Visiting Niger this week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken hailed the Western military partner as a model of democracy in a region battling jihadist insurgencies. He also announced a $150 million humanitarian aid package for the wider Sahel region.
“Niger is a young democracy in a challenging part of the world,” Blinken told a news conference in the capital, Niamey, after talks with President Mohamed Bazoum on Thursday.
“But it remains true to the values we share. Niger has been quick to defend the democratic values under threat in neighbouring countries.”
Blinken is the highest-ranking US official ever to visit the former French colony, where both France and the United States maintain a military presence.
Blinken said the new humanitarian funding includes food aid and support for migrants who have fled to war-ravaged Libya.
This brings US investment for the Sahel to $233 million for the fiscal year.
Counting on democracy
Niger’s Foreign Minister Hassoumi Massoudou told RFI that Blinken’s visit is a strong sign of “solidarity and consideration” for his country.
He also emphasised Niger‘s responsibility in upholding democratic values in a region surrounded by “chaos” amid the surge in regional jihadist activities.
“We need to show that democracy is the only way to defeat terrorism,” he said.
Unlike many African diplomats, Massoudou condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, noting Niger’s own history as a former colony.
Speaking alongside Blinken, Massoudou said he had no proof of suspected Wagner activities in Burkina Faso, but warned against allowing the Russian paramilitary group to make any inroads.
“Our hope,” he said, “is that Burkina Faso does not go down this path, towards an organisation that we consider criminal and mercenary.
“We see that Wagner is only present in failed or failing states,” he said.
Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries, has seen stability since democracy was restored in 2011 even as military regimes have taken over in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, where Russian presence is increasing.
The US has provided training for Niger’s troops over the years, as well as equipment and intelligence, and will continue to increase its support, Massoudou told RFI.
Vocational training for ex-jihadists
He insisted that the United States and France are are not fighting the war against terror on behalf of Niger, but are assisting Niger as allies.
France currently has 1,000 troops stationed in the country.
The United States also operates so-called Air Base 201 in the centre of Niger, which is used to fly drones for attacks and surveillance on jihadists in the Sahel.
As part of his visit, Blinken also met former violent extremists who have been rehabilitated through vocational training backed by $20 million in US funding.
The programme is about “giving them a better choice” and is “from our perspective, very much a model that others can look to”, Blinken said afterwards.
Blinken also said that the United States was committed to working with Niger on environmental challenges.
Niger is one of the countries hit hardest by climate change, losing 100,000 hectares of arable land each year to desert, according to the United Nations.
The Biden administration launched its bid for greater engagement in Africa in the face of rising investment by China, and more recently Russia.
African Union talks
Blinken held talks with both Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Getachew Reda, a senior leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, on Wednesday.
AU-led negotiations, backed by US diplomats, brought about a November 2022 ceasefire that has largely ended the brutal two-year Tigray war in Ethiopia.
He also held a meeting with the leadership of the African Union on Thursday, part of the Biden administration’s effort to show deference to regional leaders and avoid appearing overbearing.