As the United States opens a new drone base in Niger Republic, it has led to a growing discomfort in Northern Nigeria right across the border.
Drones are unmanned, remotely controlled aerial vehicles that can be used for reconnaissance or fitted with guns and missile launchers and used for attacks.
Investigations show that there is apprehension in the North-Eastern and North-Western parts of Nigeria that the drones could be used to attack Boko Haram targets in their states. It is even being speculated as the reason behind the current pressure on President Goodluck Jonathan to grant amnesty to the Boko Haram militants.
Many Northern leaders are particularly worried that the recent killings and spike in the kidnapping of foreigners would act as justification for international intervention in the ongoing insurgency.
The Republic of Niger announced the arrival of the US MQ-18 Predator aircraft, saying it would enhance the capacity of Niger Republic in terms of intelligence and helping to combat the threat of Boko Haram Islamists operating in Northern Nigeria.
“It is very crucial for us to possess this kind of aircraft to better secure our borders. Our intelligence capacity is very weak,” government spokesman, Marou Amadou was quoted as saying.
Amarou added that without the drone and reconnaisance, the Nigerien army would be unable to ensure the security of the border, which is a large one and not far from where the Malian military operations are carried out.
The drone aircraft is said to have extensive coverage area, and is capable of covering the entire Northern Nigeria.
Drones are being used regularly by the United States in areas such as Pakistan to fight al-Qaeda.
Investigations also showed that Northern leaders had calculated that an amnesty for the militants would lead to a speedy resolution to the crisis, thus saving the region any possibility of a drone attack, with or without the permission of the Nigerian government.
A leader from the region told this correspondent that while the US cannot treat Nigeria like Yemen or Pakistan, nothing can be taken off the table if this insurgency continues.
“The drone thing is a source of concern for us. We want the insurgency to end to avoid this problem. We are in a bad state already, we don’t want it to get a worse,” said a moderate Islamist from Bauchi.
Last July, the Nigerian Embassy in Washington had written to the US Department of State a letter in which they voiced their concerns that the American government could deploy drones in Northern Nigeria, with innocent people as victims.
It was about the time that the US government had declared three Boko Haram leaders: Abubakar Shekau, Abubakar Adam Kambar and Khalid al-Barnawi ‘global terrorists’.
The embassy assured the State Department that the Nigerian government will bring an end to the insurgency, and pleaded with the US government not to take action that will affect innocent people around them.
Even though the American government has described its drone expansion in Niger as unarmed, it is gradually encircling Nigeria with its military activities as a contingent of American soldiers just commenced joint exercises with the Cameroonian military.
It is believed that Islamic militants are operating in Northern Cameroun with a Cameroonian commander. Recently, a French family was kidnapped in Northern Cameroun and taken across the border into Northern Nigeria.
The apprehension in the North is said to have been compounded by a statement made by the US Ambassador to Nigeria, Terrence McCulley that militants move freely between Mali and Northern Nigeria, a comparison with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The ambassador’s statement confirmed many official reports linking Boko Haram with al-Qaeda international networks. He however refused to elaborate on the utility of drones vis-a-vis Niger Republic and Nigeria.
Meanwhile, there are indications that tribal affinity between Nigeria and Niger Republic is creating a common sense of fear and solidarity between citizens of the two areas. Racially-affiliated tribesmen are moving in and out of the two countries due to fear of the drone base and its consequences for the future.
The US Embassy in Niger Republic has issued reports showing several cases of low-level demonstration since the drone base was announced. This prompted the embassy to issue a warning to its citizens in Niamey, the capital, saying:
“This message is to remind US citizens of recurring protests in and around Niamey. There have been cases of protesters throwing rocks and burning tires at cars, and some indications show that protesters may have targeted Westerners. The embassy is temporarily restricting all non-essential travel of its employees, including within the city of Niamey, based on the fluid security situation.
“The embassy reminds US citizens that demonstrations intended to be peaceful can quickly turn confrontational and escalate into violence.”
It concluded by urging US citizens to stay away from crowds, political gatherings and street demonstrations, no matter how peaceful they appear and exercise caution if within the vicinity of a demonstration.