US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has emphasised the importance of delivering results in the Sahel region of Africa, as the Russian Wagner mercenary group continues to exert its influence. Speaking during his first visit to Niger, Blinken highlighted the need for a “comprehensive” approach that focuses on security, good governance, development, and creating opportunities that are responsive to the needs of people. He contrasted this with the intervention of the Wagner Group, which he said had led to bad outcomes in a number of places. Blinken’s visit to Niger is part of a wider pledge by US President Joe Biden’s administration to better engage with Africa.
The trip comes as disillusionment over European involvement in the region has grown, stoked in part by successive military coups in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso. French troops and a French-led European Union force withdrew from Mali in 2022, where France first intervened following a rebel movement in the country’s north in 2012. French troops also withdrew from Burkina Faso in February. The Malian government has increasingly relied on the Russian Wagner Group as it has sought to stem the violence in its vast central region, which borders Niger and Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso’s government has also allegedly turned to Wagner, although it has denied reports the mercenary group is operating in the country.
Violence has surged in recent years in the region, increasing by 50 percent in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger in 2022 compared with the previous year. Attacks have also reached the more prosperous coastal West African countries. The United Nations Human Rights Council recently called for an independent investigation into allegations that human rights abuses have been committed during joint operations between Malian forces and the Wagner Group, including torture, sexual violence and disappearances.
Blinken underscored the increasing relevance of Niger to US and Western allies concerned about the possible spread of violence beyond the region, where the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State of Greater Sahara, an ISIL (ISIS) affiliate, have jockeyed for power while inflaming communal tensions. French and EU forces have rebased their operations in Niger and Western leaders have praised President Bazoum’s approach to addressing the widespread insecurity in the country as well as Niger’s move towards greater democratisation.
For its part, Washington has for years viewed 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 providing humanitarian and climate aid. About 800 US personnel are stationed in Niger, according to the US military, where they are believed to support two Nigerien airbases, including a newly constructed drone base in the city of Adagez. On Thursday, Blinken pledged to deepen ties with Niger, describing it as “an extraordinary model at a time of great challenge — a model of resilience, a model of democracy, a model of cooperation”.