There has been press speculation that the United States is going to establish a drone base in Niger. They claim that the drones would initially be for surveillance, but they could later be armed.
A drone base in Niger would represent a significant shift in the Obama administration’s policy toward the region, which has previously emphasized partnerships with African governments and military training over the presence of U.S. facilities or troops on the ground.
Is there reality behind the headlines? Niger’s president Mahamadou Issoufou says he wants a closer security relationship with the United States. To that end, the United States and Niger signed a status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) on January 28, 2013. Such an agreement is a legal and technical document, and a common first step to a closer security relationship. Among other things it grants immunity from domestic laws to U.S. military personnel stationed in the country. Such an agreement is necessary were the larger military presence required by drones to be established at a later date. But 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. The U.S. has SOFAs with twenty-two countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
A drone base would require a significant number of support personnel, active-duty military, contract, or both. The spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of State has reiterated that there are no plans to commit U.S. troops to Mali: she is quoted as saying, “the U.S. military is not going to be engaged in combat operations in Mali, and we don’t expect U.S. forces to become directly involved on the ground in combat either.” It is true that a drone base in Niger would not constitute U.S. “boots on the ground” in Mali. But, it certainly would be close–and the distinction between the U.S. military in Niger focused on Mali rather than in Mali itself would be largely lost by most West Africans—and on most Americans.
This SOFA was on the table for over a year before the French intervention into Mali, and should not immediately be considered a result of the current crisis.