Blinken in show of support for Niger as Russia grows in region
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Niger on Thursday for a rare visit to a country seen as a bastion of support for Western military operations in a jihadist-torn region where Russia is making inroads.
Blinken is the highest-ranking US official to visit the former French colony, where both France and the United States maintain forces to battle jihadist insurgencies in the troubled Sahel region.
Blinken is expected to announce more US assistance to Niger, one of the world's poorest countries, which returned to stability in 2011 after a history of coups.
He began his visit by meeting former violent extremists who have been rehabilitated through a vocational training programme 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" for the region, Blinken said afterward.
A senior US official travelling with Blinken said the trip was meant to support the efforts of Niger under President Mohamed Bazoum, a vocal critic of Russia's Wagner Group mercenaries increasingly active on the continent.
"They are making the right choices, we think, to help deal with the types of threats that are common across the Sahel. So, we are trying to highlight a positive example," the official told reporters en route to Niamey, on condition of anonymity.
The United States also wants to help Niger "professionalise" its armed forces to reduce civilian casualties when responding to jihadist violence, she added.
"Frankly, Niger is in a very difficult position. Despite all those challenges, the leadership is really trying to do the right thing," she said.
She also pointed to environmental threats. Niger is one of the countries worst hit by climate change, losing 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) of arable land each year to desert.
- 'All in on Africa' -
Speaking Wednesday on a visit to Ethiopia, Blinken said his trip to the two countries was part of President Joe Biden's pledge to be "all in on Africa, and all in with Africa".
"That means the United States is committed to deep, responsive and genuine partnerships on the continent," Blinken told reporters.
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.
Niger's western neighbour Mali has shifted decisively into Russia's orbit, hiring the Wagner Group after French troops withdrew following a nine-year military operation that prevented a takeover by jihadists but became increasingly unpopular after successive coups.
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.
Burkina Faso has also fallen out with France, though both the country's military leader and Russia have denied claims that Wagner is operating there.
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 built and 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.
African Union-led negotiations, backed by US diplomats, brought about a November 2022 ceasefire that has largely ended the brutal two-year Tigray war in Ethiopia.