If it is not depressing enough for the hundreds of thousands of traumatised and uprooted inhabitants of Africa’s Sahel region to be constantly on the lookout for radical Islamic fundamentalists or criminal gangs roaming the countryside bent on kidnapping, stealing and smuggling contraband, they now also have to contend with the danger of American drones in the sky.
United States President Barack Obama recently informed Congress of his decision to deploy military drones and military personnel to Niger. The drones, it was explained, are to be used to gather information to support French counterterrorism operations neighbouring Mali.
The general perception is that, once deployed, the drones are there to stay and will eventually be utilised beyond the immediate conflict zone to collect intelligence on the growing Islamist threat in the broader North Africa and the Sahel region.
The drone deployment in Niger will dramatically increase US surveillance capability in the Sahel.
Military analysts are of the opinion that the move signifies an expansion of American surveillance drones in Africa.
To date, drones have been operating from a few carefully selected bases across Africa, and those in Niger will supplement the current limited surveillance of the Sahel which is carried out by light bush aircraft operating from small airfields dotted across the vast landscape under a veil of secrecy.
This will bring a new dimension to the US military presence in Niger and the Sahel. It signals the beginning of stronger military ties with Niger, as legal constraints prohibit the US military from dealing with the Malian military after the earlier coup in that country.
Once deployed and operational, the drones and associated personnel will increase US military visibility in Niger and, it is hoped, act as a deterrent to potential troublemakers from trying similar disruptive actions witnessed in Mali and elsewhere in the region.
In his letter to Congress, President Obama noted: “I directed this deployment of US forces in furtherance of US national security interests, and pursuant to my constitutional authority to conduct US foreign relations and as Commander in Chief and Chief Executive.”
It stretches the imagination to guess to which US national security interests President Obama is referring.
China, and particularly France, should be more concerned as both import uranium from Niger. In the case of France, 75% of the energy generated by its nuclear power plants is fuelled by uranium from Niger.
The only real reason the US could be interested in deploying drones and military personnel to Niger is to take the ‘war on terror’ to al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda affiliated groups before they can repeat a spectacular attack on American soil.
Questions must be asked why the Obama administration continues to deem some ragtag extremists in the Sahel a threat that requires drone surveillance. Not only are their much-publicised links and commitment to al-Qaeda questionable, but al-Qaeda itself is all but a spent force with most of its senior leadership killed or on the run.
Many experts are also of the opinion that al-Qaeda, starved of finances, is too inept to plan and execute terror attacks on American soil.
Since American reliance on oil from West Africa has always been presented as a major reason for the US showing so much interest in the Gulf of Guinea and the adjacent Sahel region, it has become a deciding factor in the formation of the American military Africa Command (Africom).
If recent media reports are correct, in the foreseeable future the US should become less preoccupied with the troublesome Sahel region.
According to these reports, African oil exports to the US could ”slip to a trickle” as soon as the world's top oil consumer enjoys a projected domestic shale-gas boom that will make it less dependent on oil imports.
The Obama administration is at pains to explain that the drones to be deployed in Niger will be used for surveillance and monitoring operations only.
This assurance, however, should be of little comfort to the people living in the Sahel. A similar explanation accompanied the initial deployment of drones in the skies over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Without much prior warning, ‘targeted killing’ became an integral part of drone activities in these countries.
And, although the Obama administration claimed a credible success rate in ‘seek and destroy’ attacks on selected ‘terrorists’, the indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians increased correspondingly.
As was the case in these countries, it is difficult to believe the drones destined for Niger will not at some future stage be used for ‘targeted killing’ as ‘mission creep’ becomes inevitable and the US is drawn into a new conflict.
A Pentagon spokesperson explained that the deployment of the drones in Niger is designed to “promote regional stability in support of US diplomacy and national security, and to strengthen relationships with regional leaders committed to security and prosperity”.
Whether the people of the Sahel will see the drones in the same light, once they are armed and start firing missiles and killing innocent civilians in the process, is doubtful. There is, however, little they can do except to try and avoid anything or anyone that may be considered a legitimate target.