Denis Bright invites discussion the recent fatal ambush of four members of a US special forces unit in remote Niger. Is the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) becoming the New Foreign Legion for the stabilization of underdeveloped countries across Africa?
The main emphasis in US domestic reporting on the fatal ambush at Tongo Tongo in Niger has been about the nature of a car phone call from President Trump to Myeshia Johnson, the distressed wife of Sgt La David Johnson.
Mainstream US news coverage showed Myeshia Johnson weeping over the flag-draped casket of La David Johnson as it was unloaded in Florida.
ABC Radio National gave an update on the family tragedy facing the Johnson family:
The pregnant widow of fallen US soldier La David Johnson says she has nothing to say to US President Donald Trump after he offended her during a phone call about her husband’s death.
Myeshia Johnson has now revealed to ABC America that President Trump couldn’t remember her husband’s name and told her husband “knew what he signed up for, but it hurt anyway”.
The phone call sparked controversy last week when congresswoman Federica Wilson, who was in the car with Ms Johnson when the phone call occurred, publicly criticised Trump’s response.
President Trump accused congresswoman Wilson of fabricating the story.
Myeshia Johnson said a group of people heard the call on speaker phone and confirmed “what (Ms Wilson) said was 100 per cent correct”.
Closure of this tragic event invites more background reporting on the rationale for deployment of large numbers of special forces and military training personnel by France, the US and Nigeria in to poverty-stricken parts of Africa including Niger, Mali and Chad.
Nigeria’s own military resources are quite over-extended with continued regional separatist movements in both Biafra and the far-northern semi-arid zones centered on the regional capital of Kano.
US military training and special forces operations in Africa are under the command of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM).
AFRICOM’s headquarters is a comfortable world away from sub-Saharan Africa at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany. AFRICOM was established under the Presidency of George W. Bush in 2007 with responsibility for the co-ordination of military strategies across 53 African countries, including Niger.
Niger on the New Front Line
A century ago sub-Saharan Africa was still in the process of a brutal annexation by France. This task was not finalized until 1922 after two decades of local resistance that produced some of the worst atrocities in French colonial history. France was trying to consolidate all its dependencies in West Africa from Senegal to the Lake Chad Basin.
The battle lines continue in contemporary Niger between forces loyal to the authoritarian government of President Mohamadou Issoufou and a range of Islamic resistance and terrorist groups.
Niger is also a long-term convenient supplier of low cost uranium to France and other European countries. The country covers a vast swathe of sub-Saharan Africa. Exports occur mainly through port installations in Benin (AFRICOM Online 2017).
The administration of George W. Bush used CIA evidence of fictitious negotiations about yellowcake purchases from Niger by Saddam Hussein’s government as another justification for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (BBC News Online 9 September 2006).
Beyond sections of Niger’s capital, Niamey and the scattered mine sites, most Nigeriens are dependent on a traditional subsistence economy for their survival. North of the Niger River, the landscape extends from scattered bushland into inhospitable rocky and sandy desert that is Saharan Africa. Oases cluster around water sources from the ravines.
Niger is more than twice the size of Metropolitan France. Its population is around 20 million. Ninety-five per cent of the population are Muslims. However, the country is caught in a cultural divide between western and traditional religious influences.
The Guardian noted that AFRICOM operations in West Africa have intensified in recent years:
“American forces are already assisting a French offensive in neighbouring Mali that is aimed at recapturing the country’s northern desert territory from the hands of Islamist rebels. On Monday the US signed a military agreement with Niger that paves the way legally for US forces to operate on its soil, prompting a series of reports that the Pentagon was keen on opening a new drones base there.
That news appeared to be confirmed by Niger government sources, who said the US ambassador in Niamey, Bisa Williams, had asked Niger’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou, for permission to use surveillance drones and had been granted it.
‘Niger has given the green light to accepting American surveillance drones on its soil to improve the collection of intelligence on Islamist movements,’ a Niger government source told Reuters.
In Washington a diplomatic source told the Guardian that the recently signed deal, known as a “status of forces” agreement, was very broad. ‘There are no constraints to military-to-military co-operation within the agreement,’ the source said.
The deal with Niger had been under negotiation for some time but had got a sudden burst of urgency after the dramatic events following the French intervention in Mali. Though French-led forces have swept militants from key cities in northern Mali, the conflict has focused diplomatic efforts on the security threat posed by Islamist groups in the vast wilderness of the Sahel and Sahara.
It is believed that the US only currently desires surveillance drones to be deployed to Niger though the agreement could pave the way for more aggressive armed drones in the future. A spokesman for the Pentagon did not return requests for clarification by email and telephone.
The move would be the latest in a gradual expansion of American surveillance drones in Africa, which have so far been operated from Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. It would represent an acknowledgement that the north and west African regions are becoming a key battleground in the fight against Islamist groups. Aside from the conflict in Mali, Nigeria is plagued by violent Islamist extremists in its northern provinces and Algeria recently saw a high-profile and bloody attack on western workers at an oil industry facility”.
As an integral part of francophone Africa, Nigeriens are well aware that the more comfortable developed world in Europe which is accessible through long journeys on run-down buses and trucks through strife torn Libya to the Mediterranean Coast.
Niger and Mali have been on the major land routes for refugees from across Central Africa to European countries, principally through post-Gaddaffi Libya.
The effects of drought and underdevelopment across Niger have been magnified by the state of emergency in the Diffa Region. Here in the Lake Chad Basin in south eastern Niger along the borders of Niger, Chad and Nigeria, Boko Haram terrorist activities have contributed to the displacement of 300,000 people (Amnesty International Report 2016-17).
This internal conflict in Niger provides an excuse for a security crack-down by the government through use of force, torture and extra-judicial killings.
