Why Africa’s bright spots catch US attention

As the continent deals with coups, conflicts, and COVID-19, Niger is rising as a model for progress.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor/FILE
Mohamed Bazoum, Niger's president

Terrorist bombs in Uganda. A civil war in Ethiopia. Deadly pro-democracy protests in military-ruled Sudan. And these events in Africa are only ones that are grabbing headlines. So far this year, the continent has seen a quadrupling of coups compared with last year, or the highest in four decades. In July, the United Nations declared that Africa has become the region of the world most affected by terror. 

“Do African lives not matter?” asked Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., of the international community in July.

After 10 months in office, President Joe Biden has finally sent his highest-ranking official to visit sub-Saharan Africa. On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Kenya with stops planned in Senegal and Nigeria. While the trip is aimed at addressing Africa’s current crises – conflicts, coups, and COVID-19 – a quiet emphasis has also been placed on building up Africa’s success stories. In particular, U.S. officials have lately been visiting Niger, the world’s poorest country and one with conflicts along its borders with Mali, Libya, Chad, and Nigeria.

“There are bright spots across the continent,” said Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield in October, but Niger “is an extraordinary country where they have had the first turnover of power to an elected president.”

Niger’s new leader, Mohamed Bazoum, took office in April after a fair election. While his top goal is security against roving terrorist groups, he has sought to strengthen the country’s democracy and to tackle terrorism “at its roots,” mainly by elevating the lives of women and girls.

He has appointed women in his Cabinet and recruited hundreds of women into the military because they can engage with rural women in isolated areas to provide security. But his long-term goal is to better educate girls. Many leave school by age 13 and, on average, have two babies by age 18. As a result, Niger has the world’s highest birthrate.

Terrorists find it easy to recruit fighters in Africa’s poorest nations like Niger. While soldiers from the United States and Europe are in the country helping it battle such militants, Mr. Bazoum has kept the focus on economic and social progress as well as more inclusive governance.

“Though by no means perfect, the experience of Niger shows that it is possible for states in the Sahel to overcome the legacy of a violent and divided past,” wrote scholar Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos in a Chatham House report.

In sending its officials to Africa, the Biden administration has chosen countries already doing well but seen as able to do more. Lifting up models like Niger can help other countries in Africa currently in a muddle.

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