Top diplomat Antony Blinken has embarked on his latest official trip to the African continent, where he will become the first secretary of state from the United States to visit Niger.
Thursday’s historic visit comes as the West African country emerges as an increasingly significant partner to the US and its European allies in the Sahel region, following successive coups in Mali and Burkina Faso and the growing influence of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group.
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, the US’s Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee called Niger “one of the most important partners on the continent in terms of security cooperation”, particularly in terms of 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 Greater Sahara, an ISIL (ISIS) affiliate, have jockeyed for power through violence. That, in turn, has inflamed communal tensions driven in part by the ravages of climate change.
The violence first took root in Mali in the wake of a 2012 uprising in the country’s north, but it has since spread throughout the Sahel, at times reaching the more prosperous coastal West African countries.
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 compared to the previous year.
Niger also borders northern Nigeria, where the government has struggled to contain Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISIS-WA) armed groups.
During his trip, Blinken is set to meet with President Mohamed Bazoum and Foreign Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou to “discuss ways to advance the US-Niger partnership on diplomacy, democracy, development and defence”, according to the US Department of State.
Blinken will arrive in Niger at a “critical juncture” for the Sahel as its 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 by a second coup nine months later. Last year, Burkina Faso experienced its own military-led takeover in January, followed by a second coup in September.
In both countries, military leaders cited the governments’ inabilities to stem local violence as motivation for the coups. There has also been growing disillusionment within both countries about European intervention in the region, led by France, which first deployed troops to Mali to respond to the rebel movement in 2012.
France and a European Union task force under its command ultimately withdrew from Mali in 2022. Mali’s military government, meanwhile, has increasingly turned to the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary company, for assistance in stemming the country’s violence.
The United Nations Human Rights Council, however, has since called for investigations into accounts of rights abuses — including torture, sexual violence and disappearances — committed during joint operations between Malian forces and the Wagner Group.
France officially ended its military operations in Burkina Faso in February as well. 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 key issue, of course, is that the French had been gradually withdrawing, especially from Mali and Burkina Faso, and the Russians are very active,” Villalon told Al Jazeera from Mali’s capital, Bamako.
“And so clearly this [trip] comes in that context. And that context is extremely important,” he said. “There’s a lot of hope invested in maintaining the stability of Niger.”
Both the French and the European Union task force have since re-based their military operations in Niger.
For its part, the US has approached the Sahel for years 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 opaque nature of US involvement in the area. The soldiers had been accompanying Nigerien forces on a mission to capture a high-ranking ISIS leader near the border of Mali.
The US military has said about 800 personnel are stationed in Niger, where they are believed to support two Nigerien airbases, including a newly constructed drone base in the city of Adagez.
Niger has emerged as a promising — if unlikely — partner for the West due in part to “political developments that have trended towards democratisation, a strengthening of civilian participation in politics, and professionalisation of the military”, according to 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 view Niger’s President Bazoum as “adept at responding” to crises in the region, Eizenga told Al Jazeera.
But Niger still contends with extreme poverty within its own borders. The country of 25 million is one of the least developed in the world, ranking 189 out of 191 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index in 2021.
Eizenga said Nigerien officials have also kept a close watch on alleged Wagner-backed disinformation campaigns, fearing they may foment unrest by tapping into long-festering disillusionment with Niger’s Western allies.
“I’m certain that policymakers in Niamey are looking at what’s happening in Mali, looking at what might 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 seek to be a “message of reassurance” to Niger, according to Mvemba Dizolele, the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Niger is the one democratic experiment that is still holding up in the region. It’s a very important country where the engagement is being put to the test,” he said.
Dizolele added that Blinken’s visit raises a key question about future relations. “Will partners stand fully with Niger in addressing the issues that we know came to challenge public 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 handle” for all parties involved, as public and intellectual opinion across the region remains “pretty split” on the role of outside forces in addressing the situation.
Nevertheless, he said, “it’s a signal that the US intends to stay engaged in the Sahel at a moment when the French are disengaging, whether voluntarily or being forced to do so”.
“I think of it as a message sent to the broader world as well.”