Blinken heads to Niger as West’s support declines in W. Africa

Thursday March 16 2023
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (centre) on March 16, 2023 departs for Niger from Bole International Airport, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. PHOTO | TIKSA NEGERI | POOL VIA AFP


The United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday will make a rare trip to Niger, as 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 extremists in the troubled Sahel region.

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 US President Joe Biden's pledge to be "all in on Africa, and all in with Africa".

"That means the US 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 with rising Chinese investment seen as their top challenger. However, concerns have also grown more recently about Russia.

US President Joe Biden


Shift to 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 extremists but became increasingly unpopular after successive coups.

Read: Inside the Russian mercenary machine in Africa

Mali last month was one of just six countries that joined Russia in voting against a resolution at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly urging Moscow to withdraw from Ukraine on the invasion's anniversary.

Burkina Faso has also fallen out with France. However, 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 US also built and operates an ‘Air Base 201’ in the centre of the desert country that is used to fly drone attacks and surveillance on extremists.

Aides to Blinken hope his visit will encourage the consolidation of democracy in Niger, which returned to elective rule in 2011 after a history of coups.

Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum has won praise in Washington, including at a December summit for African leaders thrown by Biden in the US capital.


Niger's President Mohamed Bazoum.

Seeking progress in Ethiopia

Blinken started Thursday with talks in Addis Ababa with the leadership of the African Union (AU), 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.

Read: Tigray rebels start handing over heavy weapons

After talks on 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.

Getachew Reda Tigray

A senior leader of Ethiopia's Tigray People's Liberation Front, Getachew Reda. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

But he called for accountability for past abuses in the war, where he had earlier alleged human rights violations and where the US estimated 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 Ethiopian 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 for end of perpetual acts of violence and avert impunity," Shide said.