Blinken bolsters support for Niger as Russia expands nearby
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday offered new aid as he threw his support behind Niger on a rare visit, holding up the Western military partner and new democracy as a model in a jihadist-torn region where Russia is making inroads.
Blinken is the highest-ranking US official ever to visit the former French colony, where both France and the United States maintain forces to battle insurgencies in the troubled Sahel region.
"Niger is a young democracy in a challenging part of the world," Blinken told a news conference in the capital Niamey.
"But it remains true to the values we share. Niger has been quick to defend the democratic values under threat in neighbouring countries."
After talks with President Mohamed Bazoum, Blinken announced $150 million in new humanitarian assistance for the Sahel region including Niger, one of the world's poorest countries.
The funding, which brings the total for the Sahel to $233 million for the fiscal year, includes food aid and support for migrants who have fled to war-ravaged Libya, he said.
Niger, one of the world's poorest countries, has seen stability since a democratic restoration in 2011 as military regimes have taken over in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso.
Mali has shifted decisively into Russia's orbit, hiring the Wagner mercenary group after French troops withdrew following a nine-year military operation.
Burkina Faso, which saw two coups last year alone, has also fallen out with France, although both the country's military leader and Russia have denied claims including from democratic Ghana that Wagner is operating there.
Nigerien Foreign Minister Hassoumi Massoudou, speaking alongside Blinken, said he had no proof of Wagner activities in Burkina Faso but he warned against any movement to the group.
"Our hope," he said, "is that it does not go down this trajectory towards this organisation which we consider criminal and mercenary," he said.
"We see that Wagner is only present in failed or failing states," he said.
"Our democratic institutions can defeat terrorism. In fact, there is no alternative," he said.
Unlike many African diplomats, he also offered a full-throated condemnation of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, noting Niger's own history as a former colony.
- Reintegrating fighters -
Blinken began his visit by meeting 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 (250,000 acres) 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, seen as the top rising challenger to the United States, but concerns have grown more recently about Russia.
Last month, Mali was one of just six countries that joined Russia in voting against a resolution at the United Nations General Assembly urging Moscow to withdraw from Ukraine on the invasion's anniversary.
Niger has since become the linchpin for French military efforts in West Africa, with 1,000 troops stationed in the country.
The United States also operates so-called Air Base 201 in the centre of the desert country, which is used to fly drones for attacks and surveillance on jihadists in the Sahel.
Blinken started Thursday with talks in Addis Ababa with the leadership of the African Union, part of the Biden administration's effort to show deference to the region and avoid perceptions of an overbearing US role.
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.