The United States (US) Secretary of State Antony Blinken has vowed to broaden support for the violence-wracked Sahel beyond the realm of security, pitching the US as a better partner than Russia which has been expanding its footprint in the region.
Speaking to AFP on the highest-level visit ever by a US official to Niger, Blinken called for moving on from what was often seen as a military-first approach by the US and the country’s former colonial power France, which wound up a controversial nine-year operation in Mali in November.
"We're in the midst of building something relatively new. We absolutely have a holistic and comprehensive approach in which security is absolutely necessary but is not enough," Blinken said in an interview late Thursday in the Niger’s capital Niamey.
"The fact that Niger, one of the poorest countries on earth, is doing this so effectively, I think only underscores the importance of taking this comprehensive approach," he added.
Blinken announced $150 million new humanitarian aid to Niger and highlighted US support for a rehabilitation programme for former extremists as well as their initiative to improve irrigation and climate-resilient agriculture in the country battling desertification.
AU raises concern
Nonetheless, Blinken acknowledged the desire for security ties with Niger, where the US has stationed forces and built Air Base 201 in the desert to fly drones deep into the Sahel.
France also maintains more than 1,000 troops under a long-running anti-militia mission, which is being reconfigured following its pull-out from neighbouring Mali.
The African Union (AU) has raised concern over the rise of foreign military presence on the continent, where China also set up its first overseas base in Djibouti.
"These partnerships that we have, it's not something that we're imposing on anyone. Countries choose to be partners or not," Blinken said when asked about the drone base.
"The work that we can do to combat extremist groups ultimately will be to the benefit of all Africans as well as Niger,” he said.
Blinken hits at Wagner
Blinken's visit comes as neighbouring Mali swings sharply into Russia's orbit following the end of France's Operation Barkhane, which was launched in 2014 to prevent extremists from sacking the capital Bamako.
Mali is ruled by a military regime who denounced France and turned to Russian Wagner mercenaries for help.
Mali last month was one of just six nations that joined Russia at the UN General Assembly in voting against a call for Moscow to pull out of Ukraine.
"Everywhere Wagner goes, bad things tend to follow," Blinken said.
"Where we have seen it act, it hasn't improved security. On the contrary, we've actually seen things get worse through exploitation of resources, corruption and violence that it brings on people in the countries that have chosen to work with it."
Wagner, run by the Kremlin-connected businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been accused of abuses in the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali and most recently in the Ukraine war.
Ghana has alleged a Wagner presence in military-ruled Burkina Faso, but both the junta and Moscow have denied the charge. In addition, Blinken did not directly answer a question on the issue.
A senior official travelling with Blinken said it was no accident that Wagner had thrived in French-speaking nations, saying Russia had fanned post-colonial resentments.
Blinken said he believed the US and France were united on a new approach to West Africa that emphasises democracy, development and good governance.
"The challenge for everyone - us, France, our partners - is to show through the work we're doing together that we can get results that benefit the people," Blinken said.
"If you have profound problems of insecurity, there has to be an answer to them. And if there is no answer to them, then groups like Wagner will try to plunge in and take advantage."