Top American 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.