It’s the safe haven surrounded by jihadist radicals, Russian mercenaries and madcap dictators. Can it cling on?
In a region beset with violent strife, Islamist insurgency, Russia’s Wagner mercenaries and unstable military regimes, the Sahel state of Niger has become a focus of Western interest as a security and economic partner.
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has visited recently, and the defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, is due to follow. The country’s president, Mohamed Bazoum, has met Emmanuel Macron in Paris, and was one of the few notable non-Commonwealth African heads of state in London for King Charles’s coronation.
Mr Bazoum spoke to The Independent about the issues facing his country, including the threat of Wagner, a jihadist surge being fuelled by the climate crisis, the need to attract foreign investment to help drive education and employment, and efforts to foster relations with the West and Britain.
Niger, which is five times the size of the United Kingdom and has a population of 27 million, is rich in mineral wealth and produces 7 per cent of the world’s supply of uranium. The US and the UK claimed, memorably and falsely, in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, that Saddam Hussein was seeking to obtain uranium yellowcake from Niger for his WMD programme.
The Wagner Group, owned by Vladimir Putin’s ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, is heavily involved in lucrative commercial ventures in Africa, as well as having a widespread military presence. Some of the proceeds go towards funding its current military operations in Ukraine, which cost an estimated $100m (£80m) a month.
Wagner has established itself in Niger’s neighbouring states – in Libya, where it has secured oil assets, and in Mali, where its arrival at the invitation of the military regime led to the withdrawal of French, British and other Western forces.
There are reports that the company is also operating in Burkina Faso, another country French forces have recently left. The president of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo, has claimed that Burkina Faso’s army rulers are paying the mercenaries with rights to a gold mine.
“Wagner is certainly a very real presence in our region,” Mr Bazoum said during a visit to London. “They are in Libya, which continues to be volatile and from where we have had weapons going to the Islamists in other countries ever since the fall of [Muammar] Gaddafi.
“They are in Mali: has Wagner’s presence in Mali led to any benefit for Mali? I would say not at all. We have certainly no intention of inviting them into our country. They create problems, [they] don’t solve them. We know they have been engaged in disinformation campaigns against us.”
A fake social media post claimed that Mr Bazoum had faced a coup while visiting Macron in Paris; another that the French had armed a group of jihadists who killed 17 members of Niger’s armed forces at around the same time. Both of these posts have been traced to the Lakhta project, a troll farm financed by Mr Prigozhin, which has been sanctioned by the US since 2018.
Blinken, during his visit to Niger, warned of the malign influence of Wagner. “We have already seen it end badly in a number of places where Wagner has been present; bad things have been inevitable,” he said.
Many African states point out that Russia has taken advantage of a lack of Western commitment in the continent. The US secretary of state presented a range of initiatives, including $233m in humanitarian assistance for the Sahel over the year. There would be a “comprehensive” security deal, which would also focus “on good governance, on development, on creating opportunity, on being responsive to the needs of the people”, he said.
Mr Bazoum, who was elected in April 2021, said: “Terrorism destroys society. But we know that military action is just part of the solution in countering extremism. Education and jobs are vital to ensure young people do not turn towards violence.
“Our whole area is facing this Islamist threat. But joint operations with Mali and Burkina Faso are proving difficult because they are run by miliary regimes. We need to protect our democratic system.”
Niger is one of the countries hardest hit by the climate crisis in west Africa. The temperatures in the Sahel are rising 1.5 times faster than anywhere else in the world. A cycle of erratic rainfall and droughts has eroded 15 per cent of its arable land.
“What is happening to the environment is a big, big problem. The nomadic people are seeing the food for themselves and their livestock disappearing. They are vulnerable, and the Islamists can then come along and exploit the situation, try and recruit the men. And, of course, there is the terrible hardship families face in their lives with the changing climate,” said Mr Bazoum.
Economic aid to help his country face these challenges is welcome. But Niger’s president also wanted to stress the great need for Western investment. “We are told to be careful about Chinese investment. But why do we not see more from countries like France and Britain? They have historical links with Africa, the Chinese don’t. Yet they are there, and we don’t see enough from the West,” he said.
Niger is embarking on building stronger ties with the UK, said Mr Bazoum. “We are described as a Francophone country, but these are old terms,” he said. “The world is changing, and what happens in one continent affects others. We need to build strong relationships to protect our future.”