop while sitting on a plastic mat on the floor of her association’s office. A strong gust of wind kicked up sand outside the building we were sitting in, and passing residents leaned forward and shielded their faces with their elbows. “Some women thought they would get something out of it. … They told us they would prefer 50 kilo bags of rice instead of toothbrushes,” she admitted.
Other workshops have included manuals on hand-washing and sexually transmitted infections, while soldiers donated some benches and notebooks to a local school. Some people appreciate the contact, but it hasn’t offered them much help. Ibrahim doesn’t understand why the local government never even explained what the Americans are doing in Agadez, arguing that the lack of communication lends itself to conspiracy theories, and that the political consequences can be dire. “It would be really easy to communicate to people in Agadez,” Ibrahim said, adding that “there’s a concrete example in Mali” of what happens if the local population is kept in the dark. In 2012, rebels and jihadi groups allied with Al Qaeda took over northern Mali following a Tuareg rebellion. As Ibrahim put it, northern Mali “woke up one morning under occupation.” The jihadi groups occupied the country’s three northern regions for nine months, until a French, Chadian, and Malian military intervention pushed them out of the towns and into the desert.
By staying behind their barbed-wire fences and providing little economic support to Agadez, the Americans run the risk of destabilizing the region. As Ibrahim remarked, “anyone can understand that.”
THE MAN IN 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. Amadou was accused of trafficking babies from Nigeria — a charge that Amadou vehemently denies, but which few political observers in the country have cast serious doubt on. His party boycotted the election yet still managed to finish second, behind Issoufou’s 92 percent. The opposition coalition called the election “a sham,” while the EU didn’t send an observer mission, which is rare in West Africa. Amadou is now in exile in France, having been released from prison temporarily for medical treatment.
Issoufou has taken unprecedentedly pro-Western stances on a number of key issues. He has allowed for the rapid expansion of the French and American troop presence, as well as opening up the country to German and Italian soldiers. He has shut down migration on Europe’s demand, against the economic interests of his own country. He has been rewarded for his efforts by French President Emmanuel Macron, who lauded Issoufou as “an example” of democracy on a recent state visit to Niger. And Issoufou has rewarded those in his administration who follow his vision: A couple of days after our interview, Issoufou had promoted Mahamadou Abou Tarka from colonel major to general.
Police officers stand guard during an official ceremony in Agadez, Niger, Jan. 15, 2018. Photo: Joe Penney
Amadou, the justice minister, says the real reason the opposition complains about the foreign soldiers in Niger is because they are “interested in demoralizing our troops.” Amadou’s voice rose at this point in the interview. “They tell the soldiers, ‘They don’t have respect for you, they’re bringing bases in and the only way to restore our dignity is to get rid of them.’ These are calls for a coup d’état.”
His phone began buzzing, and he paused our conversation to take a call. It was son excellence, the new Italian ambassador, and Amadou’s mood lifted. “Happy new year. … For the judge? … I know him very well. … That will be in what domain? I’ll tell you what, we should meet early next week,” he told the ambassador.
Amadou is right to worry about a coup d’état. In 2010, he was a leading member of the civil society opposition to Tandja, the president at the time, and supported the coup that overthrew him in February of that year. Amadou was named leader of the transitional legislative body by the junta, and when he helped usher elections that Issoufou won, he was rewarded with the post of justice minister. He has held the post ever since. During his eight years as garde des sceaux, he hasn’t prosecuted any participants in the 2010 coup nor the transitional government for any wrongdoing, despite blatant corruption detailed by Transparency International. This is because when Amadou was the head of the transitional legislative body in 2010, he helped pass a new constitution that included an entire article guaranteeing amnesty for those involved in the coup, as well as their accomplices. Meanwhile, a number of soldiers have been arrested and convicted for coup plots during Issoufou’s two terms.
As a region, West Africa is no stranger to military power seizures. In neighboring Burkina Faso, the American-trained elite presidential guard carried out a coup that eventually failed in 2015, while an American-trained captain named Amadou Sanogo led a destabilizing coup in Mali in 2012. Niger has had four coups since 1960.
Joe Penney was chief photographer for Reuters in West Africa from 2012 to 2016. He is also the co-founder of Sahelien.com, a website covering the Sahel region.