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Blinken Visits Niger, Home to U.S. Drone Base, as Biden Moves to Counter China & Russia in Africa

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is visiting Niger and Ethiopia as part of the Biden administration’s growing competition with China and Russia for influence across Africa. Niger has become a critical U.S. ally in the Sahel region, and the U.S. opened a new drone base in the city of Agadez in 2019. The U.S. has about 800 military personnel in Niger, and Blinken’s trip marks the first visit to the country by a U.S. secretary of state. “Niger is one of the last strongholds of U.S. security partnerships in the region,” says Stephanie Savell, co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University, who has researched U.S. militarism in West Africa and beyond. We also speak with writer and activist Coumba Toure, chair of the board for TrustAfrica and an ambassador for Africans Rising for Unity, Justice, Peace and Dignity. “Africa needs to be looked at as a continent where there are human beings, not just for power gains and for exploitation,” says Toure.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Antony Blinken has arrived in Niger, becoming the first U.S. secretary of state to ever visit the former French colony. Blinken’s visit comes as the United States is openly vying with China and Russia for influence across Africa.

Niger has become a critical U.S. ally in the Sahel region, which has seen recent military coups in Mali and Burkina Faso. In 2019, the U.S. opened a new drone base in the capital of Agadez. The U.S. also has about 800 military personnel in Niger. The U.S. military presence in Niger made headlines in 2017 when four U.S. special forces and five soldiers from Niger were killed in an ambush.

Niger also remains one of the poorest nations in the world. In the United Nations Development Program’s most recent Human Development Index, Niger ranks 189th of 191 countries, with only neighboring Chad and nearby newly formed, war-ravaged South Sudan below it. Eighty percent of Niger lies within the Sahara Desert. Life expectancy is only 60 years old, and the mean education level for its 25 million citizens is only two years.

Secretary of State Blinken arrived in Niger after a trip to Ethiopia, which we’ll talk about later in the program. But we’ll begin now with two guests. Here in New York, Stephanie Savell is with us, a co-director of Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. She’s an anthropologist who has researched U.S. militarism in West Africa and beyond. She just recently returned from Niger. We’re also joined by Coumba Toure. She is chair of the board for TrustAfrica and an ambassador for Africans Rising for Unity, Justice, Peace and Dignity, a writer and activist based in Senegal but is joining us from Washington.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Stephanie Savell. If you can start off by talking about Niger right now, why you believe the secretary of state, in the first secretary state visit to Niger, is there? What is the U.S. interest in Niger?

STEPHANIE SAVELL: Yeah, this is a really significant visit. It is a significant moment. France has just recently pulled out of neighboring Burkina Faso, so it’s a moment when Western powers are kind of figuring out what the next steps are in the region.

Niger is one of the last strongholds of U.S. security partnerships in the region, which is increasingly spiraling into violence and chaos, led by some of militant groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and ISIS. And the U.S. sees Niger as one of its strongest allies in this region, which the U.S. positions as really one of the latest fronts in the ongoing post-9/11 wars, which George W. Bush called the war on terror. Contrary to what many Americans think, this war is ongoing, and this is one of the latest fronts. And this visit to Niger is really a signal of, in part, how important strategically Niger is for the United States.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Stephanie, could you explain the context of this? How is it that not just Niger but the broader Sahel region became such a focus for the U.S., and why the global war on terror now appears to be concentrated there, with a large number of terrorist incidents? According to the Global Terrorism Index, almost 50% of all terrorist — terrorism-related deaths occurred in the Sahel region last year.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: That’s right. Yeah, the region began kind of spiraling into cycles of violence in 2012 — really in 2012, although a little bit before then. When Mali was politically destabilized in the north, rebels that were formerly fighting for Gaddafi in Libya looted his weapons stocks and came down into Mali, where there was a separatist movement. And this has led to kind of this spiraling cycle in which these militant groups have been gaining ground.

Governments in the region, aided by U.S. training assistance, funding, equipment, have been really waging their own wars on terror. And this, the government-sponsored violence, has been one of the factors that’s contributed to these intensifying spirals of violence. So, people — it’s, you know, blowback, right? So, a lot of recruitment to these militant groups is coming in retaliation against government forces, that in some cases are indiscriminately targeting certain ethnic groups. And so, it’s really one of these situations where there’s a lot of poverty, there’s a lot of corruption. People feel abandoned by the central governments. The government is responding with force, and these situations are just getting worse and worse.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Coumba Toure, if you could also respond to Secretary of State Blinken’s visit to Niger and to the region, the first of a secretary of state, an American secretary of state, to the region? The significance of the visit, and what you would like to see come out of it?

