Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the United States and its Western allies must show they can “deliver results” in Africa’s Sahel region amid the growing influence of the Russian mercenary group Wagner.
On a landmark trip to Niger, Blinken said Washington has pursued a “comprehensive” approach that focuses on security, but also “on good governance, on development, on creating opportunities to respond to people’s needs.”
“I think that’s exactly what makes the difference,” Blinken said at a joint press conference with Nigerien Foreign Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou, contrasting what the Wagner Group could offer the region.
“We’ve already seen it end badly in a number of places,” Blinken said of the group’s interventions. “Wherever Wagner was present, bad things were inevitable.”
The trip is the first time a US Secretary of State has visited the country. Earlier in the day, Blinken met with Niger President Mohamed Bazoum and announced a series of regional initiatives, including $150 million in new humanitarian aid for the Sahel, bringing the total to $233 million for the fiscal year , according to the US State Department.
Blinken’s trip to Niger follows his visit to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa earlier this week and is part of a broader commitment by US President Joe Biden’s administration to better engage with Africa.
It is also because widespread disenchantment with European involvement in the region has grown, fueled in part by successive military coups in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso.
When asked about that disillusionment on Thursday, Blinken said: “It’s our job to show – through this much more comprehensive approach we take to insecurity – that we can actually get results.”
In 2022, French troops and a French-led European Union force withdrew from Mali, where France first intervened following a rebel movement in the north of the country in 2012. French troops also withdrew from Burkina Faso in February .
The Malian government is increasingly relying on the Russian Wagner group to stem the violence in the vast central region, which borders Niger and Burkina Faso.
The Burkina Faso government has also reportedly turned to Wagner, although it denies reports that the mercenary group is active in the country.
Violence in the region has exploded in recent years and is expected to increase by 50 percent in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger by 2022 compared to the previous year. Attacks have also reached the more affluent West African coastal countries.
The United Nations Human Rights Council recently called for an independent investigation into allegations of human rights violations during joint operations between Malian forces and the Wagner Group, including torture, sexual violence and disappearances.
“We’ve seen countries that are weaker, poorer, more insecure and less independent as a result of an association with Wagner,” Blinken said Thursday.
“So this isn’t a recipe for success that I think anyone should be looking at.”
‘Model of cooperation’
Blinken also underlined Niger’s increasing relevance to the US and Western allies concerned about the potential spread of violence beyond the region, where the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Britain’s Saharan Islamic State, an ISIL (ISIS)-affiliated party, has been vying for power while fueling communal tensions.
French and EU troops have resumed operations in Niger and Western leaders have praised President Bazoum for his approach to addressing the country’s widespread insecurity and for Niger’s push for greater democratization.
That has come despite widespread challenges in the country of 25 million, which was ranked 189th out of 191 countries on the UN Human Development Index in 2021.
Washington, for its part, has for years seen the Sahel as another front in its decades-long “war on terror” and has been active in supporting European and regional forces, as well as delivering humanitarian and climate aid.
According to the US military, about 800 US 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.
On Thursday, Blinken promised to deepen the ties.
“I come back to the fact that Niger is really an extraordinary model in a time of great challenges – a model of resilience, a model of democracy, a model of cooperation,” Blinken said.
“It’s one that we deeply appreciate and deeply respect.”