Until more details are released on troop deployments under the US Africa Command, the rationale for the US military presence in Niger has been offered by the Atlantic Monthly:
“CNN reported that the ambush occurred as they exited a meeting with local leaders. This is not the first time that U.S. service members have been killed in combat while supposedly not in combat roles. The Obama administration appeared to blur the lines between training and combat for such deployments, and the Niger case raises the possibility that the Trump administration is doing the same.
But U.S. Africa Command has formally said only that the four slain soldiers were working on a counter-terrorism mission, without more details. Trump, meanwhile, is happy to talk out of school about former presidents, but he remains tight-lipped about why the slain soldiers were in harm’s way”.
Differing Responses to Underdevelopment in Niger
Like many underdeveloped countries, Niger has an impressive economic growth rate linked to overseas investment in a few key investment nodes such as uranium mining, coal mining for electricity production and a range of other essential services which have made Niamey a buzzling capital city.
Outside Niamey, Nigeriens face ongoing challenges from drought, an extraordinary population growth and more recently a terrorist offensive against the Mohamadou government from various quarters.
The formal growth rate of Niger is a very misleading statistic. Living standards are not improving an extraordinary rate of 5 per cent per annum. Niches in the Nigerien economy are doing very well.
Niger is the world’s fourth largest producer of uranium. The industry has attracted significant corporate players (World Nuclear Association Online 2017):
Greenpeace International reported on the state of the uranium industry in 2013:
“Three years ago, in May 2010, a team of Greenpeace radiation specialists visited villages close to uranium mines in Niger operated by French nuclear giant AREVA, where they found contamination levels in the air, water and soil above internationally accepted limits.
Before our trip, reacting to earlier discoveries, Areva had supposedly implemented measures to avoid these problems from happening again.
But among many other disturbing problems, we also found several pieces of radioactive scrap metal on the local market in Arlit, with the radiation dose rate reaching up to 50 times more than the normal background levels. Locals use these materials to build their homes.
Niger supplies 40% of the uranium needed to fuel France’s fleet of nuclear reactors. And yet Niger sits at the bottom of the United Nation’s Human Development Index which measures life expectancy, educational attainment and incomes”.
Making Life Easier for Nigeriens?
The emphasis by the US in offering military training and special forces assistance to Niger contrasts with other more broadly-based approaches to development assistance for Africa.
China provides developmental support for Niger without direct participation in local politics (Forum on China-African Cooperation in Beijing on 3 August 2016):
“The funds will enable Nigerien government to complete construction of a referral hospital in Niamey, the third bridge along River Niger, as well as other development projects.
Some of the projects constructed by China include General Seyni Kountche stadium, various roads, the second bridge on river Niger, the water project in Zinder, schools and training equipment in the health sector.
Once completed, the Niamey general referral hospital that will have a capacity of 500 beds, will become the biggest and most modern referral hospital in West Africa”.
Chinese assistance to Niger is dwarfed by the volume of assistance offered by France and the European Commission. European Commission assistance alone amounts to €610 million for 2017 (Donor Tracker Online 2017).
Colonial international rail freight and passenger links are being rehabilitated (troncons a rehabiter) or extended to link Niamey with both Benin and the Ivory Coast.
These projects are a joint effort between the participating countries through a combination of overseas assistance and regional private corporate investment in West Africa.
The new transport routes encircle the traditional development efforts in left-leaning Ghana where the national economy has open to systematic developmental assistance from China. Ghana tilted to the centre-right at the presidential elections on 9 December 2016. President Nana Akufo-Addo now heads a majority government. The change will be well received by the Trump Administration in keeping with the CIA’s long involvement in African affairs as covered by BBC News Online 17 May 2016.
Meanwhile, US development assistance (ODA) is bogged down in domestic politics since the election of President Trump. US ODA levels amount to 0.18 per cent of national income (GNI).
Implications for Australia
In Australia, the federal LNP has followed this trend by transferring some of its savings on developmental assistance to support offshore detention programme (Donor Tracker Online 2017).
Investment by Australian and overseas corporations is perceived by the federal LNP to be the most appropriate development model for our Pacific Region.
This attitude has met entrenched opposition in PNG where the government of Peter O’Neil passed legislation in 2013 to take control of mining operations at BHP’s former Ok Tedi Mine which was handed over to the PNG Sustainable Development Programme (SDP) in 2001 (ABC News Online 24 August 2015).
The media’s focus on the unfortunate conversation between President Trump and Myeshia Johnson is at the expense of our own equally important regional underdevelopment challenges in places like PNG, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.
While Australia ranks second on the global human development index for 2015, PNG has a ranking of 154th. Niger ranks 187th. The Central African Republic, a former French colony has 188th place on the index.
Despite the geographical distance between Niger and PNG, similar issues of environmental problems and poverty are at play.
Hopefully, the reformist economic rhetoric of NZ’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will add a new youthful perspective to challenge our quest for military focused solutions to transplant corporate economic priorities.
This short-sightedness of the federal LNP’s false austerity relating to our developmental assistance grants must ultimately affect Australia’s long-term security. Aspects of regional separatism are evident in countries like Papua-New Guinea (PNG). Here gas and mineral resources are being plundered by global corporations to add fuel to Prime Minister Ardern’s highly appropriate take on global capitalism with its strong patronage from the military industrial complexes.
The sacrifices made by Sgt La David Johnson are indeed perceived by political elites worldwide as an appropriate lot for the world’s youth on both sides of the new ideological divide through underdevelopment societies.
Denis Bright is a registered teacher and a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis has recent postgraduate qualifications in journalism, public policy and international relations. He is interested in promoting discussion to evaluate pragmatic public policies that are compatible with contemporary globalization.
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