Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the United States and its Western allies must show they “can deliver results” in the Sahel region of Africa, amid the growing influence of the Russian Wagner mercenary group.
Speaking during a historic trip to Niger, Blinken said Washington has pursued a “comprehensive” approach that focuses on security but also “on good governance, on development, upon creating opportunity on being responsive to the needs of people”.
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“I think that is exactly the difference maker,” Blinken said during a joint press conference with Nigerien Foreign Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou, striking a contrast with 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. “Where Wagner has been present, bad things have been inevitable.”
The trip marks the first time a US secretary of state has visited the country. Earlier in the day, Blinken met with Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum and announced a raft of regional initiatives, including $150m in new humanitarian assistance for the Sahel, bringing the total to $233m for the fiscal year, according to the US Department of State.
Blinken’s trip to Niger follows his visit, earlier this week, to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa and is part of a wider pledge by US President Joe Biden’s administration to better engage with Africa.
It also comes as widespread disillusionment over European involvement in the region has grown, stoked in part by successive military coups in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso.
When asked about that disillusionment on Thursday, Blinken said: “It is incumbent upon us to demonstrate — through this much more comprehensive approach that we’re taking towards insecurity — that we can actually deliver 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 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.
“We’ve seen countries that find themselves weaker, poorer, more insecure, less independent as a result of an association with Wagner,” Blinken said on Thursday.
“So this is not a recipe for success that I think anyone should be looking to.”
‘Model of cooperation’
Blinken also 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.
That has come despite widespread challenges in the country of 25 million, which ranked 189 out of 191 countries on the UN Human Development Index in 2021.
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.
“I come back to the fact that Niger is really an extraordinary model at a time of great challenge — a model of resilience, a model of democracy, a model of cooperation,” Blinken said.
“It’s one that we deeply value, and deeply respect.”