The United States (US) Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday offered new aid to the Sahel region as he threw his support behind Niger on a rare visit, holding up the Western military partner and its new democracy as a model in a militia-torn region.
Blinken is the highest-ranking US official ever to visit the former French colony, where both France and the US maintain forces to battle insurgencies in the troubled Sahel region.
"Niger is a young democracy in a challenging part of the world. But it remains true to the values we share. Also, it has been quick to defend the democratic values under threat in neighbouring countries," Blinken told a news conference in the country’s capital Niamey.
After talks with Niger’s 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 war-ravaged Libya,” he said.
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 from our perspective, very much a model that others can look up to,” Blinken said afterwards.
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.
Burkina Faso, which saw two coups last year alone, fell out with France, although both the country's military leader and Russia have denied claims including from democratic Ghana that Wagner is operating there.
"Our hope is that it does not go down this trajectory towards the Wagner organisation which we consider criminal and mercenary. We see that it is only present in failed or failing states. Our democratic institutions can defeat terrorism. In fact, there is no alternative," he said.
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.
Blinken also said that the US 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 UN.
© Agence France-Presse