US drones in our backyard
Last month, precisely on January 28, the United States government signed a military agreement with Niger Republic, dubbed “Status of Forces,” whose broad definition will give legal backing to US military to station a drone base in Nigeria’s strategic northern neighbor. Though, negotiation for the agreement has been long, what seems to inform its hurried conclusion might not be unconnected with the French military intervention in Mali to drive out armed extremist groups that last year overran the northern part of that country.
Already, sources inside the government in Niamey, quoted by Reuters, have confirmed that “Niger has given the green light to accepting US surveillance drones on its soil to improve the collection of intelligence on Islamist movements.” However, this deal which is broad in its framework and could be stretched further to accommodate whatever Washington considers its strategic interest in the region, could see even the deployment of aggressive drones in future for military missions far beyond containing extremists in the region.
Besides, the US has a tradition of stretching the definition of Islamism beyond what is conventionally acceptable. However, even US surveillance drones have left lethal consequences wherever they have been operated. According to London-based Bureau for Investigative Journalism which has monitored US drones across the world, in Pakistan alone, the drones have conducted 362 strikes since 2004 and killed up to 3,461 militants and as many as 891 civilians. And because of US broad definition of militants, observers believe the number of civilian casualties might be much higher than recorded by the bureau.
Already US drone surveillance bases in Africa are in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Djibouti. The opening of a new base in Niger marks a clear stretching of the military dragnet which the US intends to throw around the region.
We hold the US partly responsible for the militarization of political Islam. Having generously backed Osama bin Laden and his militant accomplices to fight the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan, the militants turned their guns on former friends after finishing up their mutual adversaries. For much of the extremist resurgence in the West African sub-region, the sudden collapse of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya threw open the over-supplied arsenal of the former dictator to assorted groups who can pay. The fall of Gaddafi was a result of the thoughtless obsession of the West with regime change in Tripoli.
With Niger poised to host the deadly American military machine, Nigeria should not be complacent about this untoward happening in its backyard. Washington has argued that the paucity of its human intelligence in the West African sub-region necessitates the deployment of surveillance drones. But these drones are not super proof against error. In Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, where the drones are freely in use, a lot of civilians, including a mere wedding group, have been mistaken for military targets and bombed.
We share the global worry over the rising profile of violent Islamist extremism but we are clearly wary of the US solution of militarily running a ring across the region, especially with the establishment of a drone base in our neighbourhood. We urge Abuja to immediately engage with Niamey in order to get it to reconsider its military agreement with the US. Nigeria is a major regional power and could not stand by and watch an extra-African power plant a military facility that clearly undermines its own national security.