The deadly ambush in Niger in 2017, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans, revealed to a dumbfounded public the silent war that has been taking place in the Sahel. Aside from U.S. troops, several other countries have a strong presence in the area. Belgium is one of them. And its Special Forces Group appears to have been devastatingly efficient.
According to a report authored by Dr. Nina Wilén, research director of the Africa Program at the Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations and an assistant professor at the department of political science at the Free University of Brussels, the Belgian commandos have been conducting crucial training and advising operations with minimum manpower commitment.
The partnership between the Belgian commandos and their Nigerien counterparts began after the two groups established connections during the annual Flintlock exercises of the last few years. Flintlock is the largest special operations exercise in Africa, drawing special operators from across the world.
Belgian commandos have been training the Nigerien Special Gendarmerie Intervention Units and the Nigerien police’s mobile border units. In addition, they have been working to establish a surveillance and reconnaissance battalion.
Despite a history of political instability, Niger has been making gradual steps toward a more stable future. It has been almost 10 years since the last coup d’état, which took place in 2010. Since then, there have been two more or less acceptable elections, though there have been the usual voting irregularities that one would expect, considering the political context.
The incumbent president, Mahamadou Issoufou, has been implementing socioeconomic and political reforms to address the grievances on his country’s diverse population. In particular, his reforms have been targeting the northern part of Niger, where the country’s Tuareg population mostly resides.
According to Dr. Wilén, the Belgian government, and indeed any Western government that wishes to promote democratic institutions and stability in Africa, should be cautious in its military support for its Niger counterpart. As of now, the West and President Issoufou share a common enemy in the form of the Islamist extremists. Consequently, military support for the Niger government is reasonable. But that could be a double-edged sword as the Niger military could utilize its foreign training and equipment to buttress a more authoritative President Issoufou. There have been some indications he is pursuing a more illiberal line by suppressing freedom of the press.
The report also highlights a rather interesting conflict within the Belgian military concerning its presence in Niger. The Special Forces Group wishes to maintain a small footprint since it has been so effective in fostering collaboration through the personal connections the Belgian commandos have been cementing with their Nigerien counterparts. The Belgian Army, on the other hand, sees Niger as a plum deployment destination for its infantry battalions to gain some practical experience in a somewhat controlled environment.
Operators assigned to the Special Forces Group are deployed abroad an average of seven to nine months per year, making them the most deployed servicemen in the Belgian military. Although most of their deployments are concerned with Foreign Internal Defense, meaning, they train and advise partner militaries, they have seen their fair share of action. A few years ago, for example, a Belgian reconnaissance patrol in Chad, which neighbors Niger, came under attack by a Sudanese Army helicopter. Fortunately, no operators were injured but the incident goes to show the dangers faced by Western troops in Africa, even if they aren’t widely circulated.