West Africa: Blinken Tours West Africa Offering U.S. Support to Offset Russian Influence in Sahel

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is on a diplomatic mission to reverse the decline of democracy in West Africa. RFI’s Bineta Diagne spoke exclusively with the top US envoy in Abidjan as he promotes a fight against Islamist extremism in the region that goes beyond military muscle.

The US Secretary of States’ latest mission to Africa, began on Monday with a stop-over in Cape Verde, before flying to Côte d’Ivoire for talks with President Alassane Ouattara and then onto the Nigerian capital Abujua on Tuesday to meet with President Bola Ahmed Tinubu.

Laying out Washington’s position, Blinken offered expanded US security assistance for the region, but said there needed to be a “comprehensive approach”, as Russia and China are making inroads in the Sahel and after the military toppled Niger’s democratically-elected government.

Speaking in the Nigerian capital Abuja on Tuesday, Blinken said, “The effort means working with local communities in partnership, demonstrating that security forces are there, first and foremost, to protect them and to support their needs.”

In a stark reminder of the challenges, Blinken stressed that an inclusive approach had been “delivering results” in Niger under the elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, whom the top US diplomat sought to bolster during his last trip to the region in March 2023, but who was deposed four months later.

“In every place where there’s been an unconstitutional change in leadership,” Blinken said, “things have only gotten worse.”

Nigeria is a key partner and leader. In my meeting with President @officialABAT today, I reaffirmed our commitment to U.S.-Nigeria cooperation built on shared values. We discussed joint efforts to build a more prosperous and secure future. pic.twitter.com/xc2q5o71pP— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) January 23, 2024

Blinken met with Nigerian President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who was elected last year, and praised the incumbent’s economic reforms while acknowledging that some moves, such as slashing fuel subsidies, would create “pain” in the short term.

Earlier in the day in Abidjan, Blinken hailed Ivorian President Ouattara’s emphasis on economic investment, particularly in young people, to combat extremism in northern areas bordering Mali and Burkina Faso.

“I think that can serve as a very powerful model for other countries,” Blinken said.

Côte d’Ivoire has not experienced a major terrorist attack for some two years despite its concerns – shared by neighbours Togo, Ghana and Benin – of conflict spilling over from the Sahel.

When asked by RFI’s Bineta Diagne what kind of aid the United States is proposing to help Côte d’Ivoire fend off all these threats, Blinken said that Washington has a security programme in place that’s been built on what Ivorians have already been doing.

“[Côte d’Ivoire’s] security programme in the North is based on community [efforts] where there is better understanding, and better collaboration between security forces and citizens.

“This is the basis of any security system that can really work and respond to the needs of those who are in danger. But secondly, we have support in the form of both technical equipment and information to help Ivorians deal with the threats that exist,” Blinken told RFI’s special reporter in Abidjan.

Aid to bring stability

Blinken said the United States would provide an additional $45 million to West African nations as part of a plan to battle instability, bringing total funding under the year-old programme to nearly $300 million.

Ouattara expressed appreciation for US assistance and voiced alarm at the spate of coups, which have hit not only Niger but also Mali and Burkina Faso, all of which have since turned to Russia.

“Like the United States, we are very committed to democracy and justice,” Ouattara said, promising that his government would do “everything possible to improve people’s day-to-day lives.”

When pressed by RFI to describe, in concrete terms, what the money would be used for, Blinken said it would “translate into equipment needed to deal with the dangers. It’s going to translate into technology, it’s also going to translate into cooperation between our various experts and I think it can make a difference to securing the places that are in danger in the Sahel.”

Russian influence in West Africa

Meanwhile, the US has steered clear of criticising France, the former colonial power that led a decade-long military campaign against jihadists in the Sahel. President Joe Biden’s administration has distanced itself from a security-first approach.

Niger’s junta has expelled French forces, but not some 1,000 US troops, whose operations include a $100 million desert base to launch drones.

Nonetheless, Washington has been scouting out new sites in West Africa, with hopes fading of influencing Niger, whose army-appointed prime minister visited Moscow last week.

In an implicit warning to Niger’s junta, Blinken cautioned against following Mali and Central African Republic in hiring the Wagner Group, the powerful Russian mercenary unit.

Countries that partner with the Wagner Group see their problems grow “manifestly worse and worse” through “exploitation of people and resources”, Blinken said.

Responding to RFI’s Bineta Diagne, Blinken stressed that the problem throughout Africa in countries that have decided to put their fate in the hands of the Wagner group” is that violence, terrorism and the abuse of resources follow their wake.

“In fact, there has been growing insecurity in every country where the Wagner group has acted or been acting,” said.

“Our cooperation, our security programmes and the investments we are making are designed to give people another choice. But here too, I think that African countries must do their utmost to support each other. Ecowas also has a very important role to play.”

Counting on Niger diplomacy

During his visits over the past two days, Blinken praised both Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire for steadfastly opposing the coup in Niger and vowed no US recognition for the junta.

But he also voiced support for mediation efforts by Nigeria and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), saying that “appropriate engagement is necessary to see if we can move this to a better place”.

The US Secretary of State told RFI of his experience to date with Niger and the present situation, referring to deposed President Bazoum as “someone who was a very good leader for Niger and [that] he should be released immediately.”

Blinken told RFI’s Bineta Diagne that this is an essential requirement for the United States, if Niger is to get back on the road to democracy and bring in “a system that represents the people of Niger”.

The US envoy is due in the Angolan capital Luanda on Thursday, highlighting the country’s transition from war to democracy and the vital role it has played in mediating an end to unrest in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

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