By Will Beeker
In March, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a historic visit to Niger during which he praised the country for upholding democracy as neighboring countries have fallen prey to coups and political upheaval. This is the first time in history that a U.S. Secretary of State has visited Niger, signaling the growing importance of the Sahel in global politics. Blinken’s visit and remarks also underscore the fact that Niger is one of few regional success stories since its transition to democracy in 2011.
“Niger is a young democracy in a challenging part of the world, but it remains true to the democratic values we share. And Niger has been quick to defend the democratic values under threat in neighboring countries,” Blinken said while in Niger’s capital, Niamey, after meeting with President Mohamed Bazoum.
Niger’s Foreign Minister Hassoumi Massoudou said Blinken’s historic visit showed “solidarity and consideration” for Niger, while emphasizing his country’s responsibility as a democratic bulwark in a troubled region, saying: “We need to show that democracy is the only way to defeat terrorism.”
Blinken’s visit comes over a year into the Ukraine war during which Russia’s influence in the Sahel has grown. Mali’s junta has hired mercenaries from the Russian Wagner Group to combat insurgents there. Ghana reports that Burkina Faso has also employed the Wagner Group; Burkina Faso has declined to comment on the claim. Blinken said the use of Russian mercenaries has not proven to be an effective response to extremism. “It’s not just we know this is going to end badly, we’ve already seen it end badly in a number of places,” Blinken said.
Blinken also pledged $150 million in humanitarian aid for Niger and other countries in the Sahel, bringing the U.S. aid total for the region to $233 million in the 2023 fiscal year. Blinken said the humanitarian support “provides urgent, life-saving support, including food, shelter, safe drinking water, sanitation, hygiene, and other key services.”
During his visit, Blinken also met former violent extremists from Niger’s conflict zones who have been rehabilitated through vocational training backed by $20 million in U.S. funding. The program, called the Disarmament, Demobilization, Reintegration, and Reconciliation (DDRR) program is dedicated to “helping to give people livelihoods, and in effect giving them a better choice than falling into violent extremism” and is “from our perspective, very much a model that others can look to,” Blinken said afterwards.
Overall, Blinken’s visit highlights the significance of Niger’s successes in recent years. There is much responsibility placed on the growing nation to uphold democratic values and provide a guiding light to a struggling region.