The white wide-body aircraft adorned with the Russian flag landed on Wednesday April 10 at Niamey airport, filmed by Russian state media cameras. Plunged into the darkness of the Nigerien night and under the deafening noise of the plane’s engines, the reporter from the Russian press agency RIA Novosti comments on the arrival of the first soldiers of the Africa Corps in the country, around a hundred men who officially sign the rapprochement between Moscow and the junta led by Abdourahamane Tiani.

“This means that Russia is returning to Africa,” he says, even though Moscow is already present from Libya to Sudan, from the Sahel to the Central African Republic. After Mali and Burkina Faso, the third Sahelian country to be led by putschist soldiers further assumes its membership in the pro-Russian camp in West Africa.

The arrival of the Ilyushin Il-76 was revealed twenty-four hours later by Nigerien state television, which specified that it had on board “the latest generation of military equipment and instructors from the Ministry of Defense. defense” responsible in particular for installing an “anti-aircraft defense system”. Broadcasting images of the head of the junta, the state media specifies that this arrival follows a “historic” telephone interview between Abdourahamane Tiani and Vladimir Putin on March 26. The latest signal of an intense rapprochement between the two countries.

Call of the foot

Feared by Westerners, this shift had been taking shape since the end of 2023. In December, Niamey welcomed for the first time a Russian official in the person of the powerful deputy minister of defense, Colonel General Younous-bek Evkourov. The two countries then signed a secret defense “protocol” for the “strengthening of security cooperation”. A month and a half later, the head of the Nigerien transitional government, Ali Mahamane Lamine Zeine, at the head of a large ministerial delegation, visited Russia before going to Turkey, Iran and Serbia.

In March, the head of the Nigerien junta sycophantic congratulations to Vladimir Putin for his “brilliant re-election” and his “brilliant victory” in the presidential election – without a strong opponent, the Russian leader granted himself a fifth term with 87% of the votes. voices – sounded like a call of the foot. “Niger, which is waging a historic struggle for its sovereignty and development, knows that it can count on your personal commitment and that of the Russian Federation to succeed in its fight,” the Nigerien press release continued.

“The arrival of the Africa Corps in Niger marks the continued continued expansion of Russia in the region, backed by the institutionalization of the Alliance of Sahel States [AES, a new entity which brings together Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger], over which Moscow exercises significant influence, analyzes researcher Maxime Audinet, specialist in Russian influence at the Strategic Research Institute of the Military School (Irsem). We are witnessing the incarnation of the post-Yevgeny Prigojine Russian presence in the Sahel, orchestrated by Russian military intelligence (GRU) and the Ministry of Defense, which are trying to regain control of Wagner’s legacy in Africa. »

Died in August 2023 in the crash of his plane, the boss of the Russian paramilitary company, who had been the architect of Wagner’s expansion in Africa, welcomed the putsch in Niger in July. In an audio recording broadcast on social networks, he was heard hailing the fall of “pro-French” president Mohamed Bazoum, which he said was “nothing other than the struggle of the Nigerien people against the colonizers who are trying to impose their rules of life on him.” In Niamey, demonstrators who rejoiced at the overthrow of Mohamed Bazoum – still sequestered by the junta eight and a half months later – brandished flags in the colors of Russia.

“Fool’s Bargain”

The AES is now one of Moscow’s privileged areas of influence in Africa. Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, three countries prey to jihadist groups and now in the hands of putschists, have announced their exit from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and have all broken their alliances with France, before concluding military partnerships with Russia, supposed to allow them to better fight against terrorism. A promise that they have not managed to achieve for the moment: in each country, the number of attacks and victims has increased in recent months.

According to Maxime Audinet, “Niger seems at this stage to be heading down the Burkinabe path, marked by military training and the constitution of a praetorian guard model supported by an informational influence system responsible for protecting and legitimizing the junta », rather than on the deployment of soldiers on the ground to fight against terrorist attacks, as in Mali.

Before welcoming the Russian soldiers, Niger had in turn severed ties with its main Western partners. First with France, whose junta had demanded the departure of 1,500 soldiers and the ambassador as soon as it took power. The United States, despite its much more conciliatory tone, ended up also being asked to leave the country.

On March 16, Niamey considered that the American presence was “illegal” and denounced “with immediate effect” the military cooperation agreement signed with Washington in 2012. A “fool’s bargain”, added the putschists on Sunday April 7. Washington must now close the Agadez base, where drones and 1,100 soldiers are mainly responsible for intelligence and surveillance missions.

Germany still has around a hundred soldiers in Niger, engaged in special forces training. Around 300 Italian soldiers are also in the country as part of bilateral cooperation. In November, Niamey ended its main cooperation with the European Union (EU) by repealing the 2015 law on migrant smuggling. The increase in migration to Europe via Niger immediately began to rise again. One more reason to worry the EU and an additional means of pressure for Niamey in its standoff against the West.