COUMBA TOURE: Thank you so much for having me here.

The first thing that I would say is that there is definitely a shift that is needed in relationship between the U.S. and African countries. And I see that, you know, with this visit and before, the meeting where the different leaders of African countries were invited here in the U.S. That is clearly where we’re going.

But the truth is, in this region, everyone comes for their own interests, and the U.S. included. People are there for, you know, the natural resources. People are there for political influence, and different nations elbowing each other for power with total disregard to the people who live on those land. I believe for a new relationship to really shape, Africa needs to be looked at as a continent where there are human beings, not just a place where, you know, it’s for power gain and for exploitation.

AMY GOODMAN: Coumba Toure, if you can talk about the issues that are being faced by the continent, how you see the Ukraine war affecting them, issues from energy transition to global health, and how this visit by the secretary of state of the United States is viewed around Africa?

COUMBA TOURE: Yeah, I would say that most people on the continent are not directly connected to this visit. You know, the U.S. secretary of state is meeting with a certain level — it’s high-level meetings, and it’s meeting with, most of the time, leadership that even people on the continent don’t always connect with or recognize as such. Most people are abandoned by their governments, and they figure out their lives for themselves. And we are yet to see a type of cooperation or connection with African people that really benefit Africans, that look at people’s health, that look at their education, that look at what people need in terms of mobility. What is talked about is about war, about arms, about training military. And that’s not the fundamental need of the people.

And, yes, right now with the war in Ukraine, that also is another power — I want to say, power game going on, because the truth is right now the U.S. and the EU are looking at African countries to align themselves, you know, against Russia, which some of these countries are hesitant of doing, because, you know, for South Africa, for example, having received support, you know, the ANC, before, they for now are really speaking in a neutral tone. And there are other countries also on the continent that are not as quick as jumping just in saying yes to whatever the U.S. and the EU is saying.

So, right now I think that this visit is more about, really, placing the U.S. in front of other powers, whether it’s China, Russia, Turkey, Japan. Everyone has now a meeting or set up something to bring African leaders to be with them.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Stephanie, if you could respond to what Coumba said? In particular, talk about the different countries that are vying for influence in the Sahel region, and also the proliferation of small arms across the region, the increase in smuggling, trafficking of small arms, and whose hands those arms are falling into, the various armed groups that are fighting in the region now, and the role of the U.S.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: Right. So, there are lots of countries in the West African Sahel region who are involved in training Nigerien forces and providing what they call security assistance — the Germans and French and Italians. There are also concerns about the Russian Wagner Group that is spreading in influence, particularly in Mali, and there are rumors that it might be gaining a little bit of influence in Burkina Faso. And they’ve been accused of committing atrocities in the Malian war on terror.

So, it’s really surprising. When I was in the airport in Niamey, which is the capital of Niger, and Agadez, which is, as you mentioned, where the U.S. drone base is based, some hundreds of miles into the desert to the north, you see — you know, you see foreigners around. There’s just a very — I’ve been working in West Africa for 20 years, and I’ve never seen so many kind of Western military types, contractors and things. The U.S. says it has about 800 soldiers posted in Niger, but that doesn’t convey at all the kind of numbers of contractors who are coming in to do trainings and the numbers of special forces operations, like the people who are coming in and out. So it’s really a significant operation. It’s significant for other countries, as well, Germany included and others.

And this region, as you were mentioning, has become a hub for illicit trafficking, not just of small arms but also drugs and people. There’s a big migrant smuggling route in the desert of Niger. So, it’s a central point in the desert. You can picture Agadez, where we were, was this — for hundreds of years has been this trading post between coastal West Africa and the desert to the north. And so, it’s been really important on trade routes for centuries. And now a lot of what’s going on is that these militant groups, who are saying that they’re affiliated with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, are — essentially, a lot of people are saying, you know, these guys are bandits. They’re criminals who are kind of donning the mantle of this, you know, so-called terrorism to smuggle these goods and profit.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Professor Savell — in a moment we’re going to be talking about this 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which really began with the Bush administration going after Niger — or, rather, going after Saddam Hussein, saying he got uranium from Niger. That’s how Niger came into the consciousness of so many Americans. It was a false claim. The late Joe Wilson was sent there to investigate. He said it was false. But talk about how the U.S. has used Niger over the years and what effect that had, even 20 years later.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: Yeah, the U.S. began — you know, I think it’s important to situate U.S. actions in Niger. Particularly in the wake of 9/11, the Sahel region became a kind of hidden and not, you know, major focus of U.S. counterterrorism activities. So, there was the Pan-Sahel Initiative, that became the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership. And that started right after, in 2002, 2003, 2004. And since all these years, the U.S. has just been channeling a lot of equipment and money for military operations.

