Abidjan – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday opens a week-long tour of Africa’s west coast as he seeks to bolster US-friendly democracies with security deteriorating in the Sahel.
The top US diplomat will start in Cape Verde before visiting Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Angola, his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa in 10 months as he takes a break from a time-consuming focus on the Israel-Hamas war.
With many Africans uneasy about the US attention to the Middle East and Ukraine, and President Joe Biden failing to live up to a promise to visit the continent in 2023, Blinken will seek to show a softer side of the United States on the trip.
The football-loving, French-speaking American is expected Monday evening at an African Cup of Nations match in Abidjan, days after a visit to Ivory Coast by the foreign minister of China, which Washington sees as its top long-term rival and has ramped up influence in Africa over the past two decades.
On his last trip to the region in March 2023, Blinken became the top US official ever to visit Niger, hoping to show support for elected president Mohamed Bazoum.
Four months later, Niger’s military toppled Bazoum, and last week the coup-installed prime minister was visiting Moscow to seek greater cooperation.
Russia’s powerful Wagner mercenary group, known for ruthless tactics and widely accused of rights abuses, already works with Mali, the Central African Republic and allegedly Burkina Faso. The United States has warned Niger against following suit.
Niger had been the linchpin in US efforts to counter jihadists who have ravaged the Sahel, with the United States building a $100 million base in the Nigerien desert city of Agadez to fly a fleet of drones.
The base, and US troops, remain in Niger but Washington has been looking at options in more stable coastal countries as hopes dim for restoring the democratic government in Niger, whose coup leader expelled forces of former colonial power France, a US ally.
General James Hecker, the US Air Force commander for both Europe and Africa, said late last year that “several locations” elsewhere in West Africa were being discussed for a new drone base.
Molly Phee, the top US diplomat for Africa, said Blinken will look to assist countries “on all fronts to strengthen their societies, to prevent the expansion of the terrorist threat we see in the Sahel”.
He will encourage countries to prioritise “the security of civilians when you’re undertaking military operations, and to promote human rights and community development, particularly in marginalised populations,” she told reporters.
She said Blinken will praise the democratic consolidation in Ivory Coast under President Alassane Ouattara, a US-educated economist who has sought to turn a page on a decade of civil conflict since he was first elected in 2010.
Ivory Coast has not witnessed a major terrorist attack for some two years.
A study last year by the International Crisis Group credited a dual approach under Ouattara of deploying forces near the borders with Mali and Burkina Faso but also investing in the economic development of northern Ivory Coast, with a focus on providing opportunities for young people and empowering women.
Phee said the United States was aware that Ivory Coast remained “quite nervous” on security due to its location.
The Biden administration last year announced a 10-year plan to encourage stability and prevent conflict in Benin, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Togo.
The plan calls for US assistance to focus on encouraging social cohesion and government responsiveness, in an explicit departure from what it called an “overly securitised” approach in the Sahel.
Cape Verde, a Portuguese-speaking archipelago in the Atlantic of some half million people, has long won US praise for its democratic credentials.
Last month the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which grants US aid to countries that meet standards on democracy, said it would work with Cape Verde on a third contract.
The United States gave nearly $150 million to Cape Verde through two previous packages that included expanding the port in the capital Praia, improving roads and building water and sanitation systems.
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