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Blinken making ‘historic’ trip to Niger as forces shift in Sahel

Top diplomat Antony Blinken has embarked on his last official trip to the African continent, where he will be the first United States Secretary of State to visit Niger.

Thursday’s historic visit comes as the West African country emerges as an increasingly important partner of the US and its European allies in the Sahel region, following successive coups in Mali and Burkina Faso and the growing influence of the Russian mercenary group Wagner.

The trip follows US President Joe Biden’s hosting of the US-Africa Leaders Summit in December, part of a pledge to increase US engagement with the continent.

Speaking to reporters last week, Molly Phee, the US Deputy Secretary of State for African Affairs, called Niger “one of the main partners on the continent in security cooperation”, particularly in countering armed groups in the area.

Niger borders Mali and Burkina Faso, where the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State of the Great Sahara, an ISIL (ISIS)-affiliated party, have fought for power have fought. That, in turn, has created communal tensions, caused in part by the ravages of climate change.

Violence first took root in Mali in the wake of a 2012 uprising in the north of the country, but it has since spread across the Sahel, sometimes reaching the more affluent coastal countries of West Africa.

Blinken’s trip will make him the highest-ranking official in the Biden administration to visit the Sahel, where violence soared in 2022, with civilian deaths in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger rising by 50 percent over the previous year.

Niger also borders northern Nigeria, where the government is struggling to contain Boko Haram and the armed groups of the Islamic State of West Africa (ISIS-WA).

During his trip, Blinken will meet with President Mohamed Bazoum and Secretary of State Hassoumi Massaoudou to “discuss ways to advance the U.S.-Niger partnership in the fields of diplomacy, democracy, development and defense,” the U.S. State Department said. Affairs.

Shifting influence

Blinken will arrive in Niger at a “critical moment” for the Sahel as internal power structures have shifted, according to Leonardo Villalon, the coordinator of the Sahel Research Group at the University of Florida.

That shift began with a military-led coup in Mali in August 2020, followed nine months later by a second coup. Last year, Burkina Faso experienced its own military takeover in January, followed by a second coup in September.

In both countries, military leaders cited governments’ inability to halt local violence as motivation for the coups. There is also growing disenchantment in both countries with the European intervention in the region, led by France, which first sent troops to Mali in 2012 to respond to the rebel movement.

France and a European Union task force under its command finally withdrew from Mali in 2022. Meanwhile, Mali’s military government has increasingly turned to the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary company, for help in containing the violence in the country.

However, the United Nations Human Rights Council has since called for investigations into reports of rights violations – including torture, sexual violence and disappearances – committed during joint operations between Malian forces and the Wagner Group.

France also officially ended its military operations in Burkina Faso in February. The government in Ouagadougou has denied allegations that the Wagner Group is already operating in the country, although experts believe the deployment of the mercenary group is likely in the coming months.

“The main problem, of course, is that the French are gradually withdrawing, especially from Mali and Burkina Faso, and the Russians are very active,” Villalon told Al Jazeera from Bamako, Mali’s capital.

“And so clearly this (journey) comes in that context. And that context is extremely important,” he said. “A lot of hope has been invested in maintaining the stability of Niger.”

Increasing relevance

Both the French and European Union task forces have since re-deployed their military operations in Niger.

For its part, the US has for years approached the Sahel as another front in its decades-long “war on terror” and has been active in supporting European and regional forces.

In 2017, the deaths of four US Special Forces soldiers highlighted the often obscure nature of US involvement in the area. The soldiers accompanied Nigerien troops on a mission to capture a senior ISIS leader near the Mali border.

The US military has said about 800 personnel are stationed in Niger, where they are believed to be supporting two Nigerien air bases, including a newly built drone base in the city of Adagez.

Niger has emerged as a promising – if unlikely – partner for the West, in part due to “political developments that have led to democratization, a strengthening of civilian participation in politics and professionalization of the military,” said Daniel Eizenga, a research fellow at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the US State Department-funded National Defense University.

US officials have also come to regard Niger’s president, Bazoum, as “skilled at responding” to crises in the region, Eizenga told Al Jazeera.

But Niger still struggles with extreme poverty within its own borders. The country with 25 million inhabitants is one of the least developed in the world and in 2021 is ranked 189th out of 191 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index.

Eizenga said Nigerien officials have also been keeping a close eye on alleged Wagner-backed disinformation campaigns, fearing they could stir up unrest by exploiting long-festering disillusionment with Niger’s Western allies.

“I am sure policymakers in Niamey are looking at what is happening in Mali, looking at what could happen in Burkina Faso, and are deeply concerned about the possibility of disinformation campaigns targeting Nigerien communities, the Nigerien public,” he said .

Engagement ‘put to the test’

Blinken’s visit on Thursday will ultimately try to be a “message of reassurance” for Niger, according to Mvemba Dizolele, the director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Niger is the only democratic experiment still standing in the region. It is a very important country where engagement is being tested,” he said.

Dizolele added that Blinken’s visit raises an important question about future relationships. “Will partners fully support Niger in addressing the issues we know have challenged law and order and governance in places like Burkina Faso, Mali and even Chad?” he asked.

Meanwhile, the University of Florida’s Villalon noted that Blinken’s visit will ultimately be a “delicate thing to deal with” for all parties involved, as public and intellectual opinion across the region remains “quite divided” on the role of outsiders. forces in dealing with the situation.

Nevertheless, he said, “it is a signal that the US intends to remain involved in the Sahel at a time when the French are withdrawing, either voluntarily or forced to do so”.

“I think of it as a message that will also be sent to the rest of the world.”