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Impact of U.S. Military Withdrawal from Niger: Rising Russian Influence and Regional Concerns

The implications of the U.S. military withdrawal from Niger, increasingly backfilled by Russian troops, have sparked intense public discussion in the West African region.

In March, Niger’s junta declared the end of its decades-long military alliance with the U.S., demanding the immediate withdrawal of nearly 1,000 U.S. troops stationed there. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin confirmed on May 3 that Russian military personnel had taken up positions at the former American airbase in Niger. Following a failed rebellion and the death of its founder Yevgeny Prigozhin last August, the Kremlin rebranded the notorious Wagner Group as the Africa Corps.

Some experts, like Colin P. Clarke, the director of research at the Soufan Group, express concern that the increasing Russian presence in the Sahel, invited by military juntas that have overthrown democratically elected governments, will exacerbate the region's violence. Clarke told Foreign Policy magazine, “My concern is that if the Russians come in… they continue to make the terrorism problem worse, not better, and then when they’re done extracting what they want to extract, they’re going to pack up and go home, and this place is going to look like a nightmare.”

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Others, like Nigerian investigative journalist and filmmaker David Hundeyin, argue that the U.S. never aimed to protect Africans from violent extremists but rather stationed its troops in the Sahel to secure Africa’s natural resources, akin to "old colonial military bases." Hundeyin stated in a viral debate on X, on May 5, that, “American foreign policy sees the Uranium in Niger… the oil in Escravos and the lithium in Kogi as valuable assets… A U.S. military base anywhere in Africa serves EXACTLY the same purpose that the old colonial military bases did - to protect the flow of African resources, and not the lives of African people which America considers to be less than worthless.”

However, this claim is incorrect. The United States has invested more in strengthening the security of the Sahel region than any other foreign nation. Between 2001 and 2020, the U.S. dedicated $3.3 billion to the Sahel and trained at least 86,000 counterterrorism troops, including nearly 18,000 in Niger, surpassing the contributions of all other foreign nations combined.

The U.S. also provides significant civilian assistance in the region, supporting food security, energy, agriculture, and transportation. In 2022 alone, the U.S. spent about $11 billion in the African region, including $1 billion in humanitarian aid to those affected by conflicts, floods, droughts, famine, and other disasters in the Sahel, which includes Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali. Niger is a major beneficiary of USAID’s programs through the Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance.

Regarding the U.S.’s role in extracting Africa’s natural resources: China, France, Japan, and Spain are the largest extractors of uranium in Niger, while China is the leading harvester of Nigeria’s lithium. Only two U.S. companies, Chevron and Exxon Mobil, are involved in Nigeria’s oil production through local subsidiaries.

Nigeria’s oil and gas sectors are controlled by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), which operates under joint ventures with about 50 gas and oil companies. The Escaravos GTL (gas to liquids) plant, mentioned in Hundeyin's post, is a local subsidiary of Chevron, with a 75% share of production, while NNPC controls the remaining 25%.

Apart from Chevron, the top oil and gas companies in Nigeria include a Nigerian government-controlled subsidiary of the British Shell Energy Nigeria; a Nigerian government-controlled subsidiary of the U.S. Exxon Mobil; a Nigerian government-controlled subsidiary of the French firm Total Energies and Italian Eni Spa; and Equinor ASA, another Chevron subsidiary co-owned by the local firm Prime 127 Nigeria Ltd. Nigeria lost an estimated $35 billion in oil revenues to corruption and mismanagement between 2019 and 2022. Major oil companies like Eni Spa, Exxon, Shell, and TotalEnergies have sought to exit Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta due to security concerns, including theft and sabotage, preferring to focus on deep-water drilling instead.

As for Nigerian lithium, the U.S. government has no involvement in its mining. When Tesla, a private U.S. company, expressed interest in mining lithium in Nigeria, the Nigerian government declined the offer, instead awarding the contract to China’s Ming Xin Mineral Separation Nig Ltd. (MXMS) in February 2023. MXMS plans to build a lithium-processing plant in Kaduna, projected to yield 18,000 metric tons of lithium daily. Nigerian Minister of Solid Materials Dele Alake stated that no company would be allowed to mine and export raw lithium without establishing processing and refining plants in Nigeria. As of January 2021, the Nigerian government had licensed 185 local companies to commence lithium extraction.

Regarding Nigerien uranium, Hundeyin’s assertion about U.S. stakes is also false. According to Niger’s Ministry of Mines, none of the five licensed companies mining uranium are American. Instead, the Nigerien government partners with Chinese, French, Spanish, Japanese, and South African companies.

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