U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Niger, which Washington regards as a crucial ally in the struggle against Islamic insurgencies, and promised $150 million in fresh humanitarian aid for Africa’s Sahel area.
The trip by Blinken, the first by a U.S. Secretary of State, is a powerful demonstration of support for a poor country that has managed to control rebel groups and implement a democratic transition in a coup-prone area.
“It will help provide life-saving support to refugees, asylum seekers, and others impacted by conflict and food insecurity in the region,” Blinken said in a statement about the new aid, which will go to Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Mauritania as well as Sahelian refugees in Libya.
Blinken’s trip is the latest in a series of visits to Africa by U.S. government figures as Washington seeks to boost ties with a continent where China’s influence is strong and many countries maintain cordial relations with Russia.
Landlocked Niger and its neighbors Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Chad are all struggling to repel Islamist insurgents who have killed thousands of people, displaced millions more and in some cases seized control of vast swathes of territory.
Groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State have carried out dozens of attacks in southwestern Niger, including some in which dozens of Nigerien soldiers were killed, but the violence has not spread across the whole country as it has done elsewhere.
Shortly after landing in the capital Niamey, Blinken met with people involved in a program, partly funded by the U.S., to disarm and rehabilitate defectors from extremist groups.
While violence in Mali and Burkina Faso led to military coups and a shift in alliances away from Western nations and towards Russia, Niger managed a democratic transfer of power in 2021 and has retained smooth relations with the West.
“They’re making the right choices, we think, to help deal with the kind of threats that are common across the Sahel. So, we’re trying to highlight a positive example,” a senior State Department official told reporters.
The official praised Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum for speaking out against Russia’s private Wagner group of mercenaries, which has been hired by Mali’s junta to help fight insurgents there. Mali describes the Wagner personnel on its territory as “trainers”.
Blinken said the use of Russian mercenaries had not proven an effective response to insecurity.
“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.
A French-led international force has been on the ground in Mali for a decade but has fallen out of favor with Mali’s leadership. Anti-French sentiment has been on the rise in Mali and several other former French colonies in West Africa.
Ghana has asserted that Burkina Faso has also hired Wagner mercenaries. Burkina Faso’s junta has neither confirmed nor denied that.
When thousands of French soldiers were kicked out of Mali during a dispute with the junta there last year, they moved their base into Niger.
Blinken traveled to Niger from Ethiopia, where he met on Wednesday with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and other government figures in an effort to repair the diplomatic damage caused by the two-year war in Tigray that ended in November.