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Blinken makes ‘historic’ trip to Niger as forces shift in Sahel



Top 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.

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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.

Shifting influence

Blinken will arrive in Niger at a “critical juncture” for the Sahel as its internal power structures have shifted, according to Leonardo Villalon, the coordinator of the Sahel Research Group at the University of Florida.

That shift began with a military-led coup in Mali in August 2020, followed by a second coup nine months later. Last year, Burkina Faso experienced its own military-led takeover in January, followed by a second coup in September.

In both countries, military leaders cited the governments’ inabilities to stem local violence as motivation for the coups. There has also been growing disillusionment within both countries about European intervention in the region, led by France, which first deployed troops to Mali to respond to the rebel movement in 2012.

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France and a European Union task force under its command ultimately withdrew from Mali in 2022. Mali’s military government, meanwhile, has increasingly turned to the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary company, for assistance in stemming the country’s violence.

The United Nations Human Rights Council, however, has since called for investigations into accounts of rights abuses — including torture, sexual violence and disappearances — committed during joint operations between Malian forces and the Wagner Group.

France officially ended its military operations in Burkina Faso in February as well. The government in Ouagadougou has denied allegations that the Wagner Group is already operating in the country, although experts believe the deployment of the mercenary group is likely in the coming months.

“The key issue, of course, is that the French had been gradually withdrawing, especially from Mali and Burkina Faso, and the Russians are very active,” Villalon told Al Jazeera from Mali’s capital, Bamako.

“And so clearly this [trip] comes in that context. And that context is extremely important,” he said. “There’s a lot of hope invested in maintaining the stability of Niger.”

Increasing relevance

Both the French and the European Union task force have since re-based their military operations in Niger.

For its part, the US has approached the Sahel for years as another front in its decades-long “war on terror” and has been active in supporting European and regional forces.

In 2017, the deaths of four US special forces soldiers highlighted the often opaque nature of US involvement in the area. The soldiers had been accompanying Nigerien forces on a mission to capture a high-ranking ISIS leader near the border of Mali.

The US military has said about 800 personnel are stationed in Niger, where they are believed to support two Nigerien airbases, including a newly constructed drone base in the city of Adagez.

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Niger has emerged as a promising — if unlikely — partner for the West due in part to “political developments that have trended towards democratisation, a strengthening of civilian participation in politics, and professionalisation of the military”, according to Daniel Eizenga, a research fellow at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the US State Department-funded National Defense University.

US officials have also come to view Niger’s President Bazoum as “adept at responding” to crises in the region, Eizenga told Al Jazeera.

But Niger still contends with extreme poverty within its own borders. The country of 25 million is one of the least developed in the world, ranking 189 out of 191 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index in 2021.

Eizenga said Nigerien officials have also kept a close watch on alleged Wagner-backed disinformation campaigns, fearing they may foment unrest by tapping into long-festering disillusionment with Niger’s Western allies.

“I’m certain that policymakers in Niamey are looking at what’s happening in Mali, looking at what might happen in Burkina Faso, and are deeply concerned about the possibility of disinformation campaigns targeting Nigerien communities, the Nigerien public,” he said.

Engagement ‘put to the test’

Blinken’s visit on Thursday will ultimately seek to be a “message of reassurance” to Niger, according to Mvemba Dizolele, the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Niger is the one democratic experiment that is still holding up in the region. It’s a very important country where the engagement is being put to the test,” he said.

Dizolele added that Blinken’s visit raises a key question about future relations. “Will partners stand fully with Niger in addressing the issues that we know came to challenge public order and governance in places like Burkina Faso, Mali and even Chad?” he asked.

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Meanwhile, the University of Florida’s Villalon noted that Blinken’s visit will ultimately be a “delicate thing to handle” for all parties involved, as public and intellectual opinion across the region remains “pretty split” on the role of outside forces in addressing the situation.

Nevertheless, he said, “it’s a signal that the US intends to stay engaged in the Sahel at a moment when the French are disengaging, whether voluntarily or being forced to do so”.

“I think of it as a message sent to the broader world as well.”


