US Secretary of State Antony Blinken headed Thursday on a rare trip to Niger, an outpost of Western support and democratic successes in West Africa as Russia makes inroads.
Blinken will be the first top US diplomat ever to visit the former French colony, a key military base for Western forces to battle jihadists in the troubled Sahel region.
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He is expected to announce more US support to Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries.
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 Kremlin-linked Wagner mercenary group after French troops withdrew following a nine-year military operation that prevented a takeover by jihadists but became increasingly unpopular after successive coups.
Mali last month 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 although both the country’s military leader and Russia have denied repeated assertions that Wagner is operating there.
Niger has since become the linchpin for French military efforts in West Africa, with 1,000 troops stationed there.
The United States also built and operates so-called Air Base 201 in the centre of the desert country that is used to fly drones for attacks and surveillance on jihadists.
Aides to Blinken hope his visit will encourage the consolidation of democracy in Niger, which returned to elected rule in 2011 after a history of coups.
President Mohamed Bazoum has won praise in Washington, including at a summit for African leaders thrown by Biden in Washington in December.
– Seeking progress in Ethiopia –
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.
After talks Wednesday with both Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Getachew Reda, a senior leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Blinken said the peace deal was largely holding with a “very significant drop” in abuses.
But he called for accountability for past abuses in the war, where he had earlier alleged human rights violations and where the United States estimates some 500,000 people may have been killed over two years — well above the toll from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Tigray war had set back the historic US relationship with Africa’s second most populous nation, with Abiy voicing anger over the abuse allegations and the US suspension of key trading privileges.
But Finance Minister Ahmed Shide sounded reconciliatory as he spoke Wednesday next to Blinken, who announced $331 million in new food and other emergency aid for Ethiopia.
The minister said Abiy’s government wanted an “inclusive national dialogue” to address grievances.
“Mechanisms for transitional justice are also being set up to ensure justice and accountability to end perpetual acts of violence and avert impunity,” he said.