Even back before this region had much of a terrorist threat at all, this was what this cohort in the Bush administration — they were acting according to the doctrine of preemptive war, wherein, you know, the slightest possibility of a terror attack warranted any kind of preventative action. We saw that happening all over the world. So this is just one region. And you can — I have a map that I’ve put together of all the places — there’s about 85 countries in the world where the U.S. has engaged in some sort of counterterrorism activity.

And my research in the West African Sahel was really kind of asking, “Well, what does it mean? How do we zoom in to this kind of data point on this map? And even though it’s a kind of a drop in the bucket in terms of the massive Pentagon spending on counterterrorism, what does this mean for these countries?”

And so, a country like Niger is getting millions of dollars a year in security assistance from the U.S., and that’s really significant. And what that’s done is it’s created this framework that the appropriate way to fight the problem of terror attacks is with a war. Historically, research shows that there’s lots of other ways to address — for governments to address the problem of terror attacks. You can treat it as a policing problem. You can treat it as a matter of political negotiation, so incorporating militants into the legitimate political sphere, addressing the roots of people’s grievances — primarily the fact that people are needing jobs, they’re needing to eat, they’re just furious at corruption, they’re furious at kind of being ignored by government policy. All of this stuff is driving the unrest.

And if you treat that as a war problem and you send soldiers in and you start indiscriminately attacking certain groups of people — because, again, just like in other parts of the world, we’re seeing certain groups of people who already bear the brunt of prejudice. So, particularly like the Fulani ethnic group, that are traditionally herders across West Africa, and Muslim for centuries, they are bearing the brunt of a lot of government policies across the region. So, we’re seeing this war on terror, the consequences of this mentality, that has been introduced and supported with all this money and weapons and political rhetoric over the years — we’re seeing the consequences of that play out.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Coumba, you spoke earlier about the different countries that are in the region, in the Sahel region, because of the resources in the region. So, if you could explain what those resources are — energy reserves, gold, etc. — and also the impact of the climate crisis in the Sahel region, which is reportedly heating at one-and-a-half times the rate of the global average?

COUMBA TOURE: Yes. You know, if we start with Niger, it is uranium. The issue is uranium. Why are — you know, why is everybody so interested in a small country that is desertic? It’s not because there is — you know, there is love there. The issue is always about resources, and it always has been for the whole African continent. And it’s not something new. You take it back all the way, you know, from slavery to colonization to this day. Countries of the Western Hemisphere, whether it’s Europe, U.S., Canada, people — these countries have come to Africa for the resources. And today, the main resources that people are looking at are energetic resources. It’s mineral resources, of course, for arms, for technology and for energy.

But what I really want to convey is that it is about time that we look at the lives of people, that cooperation is about supporting, you know, small farmers to produce food that helps people live healthy lives. It’s about looking at health systems — not, of course, supporting Big Pharmaceutical, but looking at health systems that actually touches people. And if we really want to build peace, it’s not about arming and rearming as much as possible people and excluding the majority of population.

We need different relationships between our countries and the U.S. And it will be — part of it needs to come through people to people. I am here traveling in the U.S., just came from Selma, Alabama, that has been tornado-struck. But for 30 years, there’s been connection between regular people in West Africa and people in the U.S., mainly from the African American communities. We need to get at the bottom of this. Relationships start with respect. And, you know, the world has been functioning on white supremacy, valuing white life, valuing people’s life, and also valuing the fact that accumulation and profit is the call of the day, is what needs to be done. And we need to change that.

AMY GOODMAN: Coumba Toure, we want to thank you so much for being with us, chair of the board for TrustAfrica, ambassador for Africans Rising, a writer and activist based in Senegal, here in the United States. Stephanie Savell is a co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. She’s an anthropologist who has researched U.S. militarism in West Africa and beyond, just back from Niger.

Next up, we look at the situation in Ethiopia four months after the peace deal was signed to end two years of war in Tigray, and just after Secretary of State Blinken has left there. Stay with us.

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