Blinken seeks broader approach on extremism in West Africa talksWed, 24 Jan 2024 00:26:12 GMT

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sought progress Tuesday in reversing West Africa’s democratic decline in talks with the presidents of two key partners, Nigeria and Ivory Coast, as he promoted a fight against extremism that goes beyond military might.As Russia and China make inroads in the fragile region and after the military toppled Niger’s democratic government, Blinken offered expanded US security assistance but said there needed to be a “comprehensive approach”.The effort means “working with local communities in partnership, demonstrating that security forces are there, first and foremost, to protect them and to support their needs,” Blinken said in the Nigerian capital Abuja.In a stark reminder of the challenges, Blinken said the inclusive approach had been “delivering results” in Niger under elected president Mohamed Bazoum — whom the top US diplomat sought to bolster during his last trip to the region in March 2023 but who was deposed four months later.”In every place where there’s been an unconstitutional change in leadership,” Blinken said, “things have only gotten worse.”Blinken met with Nigerian President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who was elected last year. Blinken praised Tinubu’s economic reforms, while acknowledging that some moves, such as slashing fuel subsidies would create “pain” in the short term.Earlier in the day in Abidjan, he hailed Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara’s emphasis on economic investment, particularly in young people, to combat extremism in northern areas bordering Mali and Burkina Faso.”I think that can serve as a very powerful model for other countries,” Blinken said.Ivory Coast has not experienced a major terrorist attack for some two years despite its concerns — shared by neighbours Togo, Ghana and Benin — of conflict spilling from the Sahel.- Aid to bring stability -Blinken said the United States would provide an additional $45 million to West African nations as part of a plan to battle instability, bringing total funding under the year-old programme to nearly $300 million.Ouattara expressed appreciation for US assistance and voiced alarm at the spate of coups, which have hit not only Niger but also Mali and Burkina Faso, which have all since turned to Russia.”Like the United States, we are very committed to democracy and justice,” Ouattara said, promising that his government would do “everything possible to improve people’s day-to-day lives.”Nigeria is not known for a similarly nuanced approach on extremism, and the United States has welcomed Tinubu’s call for an inquiry after a recent Nigerian army drone strike killed 85 civilians by mistake.Blinken said that the United States was committed to being a “strong security partner for Nigeria”.The United States has steered clear of criticising France, a former colonial power that led a decade-long military campaign against jihadists in the Sahel, but President Joe Biden’s administration has taken a distance from a security-first approach.Niger’s junta has booted out French forces but not some 1,000 US troops, whose operations include a $100 million desert base to fly drones.The United States has nonetheless been scouting out new sites in West Africa, with hopes dimming in Niger, whose army-appointed prime minister visited Moscow last week.In an implicit warning to Niger’s junta, Blinken cautioned against following Mali and Central African Republic in hiring the Wagner Group, the powerful Russian mercenary unit.Countries that partner with the Wagner Group see their problems grow “manifestly worse and worse” through “exploitation of people and resources”,” Blinken said.- Still counting on Niger diplomacy -Blinken praised Nigeria and Ivory Coast for steadfastly opposing the coup in Niger and vowed no US recognition for the junta.But he also voiced support for mediation efforts by Nigeria and the West African bloc ECOWAS, saying that “appropriate engagement is necessary to see if we can move this to a better place”.Nigeria and Ivory Coast have also largely stood by the United States — as has another key partner, Kenya — despite unease in much of the continent over the Western focus on arming Ukraine and, more recently, US support for Israel in its war with Hamas.Their stance stands in contrast with another heavyweight, South Africa.Despite Biden’s vows to show commitment to Africa, he failed to live up to a promise to visit last year.