• Login

The Wagner Legacy

Is Russian disinformation behind Niger’s decision to revoke military ties with Washington?

24 April 2024

On March 17, Niger suspended its military agreement with the United States with immediate effect, as announced by Colonel Amadou Abdramane, the spokesman for the ruling military council. The agreement, which was established in 2012, allowed for the deployment of approximately 1000 U.S. military personnel and additional civilian staff from the U.S. Department of Defense across multiple bases in Niger. The Agadez region in the north of the country served as the main base for launching U.S. drone attacks on terrorist organizations in the African Sahel and Lake Chad Basin. The recent suspension decision followed a visit to the West African country by senior US officials led by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee and head of US Africa Command (AFRICOM) General Michael Langley.

Nigerien officials have expressed their dissatisfaction with a recent visit by a US delegation, stating that it deviated from agreed diplomatic protocol. The discussions between the US delegation and Nigerien authorities have further exacerbated the differences in perspectives. The spokesperson for the military council accused the United States of infringing on Niger's sovereignty to independently choose its partners in counterterrorism, indirectly alluding to Russia's involvement.

Subsequent official US responses have highlighted an awareness of the link between Russia's extensive disinformation campaigns targeting Niger and the decision of Niger's ruling military council to end the military agreement with Washington. This situation prompts a critical examination of the effectiveness of US and Russian military strategies in the African Sahel region. Although Russia has not established a significant military presence in the Sahel, aside from the sporadic deployment of its private paramilitary Wagner Group, it has achieved notable tactical victories. 

Moscow has notably altered the military dynamics in the region through effective disinformation campaigns, with the most impactful achievement being the withdrawal of US forces from Niger. Recently, Russia has initiated a comprehensive strategy to revamp its military footprint in Africa, moving from a reliance on private military companies, notably the Wagner Group, to more formalized units under the Ministry of Defense, exemplified by the creation of the Africa Corps, also known as the Russian Expeditionary Corps REK).

Russian Campaigns

The disinformation campaign by Russia in Niger exemplifies the strategies underpinning Russia's operations, showcasing its pronounced dominance in Africa. Prior to focusing on Niger, Moscow launched an extensive disinformation campaign across French-speaking Sahel countries, quickly gaining ground in Mali and Burkina Faso.

Following the success of the second military coup in Burkina Faso in September 2022, the Wagner Group initiated a coordinated campaign to target Niger. This campaign took a hybrid approach. Firstly, it involved targeting influential networks on social media platforms, capitalizing on Niger's high global ranking in internet usage. Secondly, various influential civil society organizations, such as the Union of Pan-African Patriots (UNPP) and the Pan-African Group for Trade and Investment (GPCI), were targeted on the ground. Concurrently, Russian news agencies intensified the dissemination of media content about the situation in Niger.

Additionally, several Telegram channels associated with Wagner have increased their coverage of the internal situation in Niger and have also been disseminating misleading information. Their primary targets have been President Mohamed Bazoum, who is known for his close ties to the United States and France. Immediately after the coup in July 2023, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the former head of the Wagner Group, sent a message via Telegram welcoming the coup. This message played a significant role in launching a wide endorsement campaign, the focus of which has been on discrediting all voices opposing the coup. This has been achieved through the heavy dissemination of misleading information across various social media platforms.

Despite the clash between Russian armed forces and the Wagner Group, which resulted in Prigozhin's death, Russia maintained its pattern of using disinformation in Niger. This highlights Moscow's strategic decision to increase its reliance on this tool in Africa. In the five months following the coup, there was an observed increase in content related to Niger on Telegram channels linked to Russian authorities, as well as on private WhatsApp groups and social media pages, primarily Facebook and X (formerly Twitter). These campaigns aimed to counter French efforts to gather international and regional opposition to the coup, and also launched a strong attack on the attempts by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), led by Nigeria and Senegal, to restore President Bazoum to power.

Russia played a significant role in shaping public opinion in Niger and Sahel countries, which ultimately led to the new authorities in Niger making radical decisions to reshape their foreign alliances. This process began with the breaking of ties with France, followed by a significant opening up to Russia after Niger's Prime Minister, Ali Mahamane Lamine Zeine, visited Moscow in January 2024. The culmination of these shifts was Niger's final decision to sever ties with the United States, a decision that gained rapid popular support for various reasons, including the ongoing and impactful Russian campaigns that have been consistently present since the beginning of the coup.

U.S. Response

Niger has played a crucial role as a hub for U.S. military operations in Africa. The country is home to two permanent bases, one in the capital city of Niamey and another in Agadez. Additionally, the United States has enjoyed access to military bases in Ouallam. Prior to the decision to expel American forces, Niger hosted approximately 1,100 military personnel from the United States. Under President Joe Biden's administration, the United States has provided substantial support to Niger's military and security sectors, amounting to nearly $300 million in less than four years. This financial commitment sets Niger apart from other African countries in terms of U.S. support.

Days after a crisis erupted with the Nigerien government, General Michael Langley, head of the U.S. Africa Command, testified to the House Armed Services Committee on March 21, 2024, that intense Russian disinformation campaigns in the region played a significant role in this radical shift. Langley described these campaigns as quick and aggressive, stating that they created anti-American sentiments on both popular and official levels in a short period.

Niger's decision to terminate military cooperation with the United States marks a significant shift in the trajectory of American military presence in Africa, particularly in relation to countering the increasing Russian influence on the continent. General Langley, during his testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Armed Services, emphasized the need for enhanced capabilities in the State Department's Global Engagement Center, which plays a crucial role in providing informational support for U.S. foreign activities and receives an annual budget approved by Congress.

The call for support from the U.S. Department of State by the AFRICOM commander is a significant development and comes in response to the strong Russian push of disinformation campaigns in Africa, which has prompted the U.S. forces to make notable progress in the field of information warfare. The Russian government spends over $1.5 billion annually to support these campaigns. Although the change in the U.S. stance towards intensifying the use of media and information tools to enhance military presence in Africa is still in its early stages, it is expected that the African Sahel will serve as a key area for early indicators of the anticipated U.S. response.

In conclusion, it is clear that the restructuring of Russian presence in Africa, which occurred after conflicts between the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Wagner Group, did not result in Moscow abandoning the effective tactics employed by Wagner. Instead, Russia has chosen to utilize the Wagner Group's legacy in Africa to amplify its disinformation campaigns, particularly in Niger. These campaigns are used in conjunction with a variety of integrated Russian tools. As a consequence, the military government in Niamey has made the unprecedented decision to terminate the American military presence in the country. This significant shift has the potential to profoundly reshape the military landscape in the African Sahel region.