Niger Junta Appoints U.S.-Trained Military Officers to Key Jobs

The Pentagon claims “no correlation” between U.S. training and coups, but research suggests the opposite could be true.

Children run in the streets of Niamey, Niger, Sunday, Aug. 13, 2023. People marched, biked and drove through downtown Niamey, chanting "down with France" and expressing anger at ECOWAS. (AP Photo/Sam Mednick)
Children run in the streets of Niamey, Niger, on Aug. 13, 2023. Photo: Sam Mednick/AP

U.S.-trained military officers have been appointed to head five of eight regions of Niger by a junta that includes at least five U.S.-trained military officers, The Intercept has learned. While the Pentagon claims its instruction doesn’t lead to mutinies, innovative research by a former Pentagon analyst indicates the opposite could be true.

The Nigerien junta, which calls itself the National Council for the Safeguarding of the Fatherland, seized power on July 26 and detained the democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum. Earlier this month, the junta reportedly installed eight top security officials to govern its seven regions and the capital district. This consolidation of power included the appointments of Brig. Gens. Iro Oumarou and Ibrahim Bagadoma; Col. Maj. Oumarou Tawayé; Inspector General of Police Issoufou Mamane; and Col. Labo Issoufou. All have “participated in U.S.-sponsored training,” a State Department spokesperson said in response to questions from The Intercept.

The Pentagon is confident that “no correlation” exists between its instruction and U.S. trainees conducting coups, but recent scholarship complicates that view. In a 2022 study, Renanah Joyce, an assistant professor of politics at Brandeis University and a former Defense Department analyst, evaluated the Armed Forces of Liberia, which the United States rebuilt from the ground up following a devastating civil war. She found that, along with technical, tactical skills, the U.S. training program also “heavily emphasized liberal norms, socializing the Liberian military to respect human rights and civilian authority.”

“The [U.S.] training fails to address or transform institutions.”

Employing an inventive experiment that involved a survey, Joyce discovered that when faced with competing “liberal norms,” U.S.-trained soldiers prioritized military cohesion over human rights and democratic principles. When Joyce put Liberian soldiers to the test, she found “respondents with U.S. training were significantly less likely to express willingness to prioritize human rights,” as well as “somewhat less likely to express absolute support for democracy and somewhat more likely to express support for army rule.” In contrast, those “without U.S. training were significantly less likely to express support for one-party rule.”

“U.S. training too often imparts tactical and operational skills that can make military forces more competent without simultaneously making them more professional or subordinate to civilian authority because the training fails to address or transform institutions,” Joyce told The Intercept, while emphasizing that different programs target different segments of the military and impart different skills. “Good tactical training that occurs in the context of weak, corrupt, or illiberal institutions — political and military — is likely to do no good and may do harm.”

The Pentagon does not seem to have bought into Joyce’s findings — and perhaps is not even aware of them. Last week, Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder noted that U.S. training emphasizes democratic governance and civilian control of the military.

“We do know that several Nigerien military personnel associated with the events there have received U.S. training in the past,” he said. “There is no correlation between the training that they received and their activities.” The Pentagon did not explain how Ryder came to this conclusion, despite repeated requests for clarification from The Intercept.

Joyce was skeptical. “If it’s true that training always tries to promote adherence to principles of democratic governance and civilian rule of the military, the fact that a coup happened in Niger suggests that these efforts were ineffective at best in that case,” she told The Intercept. “I’m quite confident that the U.S. training provided does nod, at least in passing, to the importance of democratic governance. The problem is that even if soldiers buy into these norms — which requires quite a lot of time and training, by the way — it’s not enough to ensure the right behaviors if institutional guardrails and good political governance are missing and rival autocratic providers are present.”

The Intercept has identified the head of the Nigerien junta, Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani (also spelled Tiani); Gen. Mohamed Toumba; and the new defense chief, Brig. Gen. Moussa Salaou Barmou, as mutineers with U.S. connections. In total, at least five members of the junta were trained by the United States, according to a U.S. government official with knowledge of efforts to ascertain their American ties. Last week, Barmou told U.S. Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland that the junta would execute the deposed president if neighboring countries attempted a military intervention to restore Bazoum’s rule, according to a second U.S. official who spoke with The Intercept. Barmou did not respond to requests for an interview.

The junta has faced pressure from the U.S. and other international actors to release and reinstate Bazoum. This weekend, the junta publicly announced that it plans to prosecute Bazoum for “high treason” for “stealing all of Niger’s resources.” If convicted, Bazoum could, under Nigerien law, face the death penalty.

At least 15 U.S.-supported officers have been involved in 12 coups in West Africa and the greater Sahel in recent years. The list includes officers who conducted coups in Burkina Faso (2014, 2015, and twice in 2022); Gambia (2014); Guinea (2021); Mali (2012, 2020, 2021); Mauritania (2008); and Niger (2023). Chad’s Mahamat Idriss Déby — who was installed by the army in a dynastic coup after the death of his father in 2021 — also benefited from U.S. assistance in 2013, according to information the State Department provided in response to The Intercept’s questions. Déby, whose country borders Niger to the east, met with members of the junta, as well as Bazoum, just days after the coup d’état.

The juntas in neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali quickly lined up behind Niger’s coup leaders and warned that any military intervention to restore Bazoum would be considered a “declaration of war” against them all.

The Intercept recently reported that in Mali, Col. Assimi Goïta — who worked with U.S. Special Operations forces, participated in U.S. training exercises, and attended a Joint Special Operations University seminar in Florida before overthrowing the government in both 2020 and 2021 — struck a deal with Wagner, the Russia-linked mercenary group that has since been implicated in hundreds of human rights abuses alongside Malian troops.

“What we are seeing in Mali, Burkina Faso, and now Niger, is evidence that officers once trained by the U.S. and France are willing to ‘bite the hand’ that feeds them, rejecting their former U.S. and French partners,” said Joyce. “The availability of alternative security assistance and training — particularly from Russia — makes this decision easier than it would be otherwise.” 

“Officers once trained by the U.S. and France are willing to ‘bite the hand’ that feeds them.”

Not all recent Sahelien coups involve U.S.-trained officers. Sudan, which has suffered 17 coups, saw military takeovers in 2019 and 2021 that apparently did not involve U.S. trainees. (The U.S. designated Sudan a “state sponsor of terrorism” from 1993 to 2020 and had limited military-to-military contact.) And not all U.S.-trained African mutineers hail from the Sahel. Before Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi deposed Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013, he underwent basic training at Fort Benning (now Fort Moore) in Georgia and advanced instruction at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania.

The five U.S.-trained Nigerien governors received instruction in a wide variety of “topics” including counterterrorism, border security, and “kidnapping for ransom,” over the course of “many years,” according to an email from the State Department. “We are not able to provide individual training records at this time,” a spokesperson told The Intercept. 

The Congressional Research Service estimates that the Pentagon and State Department have furnished more than $6.5 billion in security assistance to African partners over the past decade, although that number is likely an undercount. Counterterrorism assistance has dominated U.S. military aid on the continent since 9/11, but each year, around 90 percent of African nations also receive U.S. training in human rights and civilian control of the military.

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