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Opposition to David Johnston's appointment shows how much politics has changed – The Globe and Mail



The strong opposition to David Johnston’s appointment as special rapporteur investigating Chinese interference in elections reveals how our times, and our politics, have changed.

In a previous column, I suggested that Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre should accept Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s choice of Mr. Johnston on the grounds that the former governor-general was appointed to that post by then-Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, and that he is one of this country’s most trusted, and trustworthy, figures.

Instead, Mr. Poilievre assailed the choice on the grounds that Mr. Johnston was a friend of the Trudeau family and a member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, a charity.


“Justin Trudeau has named a ‘family friend,’ old neighbour from the cottage, and member of the Beijing-funded Trudeau foundation, to be the ‘independent’ rapporteur on Beijing’s interference,” he tweeted. “Get real. Trudeau must end his cover up. Call a public inquiry.”

Other Conservative MPs, including former leader Andrew Scheer and Thornhill MP Melissa Lantsman, also tweeted their objection. And many commentators, including my colleague Andrew Coyne and The Globe and Mail’s editorial board, cited Mr. Johnston’s friendship with the Trudeau family in criticizing the choice.

I believe that Mr. Johnston’s decades of service to this country, his unimpeachable integrity and his sound judgment more than compensate for any objections. This is an issue on which people of goodwill can simply disagree.

But other factors are also at work.

Much has been made of the toxicity of social media. But the decline of deference was under way long before that. In the main, it’s good that people are less willing than in the past to defer to authority, that they demand accountability from political and other leaders.

But an engrained cynicism has become an unwelcome byproduct of that process. The headline on John Ivison’s column in the National Post said it best: “David Johnston is a man of trust in a post-trust world.”

In this post-trust world, a new generation of conservatives is taking the stage. Many of them are fearsomely smart. Some of them are politically ruthless. All of them are contemptuous of the Laurentian political, academic and cultural elites who have traditionally run this country. Of course they would reject Mr. Johnston as rapporteur. He is as Laurentian as they come.

In Pierre Poilievre, they have found someone who speaks their language and shares their polarizing worldview. Mr. Poilievre was never a senior figure in Mr. Harper’s governments, arriving in cabinet late and spending most of that time in a minor portfolio. Mr. Harper distrusted the populist wing of the conservative base. It is why he left the Reform Party in the 1990s and why he kept most of the more populist MPs on the back bench. Mr. Poilievre courts populists with enthusiasm.

He must know that Mr. Harper likes and admires Mr. Johnston. But rather than respectfully expressing reservation about the appointment, the Conservative Leader tweets in derision. This isn’t Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party any more.

That said, Mr. Trudeau bears most of the blame for the hostility that greeted the announcement of Mr. Johnston as rapporteur. After more than seven years in office, polls show that most voters disapprove of his performance, and with good reason.

He dismissed the initial reports from The Globe and Global News of Chinese interference in federal elections. He blamed the whistle-blowers. He accused his critics of racism. MPs on a committee investigating the allegations filibustered. Finally, with the crisis escalating and all sides calling for a public inquiry, he promised to appoint a rapporteur to make recommendations on next steps.

The next step should have been to convene that public inquiry. There is a growing body of evidence that the Chinese government has attempted to manipulate elections in Canada, including the mayor’s race in Vancouver and the federal elections of 2019 and 2021. This interference, along with what the Prime Minister knew about it and what he did about it, must be thoroughly investigated.

In appointing a rapporteur to examine the files and make recommendations, Mr. Trudeau is delaying the inevitable. It’s a damn shame that the reputation of someone as honourable as David Johnston should be brought into question through the Prime Minister’s efforts to avoid responsibility.

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Opinion: What a Justice's leave of absence reveals about politics and the Supreme Court – The Globe and Mail



Allan C. Hutchinson is a distinguished research professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and the author of The Companies We Keep: Corporate Governance for a Democratic Society.

The controversy surrounding Justice Russell Brown’s leave from the Supreme Court, which began in February and is under investigation by the Canadian Judicial Council, has many different dimensions and implications. Apart from the question of whether he will or should return to the court following a confidential complaint from a member of the public, one issue occupying observers’ minds is what this means for the handling of cases presently before the court.

