March 22, 2023

Prime diplomat Antony Blinken has launched into his newest official journey to the African continent, the place he’ll grow to be the primary secretary of state from america to go to Niger.

Thursday’s historic go to comes because the West African nation emerges as an more and more necessary companion to the US and its European allies within the Sahel area, following successive coups in Mali and Burkina Faso and the rising affect of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group.

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

Talking to reporters final week, the US’s Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee referred to as Niger “one of the crucial necessary companions on the continent by way of safety cooperation”, notably by way of countering armed teams within the space.

Niger borders Mali and Burkina Faso, the place the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State of Larger Sahara, an ISIL (ISIS) affiliate, have jockeyed for energy by means of violence. That, in flip, has infected communal tensions. pushed partly by the ravages To put in local weather change.

The violence first took root in Mali within the wake of a 2012 rebellion within the nation’s north, however it has since unfold all through the Sahel, at instances reaching the extra affluent coastal West African international locations.

Blinken’s journey would make him the highest-ranking official within the Biden administration to go to the Sahel, the place violence soared in 2022, with civilian deaths in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger rising by 50 p.c in comparison with the earlier 12 months.

Niger additionally borders northern Nigeria, the place the federal government has struggled to include Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISIS-WA) armed teams.

Throughout his journey, Blinken is ready to fulfill with President Mohamed Bazoum and International Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou to “talk about methods to advance the US-Niger partnership on diplomacy, democracy, growth and defence”, based on the US Division of State.

Shifting affect

Blinken will arrive in Niger at a “vital juncture” for the Sahel as its inner energy buildings have shifted, based on Leonardo Villalon, the coordinator of the Sahel Analysis Group on the College of Florida.

That shift started with a military-led coup in Mali in August 2020, adopted by a second coup 9 months later. Final 12 months, Burkina Faso skilled its personal military-led takeover in January, adopted by a second coup in September.

In each international locations, navy leaders cited the governments’ incapacity to stem native violence as motivation for the coups. There has additionally been rising disillusionment inside each international locations about European intervention within the area, led by France, which first deployed troops to Mali to reply to the insurgent motion in 2012.

France and a European Union process power beneath its command finally withdrew from Mali in 2022. Mali’s navy authorities, in the meantime, has more and more turned to the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary firm, for help in stemming the nation’s violence.

The United Nations Human Rights Council, nevertheless, has since referred to as for investigations into accounts of rights abuses — together with torture, sexual violence and disappearances — dedicated throughout joint operations between Malian forces and the Wagner Group.

france formally ended its navy operations in Burkina Faso in February as nicely. The federal government in Ouagadougou has denied allegations that the Wagner Group is already working within the nation, though consultants imagine The deployment of the mercenary group is probably going within the coming months.

“The important thing subject, in fact, is that the French had been step by step withdrawing, particularly from Mali and Burkina Faso, and the Russians are very lively,” Villalon informed Al Jazeera from Mali’s capital, Bamako.

“And so clearly this [trip] is available in that context. And that context is extraordinarily necessary,” he stated. “There’s lots of hope invested in sustaining the steadiness of Niger.”

Growing relevance

Each the French and the European Union process power have since re-based their navy operations in Niger.

For its half, the US has approached the Sahel for years as one other entrance in its decades-long “struggle on terror” and has been lively in supporting European and regional forces.

In 2017, the deaths of 4 US particular forces troopers highlighted the usually opaque nature of US involvement within the space. The troopers had been accompanying Nigerien forces on a mission to seize a high-ranking ISIS chief close to the border of Mali.

The US navy has stated about 800 personnel are stationed in Niger, the place they’re believed to help two Nigerien airbases, together with a newly constructed drone base within the metropolis of Adagez.

Niger has emerged as a promising — if unlikely — companion for the West due partly to “political developments which have trended in direction of democratisation, a strengthening of civilian participation in politics, and professionalisation of the navy”, based on Daniel Eizenga, a analysis fellow on the Africa Middle for Strategic Research on the US State Division-funded Nationwide Protection College.

US officers have additionally come to see Niger’s President Bazoum as “adept at responding” to crises within the area, Eizenga informed Al Jazeera.

However Niger nonetheless contends with excessive poverty inside its personal borders. The nation of 25 million is likely one of the least developed on the planet, rating 189 out of 191 international locations on the United Nations Human Growth Index in 2021.

Eizenga stated Nigerien officers have additionally stored a detailed watch on the alleged Wagner-backed disinformation campaignsfearing they might foment unrest by tapping into long-festering disillusionment with Niger’s Western allies.

“I am sure that policymakers in Niamey are taking a look at what’s occurring in Mali, taking a look at what would possibly occur in Burkina Faso, and are deeply involved about the potential of disinformation campaigns focusing on Nigerien communities, the Nigerien public,” he stated.

Engagement ‘put to the take a look at’

Blinken’s go to on Thursday will finally search to be a “message of reassurance” to Niger, based on Mvemba Dizolele, the director of the Africa Program on the Middle for Strategic and Worldwide Research.

“Niger is the one democratic experiment that’s nonetheless holding up within the area. It is a vital nation the place the engagement is being put to the take a look at,” he stated.

Dizolele added that Blinken’s go to raises a key query about future relations. “Will companions stand absolutely with Niger in addressing the problems that we all know got here to problem public order and governance in locations like Burkina Faso, Mali and even Chad?” he requested.

In the meantime, the College of Florida’s Villalon famous that Blinken’s go to will finally be a “delicate factor to deal with” for all events concerned, as public and mental opinion throughout the area stays “fairly cut up” on the function of outdoor forces in addressing the scenario.

However, he stated, “it is a sign that the US intends to remain engaged within the Sahel at a second when the French are disengaged, whether or not voluntarily or being compelled to take action”.

“I consider it as a message despatched to the broader world as nicely.”

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