News reports suggest that the U.S. military is preparing a base for unarmed drones in northwest Africa to increase its surveillance of regional militant threats like Al Qaeda.
The New York Times reports that the base is likely to be in Niger (or the Republic of Niger), West Africa’s largest country, landlocked between Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Algeria, Libya, and Chad.
According to Western officials, a drone base will help the United States assist France’s operation against Islamic rebels in northern Mali. The U.S. military has historically only had one permanent base in the continent, in Djibouti, so establishing a drone base will increase its strategic presence in the continent.
Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou has shown little resistance to the creation of a drone base in the country. Due to recent events in Mali, Issoufou is allegedly seeking to improve Niger’s strategic cooperation with the United States, stating that “What’s happening in northern Mali is a big concern for us because . . .[it] can also happen to us.”
Although events in Mali have intensified over the past few weeks, the U.S. may have anticipated creating a military presence in the country a year ago. Last year, United States began negotiating the recently finalized status-of-forces agreement (SOFA), a bill granting legal immunity to U.S. troops in Niger.
According to one source, this suggests that the United States has been planning to establish a drone presence, and eventually station troops in the region. Others disagree, seeing this as an ordinary development in U.S.- Africa defense cooperation. John Campbell of the Council on Foreign Relations, for example, argues that the media is jumping to conclusions. According to Campbell, the U.S. has already operated SOFAs with twenty-two countries in sub-Saharan Africa. He adds,“… a SOFA—in and of itself—does not necessarily imply that drones will be stationed there or even that the U.S. military presence will increase.” According to Campbell’s view, just because the United States started negotiating the SOFA over a year ago, this does not mean it will put boots on the ground or start a drone war in Niger or Mali.
If a drone base is established, it will signal a new era in U.S. foreign policy toward Africa. This may result in more direct U.S. involvement in the region, but perhaps, through the use of drone technology, less reliance upon African regimes to do America’s bidding.