There are differences of opinion on whether the court should sit as a group of eight (and allow for the possibility of a tied vote) or seven (and face the dilemma of whom to leave out). This is a pressing issue, especially in regard to an important case to be heard this week on federalism and environmental legislation.


However, within and behind this debate is a much more fundamental matter – the relationship between constitutional law and politics. In particular, whether sensitive and contested issues of federalism are being decided in line with the dictates of constitutional law or by reliance on partial political stands and values.

The central bone of contention seems to be that the Albertan Justice Brown is considered to be a strong proponent of provincial rights and was almost certain to rule against the constitutionality of the federal government’s wide-ranging legislation to tackle pollution problems. So, if there is to be a bench of seven, the identity and federalism leanings of the justice who sits out the case must be treated as a matter of some delicacy and importance.

The premise on which this debate is based is troubling for those who maintain that constitutional law should and must trump constitutional politics. Traditionally, it is usually insisted that the legitimacy of the Supreme Court rests on its capacity to transcend political contestation by acting with measured, rational and non-ideological level-headedness. Judges deal in principles, not politics.

The received wisdom is that, while there are underlying and sharp ideological differences between different governments about climate change and the best response to be made, there exists a deeper and more unifying commitment to the idea that the Canadian Constitution stands apart from prosaic politics. While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his provincial colleagues play politics and get their hands dirty, Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Wagner and his puisne associates are expected to keep their hands clean of any political dirt.

But the general acceptance that Justice Brown is pre-disposed to be pro-provincial and that some of his colleagues, including Chief Justice Wagner, are more than likely to be pro-federal, has massive ramifications. Any notion that these judges are somehow neutral and impartial goes out the window. They are involved in the same ideological game as their political counterparts.

The fact is that, while courts may well be impartial to the competing claims of the present federal and provincial governments in terms of party politics, they are not and cannot be impartial between competing visions and versions of federalism. Although viewed as being more technical than political, federalism disputes involve deep-seated and contested accounts of governmental arrangements, social values, institutional power and democratic accountability.

So, while courts and legislatures may have different discourses, different styles and different legitimacies when talking about a fair allocation of powers between the federal and provincial governments, they are no less political for that. In other words, judges can hide their views, but they cannot avoid making political choices.

The whole debacle over Justice Brown’s absence draws attention to this state of affairs. Perhaps inadvertently, but still revealingly, the ensuing debate has demonstrated that judges do have politics and that, more significantly, they do rely on them to animate their decisions and reasonings. Otherwise, why would it matter who sits and who doesn’t?

Both judicial sides of the federalism debate can claim support for their positions; the doctrines of constitutional law are so capacious, so inconsistent and so accommodating in their reach and substance that they can confer a necessary baseline of legal validity on either a pro-provincial or pro-federal approach. Understood this way, the rule of law becomes little more than the rule of five: the stand that garners the support of five judges wins.

None of this is to suggest that the judges act in bad faith or are decidedly manipulative in fulfilling their judicial duties. It is that there is no way to engage with and resolve federalism issues in a way that can claim to be acting in the neutral and detached way that the judges and their traditional allies suppose. Constitutional law is politics. And Canadians need to appreciate that.

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Algorithms are moulding and shaping our politics. Here’s how to avoid being gamed



In 2016, evidence began to mount that then-South African president Jacob Zuma and a family of Indian-born businessmen, the Guptas, were responsible for widespread “state capture”. It was alleged that the Gupta family influenced Zuma’s political appointments and benefited unfairly from lucrative tenders.

The Guptas began to look for a way to divert attention away from them. They enlisted the help of British public relations firm Bell Pottinger, which drew on the country’s existing racial and economic tensions to develop a social media campaign centred on the role of “white monopoly capital” in continuing “economic apartheid”.

The campaign was driven by the power of algorithms. The company created over 100 fake Twitter bots or automated Twitter accounts that run on bot software – computer programs designed to perform tasks and actions, ranging from rather simple ones to quite complex ones; in this case, to simulate human responses for liking and retweeting tweets.

