Following Niger's coup, the country's ambassador to the U.S., Kiari Liman-Tinguiri, tells Scripps the shadow of Russia's Wagner Group — notorious for human rights abuses and protecting military leaders after coups in neighboring countries — looms large.
If the U.S. withdraws security aid, "It would be a disaster because the whole region would then go under Wagner," he says. Russia's mercenaries are active in nearby countries, including Mali, Libya, the Central African Republic and Sudan.
"There are indications, there are clues," Liman-Tinguiri says. "The indication we saw is exactly what we saw in Mali, before they go to Wagner. It's what we are seeing in Burkina Faso with who is strongly bending to Wagner."
Despite Russian flags on display at street protests, U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Tuesday there were no signs Russia was involved in the power struggle, and that the Wagner Group likes to take credit for unrest.
But the country's ambassador spoke differently about General Abdourahamane Tchiani, the man who is trying to oust Niger's democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum.
"I don't know him here, but definitely the rhetoric that he's putting forward — when we see the people he sent in the street to demonstrate. He manipulates young people, jobless people to demonstrate and to throw up a Russian flag and to attack Western embassies," Liman-Tinguiri said.
He says the general ordered supporters of the coup to carry Russian flags, and that Gen. Tchiani has already become friendly with Mali, which relies on Wagner forces.
He is also concerned that if Niger were succumb, Wagner forces would see Niger's natural resources exploited as payment.
"Wagner will be interested in anything they can be able to steal in Africa, they can be able to pay themselves and give protection to dictators. If they maintain their business model of paying themselves with with natural resources, uranium will be a target for them. I'm concerned about it."
The landlocked country is also a major partner in American military efforts to degrade ISIS and other armed groups in the Sahel, at a time when allegiances are dwindling.
And the ambassador says the country had been making strides with U.S. support: Boko Haram has been pushed out of southern Niger and aid organizations are arriving. Under President Bazoum, the country developed a program to reintegrate jihadists back into society and to educate girls. But all of that could be lost.
"It is very painful. It is a saddening experience," Liman-Tinguiri said.
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