At the same time, he said Niger cannot rely on French and U.S. military forces forever and needs to ensure its own security. To that end, the U.S. government has agreed to give Niger two Cessna Grand Caravan aircraft to transport troops and conduct surveillance.
“The intelligence is crucial for us,” said Col. Mamane Souley, director of exterior relations for the Nigerien armed forces. “We have a vast territory, and in that sense aircraft are fundamentally important.”
Low profile in Muslim nation
The presence of high-tech Predator drones in Niger’s skies contrasts jarringly with life on the ground. There are only a handful of paved roads in the capital. Many people live in mud-brick shanties. Goats and camels are a common sight in the city center.
U.S. and Nigerien officials had worried that the drones might spur a popular backlash in Niger, where about 90 percent of the population is Muslim. Extra security barriers were raised outside the U.S. and French embassies as a precaution. So far, however, reaction has been muted, and many people seem to favor anything that the U.S. and French militaries can do to prevent a spillover of violence from Mali.
“Of course, we might have some narrow-minded Nigeriens,” said Marou Amadou, who serves as Niger’s justice minister and its chief government spokesman. “But people understand that the presence of these drones is very, very helpful. . . . What is happening in Mali could happen in Niger also.”
Nonetheless, U.S. troops have kept a low profile. Americans with short haircuts and a military bearing occasionally surface at a couple of Niamey hotels to eat barbecue or drink beer, but most confine themselves to the base.
The Africa Command did not respond to questions about how many U.S. troops are in Niger, but one U.S. official said the number of Air Force personnel had increased beyond the 100 troops Obama said last month he had deployed.
“We just know there are drones; we don’t know what they are doing exactly,” said Djibril Abarchi, chairman of the Nigerien Association for the Defense of Human Rights, an independent watchdog group. “Nothing is visible. There is no transparency in our country with military questions. No one can tell you what’s going on.”
Most Nigeriens are strongly opposed to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the terrorist network’s affiliate, and recognize that their country is vulnerable without foreign military help, said Boureima Abdou Daouda, an imam in Niamey who leads a regional council of religious leaders that advises governments on countering extremism.
At the same time, as in many African countries, the presence of foreign troops is a sensitive issue given the history of colonialism in Niger. Daouda warned that the government could face trouble if it doesn’t shore up popular support and do a better job of publicly explaining why the American drones are necessary.
“Someone with bad intentions could say, ‘They are here to cause strife with Muslims,’ ” he said. “People might demonstrate. They might riot. Big flames begin with little flames.”