This weaponisation of communications is not limited to South Africa. Examples from elsewhere in Africa abound, including Russia currying favour in Burkina Faso via Facebook and coordinated Twitter campaigns by factions representing opposing Kenyan politicians. It’s seen beyond the continent, too – in March 2023, researchers identified a network of thousands of fake Twitter accounts created to support former US president Donald Trump.


Legal scholar Antoinette Rouvroy calls this “algorithmic governmentality”. It’s the reduction of government to algorithmic processes as if society is a problem of big data sets rather than one of how collective life is (or should be) arranged and managed by the individuals in that society.

In a recent paper, I coined the term “algopopulism”: algorithmically aided politics. The political content in our personal feeds not only represents the world and politics to us. It creates new, sometimes “alternative”, realities. It changes how we encounter and understand politics and even how we understand reality itself.

One reason algopopulism spreads so effectively is that it’s very difficult to know exactly how our perceptions are being shaped. This is deliberate. Algorithms are designed in a sophisticated way to override human reasoning.

So, what can you do to protect yourself from being “gamed” by algorithmic processes? The answers, I suggest, lie in understanding a bit more about the digital shift that’s brought us to this point and the ideas of a British statistician, Thomas Bayes, who lived more than 300 years ago.

How the shift happened

Five recent developments in the technology space have led to algorithmic governmentality: considerable improvements in hardware; generous, flexible storage via the cloud; the explosion of data and data accumulation; the development of deep convoluted networks and sophisticated algorithms to sort through the extracted data; and the development of fast, cheap networks to transfer data.

Together, these developments have transformed data science into something more than a mere technological tool. It has become a method for using data not only to predict how you engage with digital media, but to preempt your actions and thoughts.

This is not to say that all digital technology is harmful. Rather, I want to point out one of its greatest risks: we are all susceptible to having our thoughts shaped by algorithms, sometimes in ways that can have real-world effects, such as when they affect democratic elections.

Bayesian statistics

That’s where Thomas Bayes comes in. Bayes was an English statistician; Bayesian statistics, the dominant paradigm in machine learning, is named after him.

Before Bayes, computational processes relied on frequentist statistics. Most people have encountered this method in one way or another, as in the case of how probable it is that a coin will land heads-up and tails-down. This approach starts from the assumption that the coin is fair and hasn’t been tampered with. This is called a null hypothesis.

Bayesian statistics does not require a null hypothesis; it changes the kinds of questions asked about probability entirely. Instead of assuming a coin is fair and measuring the probability of heads or tails, it asks us instead to consider whether the system for measuring probability is fair. Instead of assuming the truth of a null hypothesis, Bayesian inference starts with a measure of subjective belief which it updates as more evidence – or data – is gathered in real time.

How does this play out via algorithms? Let’s say you heard a rumour that the world is flat and you do a Google search for articles that affirm this view. Based on this search, the measure of subjective belief the algorithms have to work with is “the world is flat”. Gradually, the algorithms will curate your feed to show you articles that confirm this belief unless you have purposefully searched for opposing views too.

That’s because Bayesian approaches use prior distributions, knowledge or beliefs as a starting point of probability. Unless you change your prior distributions, the algorithm will continue providing evidence to confirm your initial measure of subjective belief.

But how can you know to change your priors if your priors are being confirmed by your search results all the time? This is the dilemma of algopopulism: Bayesian probability allows algorithms to create sophisticated filter bubbles that are difficult to discount because all your search results are based on your previous searches.

So, there is no longer a uniform version of reality presented to a specific population, like there was when TV news was broadcast to everyone in a nation at the same time. Instead, we each have a version of reality. Some of this overlaps with what others see and hear and some doesn’t.

Engaging differently online

Understanding this can change how you search online and engage with knowledge.

To avoid filter bubbles, always search for opposing views. If you haven’t done this from the start, do a search on a private browser and compare the results you get. More importantly, check your personal investment. What do you get out of taking a specific stance on a subject? For example, does it make you feel part of something meaningful because you lack real-life social bonds? Finally, endeavour to choose reliable sources. Be aware of a source’s bias from the start and avoid anonymously published content.

In these ways we can all be custodians of our individual and collective behaviour.


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